Women’s incarceration has increased 800 percent over the past thirty years. The incarceration rate for black woman is double that of white women. Woman are more likely than men to be imprisoned for drug-related offenses. 62% of women in state prisons have minor children, many of whom are forced into foster care or left with relatives who scarcely have the financial resources to care for them.
The separation of families is now widely understood as a human rights crisis also at the Mexican border, yet comparatively little attention has been paid to the destruction of black families in the era of mass incarceration. One in four women in the United States has a loved one behind bars, and the figure is nearly one in two for black women. When men are locked up, the women who love them are sentenced too. They suffer from social isolation, depression, grief, shame, costly legal fees, far-away prison visits (often with children in tow) and the staggering challenges of helping children overcome the trauma of parental incarceration. When loved ones are released from their cages, it is often women who are faced with the daunting task of supporting them as they struggle and often fail in a system rigged against them.
~ from The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
According to The Sentencing Project, my state of Missouri had the 3rd highest rate of female imprisonment in the United States in 2017. Thirty-eight percent of youth incarcerated for status offenses (such as truancy and curfew violations) are girls. More than half of youth incarcerated for running away are girls.
Case in Point
Dorothy Gaines’s life changed when Alabama state police raided her home for drugs. Police found no evidence of Gaines having possessed or sold drugs, yet federal prosecutors charged Gaines with drug conspiracy. Gaines was a former nurse and devoted mother living in Mobile, Alabama. A self-described “PTA mom,” she always brought snacks to the football field where her son played on the team and her daughter was a cheerleader.
She did not know that her then-boyfriend was dealing drugs. Though the state dropped all charges, federal prosecutors charged Gaines with drug conspiracy eight months later – charges that she disputes to this day. She refused to plead guilty or provide testimony against other defendants, and so, was convicted and sentenced to serve 19 years and 7 months.
She says, “My son jumped in the judge’s lap at sentencing and asked not to take away his mother.” Leaving her children, Natasha, 19, Chara, 11, and Philip, 9, parentless, Gaines was accompanied by marshals to federal prison – her first time on an airplane.
Dorothy explains, “I was always a mother that never, ever went anywhere without my children. I missed taking my children to the park, going to their school, while I was in prison. They wrote me and told me those were the days that they missed, too. Phillip and Chara’s father died when they were two and three. That’s why my children were so distraught: because all that was taken away.”
Thankfully, in December 2000, Gaines received a commutation from President Bill Clinton. Gaines’s advocacy work includes using her own resources to help youth see their incarcerated parents. “My going to prison has not been in vain,” said Gaines. “I will fight until everything has been changed.”