Much light has been shed on the quandary of incarcerated Black men, but when it comes to the sobering plight of Black women caught up in the criminal justice system, the conversations are largely muted.
Such was among sentiments shared during a two-hour town-hall style forum during opening activities of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 47th Annual Legislative Conference.
The Sept. 20 forum — titled “Black Women and Girls in the Criminal Justice System (from School to the Prison Pipeline)” — was moderated by veteran journalist April Ryan and presented by the Sojourner Truth Legacy Project. The panel included Congresswoman Robin Kelly, Jamilia Blake, associate professor of educational psychology at Texas A&M University, Terri Adams-Fuller, associate professor of criminology at Howard University, and Gilda Daniels, associate professor of at the University of Baltimore.
“Black girls are suspended from school 12 percent more than any other ethnicity,” Ryan said in her opening comments to the panel. “When Black girls are treated as little women, they don’t always get the leeway to explain their aggressive behavior. Since the 1980s, there’s been a 50 percent increase in the number of Black women inmates. And, with 80 percent of incarcerated Black women having experienced some form of trauma or abuse, this has become a national problem.”
Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who opened the standing-room-only forum, said “personal commitment” can drive Black women to be part of the ongoing discussion about the school-to-prison pipeline and the childhood traumas, stigmas and lack of resources that help result in prison time.
“Strength, power and inspiration are inherent in all Black women,” she said.
Kelly noted that in addition to the stigma of incarceration, former female inmates like their male counterparts, are often hard-pressed for gainful employment.
“We have to give these women the opportunity to do better and find preventive ways to keep them out of prison,” said Kelly, who pointed to a 30 percent recidivism rate among Black women. “It’s easier for women than men to re-enter the workforce after jail. But if they have a job they can’t always be involved as a school parent.
“When men come out of jail, they have unrealistic training opportunities and the same goes for women, although they tend to have it a little better,” she said. “But while women can get jobs in housekeeping, they still can’t be teachers or work in other environments where there are children.”
With statistics showing that incarcerated women are 62 percent more likely to have children left at home than their male counterparts, Adams-Fuller stressed that means large segments of children in the African-American population — as well as their immediate and extended families — are being affected.
She said that while Black women generally represent less than 10 percent of the incarceration rate, such growth is exponential for women.
“If you take a man out of the household, it impacts the family,” Adams-Fuller said. “But if you take a woman out of the house you’re talking about the primary caregivers — which results in both short- and long-term effects. We’re seeing a trend that when parents get caught up in the criminal justice system, there’s a tendency for many of their children to follow that same path. So, it’s also very generational when it comes to the mother.”
Noting that 80 percent of incarcerated women encountered a traumatic experience as children, Blake said the notion of Black girls having been over-suspended in many school districts simply doesn’t “jibe” with previous narratives that have implied them as being “protected” and well-behaved.
“Black girls have been suffering for a long time and we are just really becoming aware,” Blake said.