As an engaging, rigorous critique of how slavery provided the foundation for a racialized penal code of punishment, 13th, a documentary released last year by Ava DuVernay, is easily one of the most important films that was released last year.
The film focuses primarily on Black men who have been funneled into a system of mass incarceration, but it also important to note that Black women are also disproportionately impacted by criminalization. In general, the United States incarcerates women at a higher rate than any comparable nation: though containing just 5 percent of the world’s population of women, the U.S. accounts for 30 percent of the world’s incarcerated women.
The incarceration rate for Black women is more than twice that of White women—a racial disparity that has remained even as the overall rate of incarceration has declined.
Incarcerated women face a host of human and civil rights concerns, including labor exploitation, sexual victimization, overmedication, and assault on reproductive rights.
Now, a project examining the impact of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended slavery and involuntary servitude—except “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”——has been long overdue.
Susan Burton, founding executive director of A New Way of Life Re-entry Project in Los Angeles and author of the forthcoming memoir, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women, published by The New Press, has built a career responding to these and other traumas experienced by women who have been impacted by incarceration.
“We need to look at what we’re allowing to happen to Black women in this nation,” Susan Burton tells NewsOne. “It’s genocidal.”
Understanding how the 13th Amendment loophole applies to Black women requires a deeper interrogation of the ways in which criminalization affects them—as both adults and children.
The punitive reaction to what Van Jones describes in the film as “Black dissent” is a leading pathway to confinement and incarceration for Black girls, who are over-represented in the juvenile legal system and who are six times more likely than their White counterparts nationwide to experience suspensions in schools. Black girls are the only group of girls who disproportionately experience the full spectrum of discipline in schools, including referrals to law enforcement and arrests on campus—often for incidents or infractions that involve no threat to public safety.
Incarcerated women and girls are largely survivors of sexual assault and domestic/intimate partner violence. The story for women in prison is an outgrowth of the historical invisibility of Black women’s trauma. Punitive laws and practices that fuel incarceration erase their pain and increase risk of arrest and incarceration for women like Marissa Alexander and girls like Bresha Meadows.
Though warehousing is an ineffective and morally deficient approach to address structural, social and medical issues such as poverty, violence, and addiction, the vigor with which Black female trauma has been criminalized–fueled by the War On Drugs, has helped to lay the foundation for a robust economic interest in incarceration, exceeding $180 billion. Between 1980 and 2014, the incarceration rate for women increased by more than 700 percent, a rate of growth that outpaced men by more than 50 percent during that time.
Our understanding of the U.S. incarceration crisis must fully acknowledge that prison, and the growing culture of surveillance and industries that surround it, are extensions of rape culture for women–a “Spawn of Slavery,” as W.E.B. DuBois called it 1901–that must be called out and dismantled.
For women, the institution of slavery included not only forced physical labor. Black women routinely experienced sexual violence and exploitation, as well as other manipulations of their bodies and relationships, to sustain the institution of slavery. Women reacted to these unsafe conditions with the tools available to them—they ran, they fought, and they engaged in underground activities to facilitate their survival. And for these actions, they were punished. Their trauma was never recognized, and instead was exploited to sustain a system of servitude that thrived on their dehumanization. This is the historical trauma triggered by the incarceration for Black women and girls today.
“Hundreds of thousands of women have been incarcerated for being traumatized,” Burton told NewsOne. “People need resources to take care of themselves. We sit in circles at A New Way of Life…and time after time, women share that they were exposed to enormous traumas, but that there were no resources to address it…Then, when women respond in ways that are unacceptable to our society, they get incarcerated.”
Monique W. Morris, Ed.D. is the Founder and President of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute and author of PUSHOUT: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, published in 2016 by The New Press.
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