Tag Archives: incarceration

Substance Abuse and Social Capital

While the Donald Trump / Jeff Sessions administration is working to re-invigorate the war on drug users, a number of new studies look at relationships between social / cultural / economic capital on the one hand, and drug use, on the other. In my own research with criminalized women in the Boston area I witness the drug-encouraging perfect storm of poverty, marginalization, and the absence of meaningful opportunities for understanding how social inequalities cause suffering.

Despite popular articles (including this one in the New York Times) extolling drug treatment in prisons, newly emerging research suggests that locking up drug users is just about the worst thing we can do if we want to reduce drug-related deaths. By removing people from sources of social and cultural capital, we are exacerbating the very conditions that lead far too many Americans to abuse substances to begin with.

Opiate deaths in a former manufacturing community

A recently published qualitative study looks at factors contributing to drug overdose in the Monongahela Valley of Pennsylvania. This is a region that used to be a center of steel production but is now economically very depressed as manufacturing has shifted out of the area. The author interviewed people at a drug treatment program and found that they mostly spoke about lack of jobs and overall hopelessness in the local communities. The author concludes, “While state and county efforts to ameliorate overdose mortality have focused upon creating an open market in naloxone, this study suggests the need for interventions that address the poverty and social isolation of opiate users in the post-industrial periphery.”

To me, it’s interesting that the author makes the connection between poverty and social isolation for the “post-industrial periphery” but I think the same argument can be made for urban and suburban areas.  When people feel isolated and hopeless — and, of course, when mood altering substances are easily available — drug use can be quite attractive.

I suppose that the appeal of 12 step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous lies both in the sense of community (though, of course, it’s a constructed community that one loses as soon as one “relapses”) and the hope relayed by the success stories recited at meetings. Unfortunately, however, the hope and success (which is not as common as 12 step proponents like to claim) are limited to the specific context of the meetings. Commitment to sobriety does not change the economic reality of dead-end jobs, companies that do not have loyalty to employees, wages that don’t allow people to save money towards things like home ownership that truly bring hope, and so on.

Social capital and drug overdoses: a quantitative analysis

Another new study makes a similar point. In “Bowling alone, dying together: The role of social capital in mitigating the drug overdose epidemic in the United States” the authors used large-scale county-level data. The data show a pretty clear correlation between low social capital and high overdose death rates. The authors measured social capital in terms of the density of civic organizations, the percentage of adults who voted in elections, response rate to the census, and the number of non-profit organizations in the county.

While these measures are not perfect (in my opinion) they are suggestive. I’m particularly interested in the correlation between voting and drug overdose rates. In my own work I see a connection between substance abuse and the sense that one is stuck in world over which one has no power to make things better. Not just hopelessness but also powerlessness seem to drive at least some of the excessive drug use that we are witnessing around the country. In fact, according to the Sentencing Project, “one of every thirteen African Americans has lost their voting rights due to felony disenfranchisement.” Moreover, “A record 6.1 million Americans are forbidden to vote because of … laws restricting voting rights for those convicted of felony-level crimes. The number of disenfranchised individuals has increased dramatically along with the rise in criminal justice populations in recent decades, rising from an estimated 1.17 million in 1976 to 6.1 million today.”

What this study cannot get at is the variability of access to social capital within particular counties. I sometimes hear the women I have come to know speak with deep sadness about how other people seem to get the breaks while they just can’t catch a break. These women are likely to see their misfortunes as an individual failure or bad karma, but when I look at their life experiences I often see how identifiable policies forced them to be cut off from sources of social capital. Locked into jails, homeless shelters, rehab programs, low income housing and temporary jobs (at best), they are systematically excluded from the primary sources of social capital in our communities.

The women I know tell me that they want to help others, but even volunteer positions require criminal background checks. Many want to be part of church communities, but they find that churches drop them like hot potatoes when it becomes clear that they need more help than the congregations want to provide to any one individual.

Creating social and cultural capital: A revolutionary program in San Francisco

I’ll close here with a third article I read this week. This one highlights a program that addresses social and cultural capital in a very profound way. “Making the case for innovative reentry employment programs: previously incarcerated women as birth doulas – a case study,” documents a San Francisco program in which formerly incarcerated and low-income women were trained as birth doulas. 

According to the authors, “Realigning women within communities via birth support to other women also provides culturally relevant and appropriate members of the healthcare team for traditionally vulnerable populations. Doulas are important members of the healthcare workforce and can improve birth outcomes. Our work testing doula training, as a reentry vocational program has been successful in producing 16 culturally relevant and appropriate doulas of color that experienced no re-arrests and to date no program participant has experienced recidivism.”

Of course, not everyone is suited to be a doula! But the lesson from this project is far broader. Through participation in the program the women joined an on-going community, learned that they can be powerful agents in helping other women take control of their own births, and they not only acquire but also create meaningful social and cultural capital.

 

Can’t Catch a Break

9780520282780_SeredOur new book Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs and the Limits of Personal Responsibility is now available through University of California Press, Amazon and other bookstores.

The book presents the work Maureen Norton-Hawk and I have been doing for the past six years following the experiences of a group of women post-incarceration in Massachusetts. Through interviews and ethnographic fieldwork we accompanied the women as they navigated a variety of programs, services and life events.Most of the book is made up of the women’s stories and how their stories evolved over time.

Each chapter focuses on a particular woman as she moves among  home, the streets, rehabilitation programs, correctional institutions, hospitals, clinics and shelters; among happy, sad, abusive and deeply caring relationships with friends, family and romantic partners; and among churches, Twelve Step groups, therapists and therapeutic treatment of various sorts.

We remain in touch with some of the women. You can read about their recent experiences here.

Here is an excerpt from the Introduction:

“The majority of the forty-seven of the women we first met in 2008 began their lives in working class families. Most were sexually abused as children. Nearly all witnessed their mothers’ being beat on or yelled at by husbands or boyfriends. Several women became addicts through prescribed pain or anxiety medication in the wake of an illness, injury or a botched medical procedure. In their twenties most scraped by in the unstable occupational sectors of the working poor: food service and nursing homes, and raised their young children with sporadic financial contributions of male partners and public assistance. Poor health eventually made it impossible for nearly all of the women to hold down jobs, leading to homelessness and vulnerability to violence and exploitation. Several remember pleasant childhoods with strong and positive family relations, but found their lives spiraling downward as adults when in a period of a few years their parents died and they could not afford to keep up the rent or mortgage payments. Almost all of the project participants have used drugs, in their words, “to numb myself” – particularly in the context of engaging in sex work in order to feed themselves and their children.

“All of the project women have been incarcerated, typically for a few months at a time and typically for prostitution, shoplifting (often of small cosmetic items), possession of small amounts of drugs, accessory in a crime committed by a boyfriend or husband, in several cases public drunkenness, and – most frequently – violation of the terms of probation or parole associated with a minor charge. (Only one of the forty-seven women in the project was incarcerated for a crime against another person.) Incarceration leads to loss of custody of, and often loss of contact with, their children. Coming out of prison with no money, no home, their children gone, and a criminal record that makes them unemployable, the women became dependent upon men, public services and the underground economy.”

“Over the past five years we have seen the same women sober and high, homeless and housed, employed and unemployed, in a supportive relationship and abused by a boyfriend, enthusiastically attending church and stigmatized by church members, involved on a daily basis with their children and out of the children’s lives, sick and healthy, happy and despondent. Sometimes they tell us how well things are going: perhaps they finally got housing, a kind boyfriend, sobriety, charges dropped, health care, surgery, better medication, food stamps, visits with children, a part-time job, a wonderful new caseworker, or reconciliation with estranged family members. We have learned over the years that how well things are going one month or one year is unlikely to predict how things will go later down the line. An individual sometimes will look and sound and act like a poster child for the category “working poor” as it was used during the Clinton administration: A worthy, productive, hardworking soul who with a bit of help will climb the rungs of America’s economic ladder. The same woman a year earlier or a year later will look and sound and act strung out, down and out, “shit out of luck” – the unworthy, unproductive “welfare queen” or “crack whore” who cares more about dope than about jobs or her children. That these transitions are so commonplace suggests to us that the line between scraping by and not scraping by has become exceedingly fragile in contemporary America.”

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 1:

When Francesca came bursting onto the scene at the drop-in center for poor and homeless women she brought a quick spark of energy into the circle of worn-out faces and worn-down bodies slumped in armchairs, nodding off while watching the Jerry Springer show and waiting for the shelters to re-open at 4:00. Outspoken, energetic and full of plans, she declared how terrible it is that Boston’s “Mayor Menino stands by while so many people have to live on the street.” With a few tosses of her long, shiny hair, Francesca announced her dream of opening and running a facility that “welcomes everyone.” Five minutes later she swept out the door into the August heat with a promise to “buy Pepsi for everybody,” and Ginger resumed her desultory search through a pile of donated toiletries, Elizabeth carried on weeping into a handful of tissues and Vanessa went back to scratching her arm and poking around in the trash in hopes of finding a cigarette stub long enough to take outside and light up.

A week later Francesca returned to the women’s center. Flashing her brand-new bright turquoise acrylic nail extensions, she pulled a sequined mini-dress and a pair of 1960s style “go-go” boots out of a bag. With the recession of 2007 shutting down employment opportunities for undereducated and unskilled workers, she had taken one of the few jobs she could get — waitressing and dancing at a local strip club. Thrilled with the clothes and even more thrilled with the admiration from the male patrons, she was nevertheless firm that she would not have sex with the customers — she wouldn’t even let them kiss her on the cheek. But by late fall her situation became tense. At the club, she said, “the owners expect the girls to have sex for money.” As time went on, she began going out on “dates” and drinking more heavily as a way to put up with the pressures of the men at the club. “It is starting to get out of control.”

Just a few months later Francesca injured a ligament in her leg. Unable to go on dancing, she was fired on the spot. Initiating what would become our routine over the next five years, Francesca called us. We picked her up a block away from the club and drove her to the apartment of an old boyfriend who was willing to let her stay with him at night but would not give her a key or allow her to stay in the apartment by herself during the day. Now a regular at the women’s drop-in center, she maintained her outward tough “I don’t take crap from anyone” style but began to confide to us that she felt afraid and vulnerable. “All I do is walk around all day – I have no place to go.” Her arthritis had become increasingly painful (the joints in her fingers looked miserably swollen) and “I have a pain in my throat that my doctor thinks might be throat cancer. My father died of cancer.” Often on the verge of tears, she even considered suicide. “I just can’t catch a break anywhere.”

Here is the Table of Contents:

1. “Joey Spit on Me”: How Gender Inequality and Sexual Violence Make Women Sick
2. “Nowhere to Go”: Poverty, Homelessness, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility
3. “The Little Rock of the North”: Race, Gender, Class, and the Consequences of Mass Incarceration
4. Suffer the Women: Pain and Perfection in a Medicalized World
5. “It’s All in My Head”: Suffering, PTSD, and the Triumph of the Therapeutic
6. Higher Powers: The Unholy Alliance of Religion, Self-Help Ideology, and the State
7. “Suffer the Children”: Fostering the Caste of the Ill and Afflicted
8. Gender, Drugs, and Jail: “A System Designed for Us to Fail”
Conclusion: The Real Questions and a Blueprint for Moving Forward

Here is a review from Publisher’s Weekly:

In this passionate, deeply researched study, Suffolk University sociologists Sered and Norton-Hawk argue that prisons have “become the way that America deals with human suffering,” especially the suffering of women, who are being incarcerated at ever higher numbers. The authors, who closely studied 47 formerly incarcerated women in the Boston area for 5 years, examine both how women land in prison and how fragile their lives are after release. They discuss the inarguable connections between being abused and getting arrested. Reaganomics and welfare reform, Sered and Norton-Hawk argue, have had disastrous consequences for these women, both before and after incarceration. In particular, lack of stable housing makes women who have been imprisoned more dependent on men. In the study’s most original chapter, the authors argue that the therapeutic and mental health services available to the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, rather than directing attention to how society has stacked the deck against marginal women and suggesting political solutions, teach that people’s problems are the result of their own unhealed trauma. This compelling and important book deserves to be widely read.

Here is a short article about the gorgeous painting on the cover of the book:

Judging a Book by Its Cover: Color Drenched Acts of Resistance

by Caitlin O’Hara

Can’t Catch a Break, published this month, is a brilliant book that teases out the nuanced relationship between gender, drugs, and jail in many women’s lives.

We asked coauthor Susan Starr Sered the story behind the cover image, which features an abstract image of bold colored stripes, dripping paint, and few hints as to how to contextualize what we’re seeing.

In an email, Susan describes her search in vain for appropriate images dealing with women and prison. The results depicted literal prison imagery that didn’t capture the range of experiences of the women her book profiles, or “disgustingly voyeuristic male-fantasy pornography.”

And then she came upon “this gorgeous image.” The piece is part of an installation by artist Markus Linnenbrink, at the JVA/Prison in Düsseldorf, in a 132 ft long underground tunnel that connects its security check to the visitors’ area. The artist explains that the JVA prison is considered “a model institution and has been designed to deal with security and humanity as best as possible, thus the desire for a unique approach [to its visitor entrance].” You can find more images and information about the project at this Colossal profile.

“It’s hard for me to describe why this image struck me so forcefully,” Sered writes. “Perhaps the vertical lines look like bars made out of women’s make-up and nail polish. The color dripping down from the horizontal stripes looks as if it’s weeping. The ambitious horizontal stripes decaying down into drips on the wall evoke, for me, the mess that’s come of the good intentions behind trying to cut down on crime, drug use and so on. And finally, people in prison spend so much time with nothing to do but stare at blank walls, so I love imagining those walls as color drenched acts of resistance.”

And with that, Sered cuts to the heart with precision, as she does so often throughout the book. Beyond interpretations of line, color, drip, and context, what captivates is the image’s undefinable power: inviting yet defiant; strong despite, and owing to, its imperfections. Just like the women this book profiles.

And follow this link to the “Page 99 test” discussion of Can’t Catch a Break. “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”

Caste Away: Mass Incarceration and the Hardening of Economic Inequality

“Caste Away” originally appeared as part of the University of California Press’s blog series coinciding with this month’s American Sociological Association’s annual conference: “Hard Times: The Impact of Economic Inequality on Families and Individuals.”

I first met Elizabeth at a drop-in center for poor and homeless women shortly after she was released from prison. Elizabeth’s father was a firefighter. Her mother worked for years at a stable job in a factory. Her parents owned their home in a working-class white community in a Boston suburb, and raised their children with aspirations of college and a middle-class life. By the time Elizabeth came of age America’s economic landscape had changed. Secure jobs that pay good wages were scarce and even though Elizabeth earned an associate’s degree she wasn’t able to do better than a series of unreliable jobs in food service. When a family tragedy (her sister’s illness and eventual death) made her too sad to smile at restaurant patrons she was fired. Broke and depressed, she lost her apartment, began to drink excessively, suffered several assaults, and was arrested and incarcerated on charges of creating a public disturbance and shoplifting. “Free” now for more than five years, she is stigmatized, unemployable, and sick.

As wealth and income gaps in the United States have dramatically widened over the past decades, the life paths of rich and poor Americans have diverged to the point in which, I believe, we should consider using the language of “caste” to describe American society. Caste arises when social differences become so significant that individual personalities, preferences, talents and weaknesses become subsumed to stereotypical images of the characteristics of a community or group as a whole – what we often call profiling. Groups are identified in terms of physical differences (real or imagined), inter-group interactions become formalized and limited, group characteristics become infused with moral meanings which justify and enforce differential access to valued resources and occupations, and group characteristics come to be seen as inherent and unchangeable.

Elizabeth has helped me understand the workings of caste. She experiences geographic segregation, whether in jail, in homeless shelters or in public housing. She has been arrested for trespassing simply for sitting down and relaxing in neighborhoods not assigned to, in her words, “people like me.” Elizabeth recognizes that there are structural barriers to changing her status, but most days she attributes her position to classic caste-like physical traits: a genetic tendency for alcohol abuse or to PTSD that has “rewired my brain.”

Having been raised in a working-class community, Elizabeth is aware of how differently she is treated now that she has lost some of her teeth and acquired the clothes and mannerisms of the untouchable caste. She once told me that people don’t like to sit next to her on public transportation. “They look at me like I smell bad even though I shower every day.” The only non-poor people she has contact with these days are service providers such as therapists and doctors, or law enforcement agents. Her caseworkers berate her for being involved with men who are, as she puts it, “messed up.” But, Elizabeth explains, “no man who is any good is going to want a woman like me.”

In the twenty-first century health and wealth are tightly correlated. Poor Americans are sick because the housing they can afford is clustered in environmentally unsound neighborhoods; the jobs they can get involve debilitating physical labor, ongoing exposure to toxic chemicals, or harassment by bosses or customers; the food they can afford is nutritionally unsound; and access to consistent health care (especially dental care) is limited. In a cyclical manner, poor health, and especially visually obvious signs such as rotting teeth, limits the ability to get the kinds of jobs that pay living wages.

For Elizabeth, as for many Americans, a prison record sealed her caste membership. She is not alone. By age 23, 49% percent of black men and 16% of black women, 44% of Hispanic men and 18% of Hispanic women, and 38% percent of white men and 20% of white women have been arrested. Poor and low-income Americans are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated than better off Americans. Over half of the incarcerated population has been diagnosed with a mental health issue and at least 40% suffer from chronic illness. Unhealthy prison conditions partly explain the substandard health profile of Americans involved with the correctional system. But the fact is that people entering prison are already sicker and poorer than other Americans.

Elizabeth often says that before her life fell apart she didn’t even know that there are people who live the way she lives now. But of course, caste is not a new phenomenon. In the United States racial categories traditionally have constituted a caste system and African Americans have long experienced segregation, barriers to occupational advancement, and ascription of morally suspect traits and behaviors such as mental illness, cognitive impairment, infectious diseases, hypersexuality, promiscuity, drug use, defective parenting, and childlike dependence on public assistance. The news, then, is not that America is a caste society. Rather, it’s how easy it has become to join the ranks of the caste of the ill, impoverished and criminalized.

You can read more about Elizabeth in my new book: Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility.

Disabled Rights

This article was first published on Truthout

According to reports from Washington, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) may come up for a vote in the Senate (again) this week. The last time it came up, two years ago, it did not pass.

On the face of it, the Convention does not seem in conflict with American laws or values. The core principles spelled out in the Convention are respect for the inherent dignity of all persons, the right to individual autonomy including the freedom to make one’s own choices, non-discrimination against persons on the basis of disabilities, full participation and inclusion in society, equality of opportunity, accessibility, respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities, and respect for the right of children with disabilities to preserve their identities.

Initially negotiated under President George W. Bush and signed by President Barack Obama in 2009, the Convention has been ratified by 146 countries and is backed by virtually all US disability organizations, veterans’ organizations and women’s organizations. According to supporters, the Convention reaffirms many of the same safeguards already legislated in the Americans With Disabilities Act, including access to education and prohibitions of discrimination in hiring. And while it does not in any way weaken US domestic law or surrender US sovereignty, it provides a clear statement that America has joined with the international community in recognizing the rights of all people regardless of abilities or disabilities.

The most vocal opponent, pressing Republicans to vote nay, has been the Home School Legal Defense Association which maintains that the Convention could undermine the rights of parents, supersede US law and compel government funding of abortions. (There is nothing in the Convention that suggests this would be the case, but “abortion” is always a good buzz word for ginning up opposition to just about anything.).

Our failure to ratify UNCRPD is consistent with US refusal to sign other human rights treaties. For example, the US is one of only three countries not to have signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child. (The other two are South Sudan and Somalia.) We haven’t ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the world’s primary document on women’s equality. And we haven’t signed The Convention against Enforced Disappearance, which prohibits the secret detention and abduction of people by the state.

Opposition to ratifying all of these treaties follows a fairly consistent line of argument: International treaties infringe on US autonomy and sovereignty, and anyway, “we” don’t need these treaties since we already are “better” than the rest of the world. Regarding the UNCRPD, Will Estrada, HSLDA’s Director of Federal Relations declared, “Our country has been a world leader for people with disabilities. We don’t need to ratify this treaty to do that.”

Disability and Poverty

Mr. Estrada is incorrect. In the United States close to 38% of working age adults with severe disabilities live in poverty; the children of poor parents are substantially more likely than children of non-poor parents to have a physical or mental disability thatlimits their activities and having a child with chronic illnesses or disabilities is associated with greater poverty for parents.

American responses to disability are based on needs rather than on rights; that is, we allocate resources to help individuals on the basis of shifting definitions and thresholds of “neediness” rather than on a stable foundation of inherent rights to goods such as food, housing and healthcare. We also tend to be suspicious of claims of neediness. Services for those who are disabled typically require recipients to spend great amounts of time and energy certifying their eligibility and place a great deal of power in the hands of doctors, courts and bureaucrats to decide whose needs are legitimate. Our safety nets for people too disabled to work – SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) and SSI (Supplemental Security Income) – allot average monthly stipends of $1,186.60 and $536.75 respectively. That is not enough to cover the cost of daily necessities of life in most American cities, let alone sufficient for disabled people to live with dignity.

The higher SSDI are provided to individuals who have worked a sufficient number of years for employers who paid into Social Security; SSI is for those who have either been unable to work or whose employers did not pay into Social Security. At this time nearly 8.4 million people receive SSI. More than half of those recipients have been diagnosed with a mental disorder, and the majority of recipients are women (about 55%). These large numbers suggest either that as a nation we are losing our minds and / or that millions of Americans submit to being labeled mentally ill in order to receive the $536.75 per month that allows them access to (minimal) food and shelter in an economic climate that has not been friendly towards the 90% of us who are not born into wealth.

Disability and Punishment

The number of Americans receiving SSI went up at about the same rate as the number of Americans receiving welfare went down in the wake of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (so-called “welfare reform”). Shifting people from welfare to SSI may be seen as a simple bookkeeping ploy, but by labeling certain people or groups as “needy” or “disabled,” we in fact define them as weak, as lacking in the attributes that we as a society admire. Indeed, given the negative qualities associated with need and weakness in American culture, disabled individuals are more likely than other Americans to become targets of correction and punishment.

According to a recent report by the National Center for Special Education Research forty-seven percent of young adults with disabilities report having been stopped by police for other-than-a-traffic violation and twenty-three percent report having been arrested. These rates are twice those for youth in the general population. Young adults with disabilities enter the juvenile correctional system at rates four to five times those of non-disabled youth. An estimated 37 percent of youth in state juvenile corrections facilities are eligible for special education and related services under IDEA, yet 16 percent of youth in short-term youth detention facilities, 52 percent of those in long-term youth corrections facilities, and 71 percent of those in adult corrections facilities were not enrolled in any kind of educational program during their incarceration. And the school to prison pipeline disproportionately picks up disabled youth of color.

Involvement with the juvenile justice system increases one’s probability for involvement with the adult correctional system. With the highest incarceration rate in the world, over seven million Americans are under some form of correctional supervision. Over half of the incarcerated population has a serious mental health issue and 40% suffer from chronic physical illness. Among women the numbers are even bleaker. Of the 47 formerly incarcerated Massachusetts women whom I have come to know over the past six years, 81% live with chronic physical illnesses including asthma, high blood pressure, heart disease, liver disease, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, HIV, chronic headaches, chronic pain, arthritis, disk degeneration, cancer and unresolved gynecological problems. Most live with more than one of these health challenges and more than half also have been identified as having learning disabilities. While unhealthy prison conditions coupled with the poor employment prospects facing ex-offenders partly explain the substandard health profile of Americans involved with the correctional system, the fact is that Americans entering prison are already sicker and poorer than other Americans.

Health, Wealth and Moral Worth

Americans are no more mean-spirited than people in the 146 countries that have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. When I read books or see movies that describe cultures in which disabled people are mocked, teased or even killed, I am thankful for our sense of decency, for the Americans With Disabilities Act, for the accommodations (however deficient they may be) for disabled people. At the same time, however, I can’t help but notice that we are criminalizing disability. And that trend, while particularly dramatic during this age of mass incarceration, is deeply rooted in American culture. Since the time of the Puritans, Americans have identified good health (as well as wealth) with moral worth – with living an estimable life style, with working hard, “taking care of oneself,” doing the “right thing.”  This association between health and moral worth is neither natural nor universal; in many cultures people who struggle with pain, illness or disability are recognized for having greater spiritual gifts, for being closer to or chosen by God or for developing greater sensitivity to the suffering of others. In our culture people living with disabilities are recognized as having greater needs – and we do a great deal to meet those needs. But we have not yet recognized that while needs make one “needy,” rights give pride, autonomy and dignity.

The Courtroom was a Circus: Bail Blog #3 – $190 and Counting

$190 and Counting: Bail Blog #3

Click here for the story of Ginger’s arrest and my experience bailing her out: The New Price of Freedom: $40 (Bail Blog #2)

A quick refresher

In May 2014 Ginger called the police when a man (we’ll call him Pete) in the housing facility for formerly homeless men where she’d been living for the past year threatened to bash in her head and the head of her “nigger boyfriend.” The police came and arrested Ginger for spitting at the man. A transgender woman, she was terrified at being locked up in the men’s jail. She called me in tears and I came to the jail and bailed her out for $40. Three days later we went to court for her arraignment. She met her court-appointed public defender for the first time when he stood up as she was called to approach the bench.

Over the past few months Ginger has called me at least three times a week to make sure that I had not forgotten that I promised to drive her to court in July. Without access to a car, she worried that she wouldn’t be able to arrive for the 9:00 a.m. court session, and that even if she did arrive on time she would look disheveled. But mostly she wanted to be sure I’d be there to support her.

Ginger’s morning in court

Yesterday the big day finally arrived. Ginger had dressed carefully in jeans and a nice shirt that did not scream out either ‘male’ nor ‘female’; in other words, an outfit designed not to ruffle any feathers at the courthouse.

Our first stop was the clerk’s office. Ginger handed over the form showing the $40 bail which we assumed would be refunded when she came to court. After all, that is the purpose of bail. The clerk, however, explained that Ginger had been released on personal recognizance and the $40 was a non-refundable fee paid to the bail commissioner.$40 down.

Ginger then was told to pay the clerk $150 for the lawyer’s fee. Since her total monthly income is $700 (Social Security) out of which she pays rent, telephone, transportation, toiletries and other necessary expenses, the $150 cleaned her out for the month. (We later heard the judge tell a young white man that he either could pay the $150 or do fifteen hours of community service. Ginger was not given that choice – we do not know why.)

In the courtroom nothing seemed to be happening. A number of lawyers were chatting, several court employees were catching up on their weekend activities, and a handful of people like Ginger were sitting nervously waiting for the judge to arrive. The bailiff told us that Ginger’s lawyer would be late and so we sat down to wait some more. The judge finally entered the courtroom, everyone rose, and the first half dozen cases were called. Each took under three minutes; each was continued to a later date.

At 11:00 the judge called for a ten minute recess. Half an hour later the session had not yet resumed but Ginger’s lawyer finally arrived and came over to chat with us in the courtroom within earshot of at least a dozen people. He asked her if the man involved was in court. Ginger explained that Pete did not come and that he had met with her and the director of the transitional housing program at which time he told them that he did not want to press charges. The lawyer asked Ginger if Pete had written this down. Ginger said he had not and added, “Pete is not going to do something like that.” I silently observed that it’s unlikely that Pete is sufficiently literate to write a memo of this sort, and that even if he could he would not want to produce an official document for the courts out of fear that it could be used against him in the future. Ginger’s lawyer told us that when the judge called them they would set the next court date and that he has every hope that the charges will be dropped at that time. We asked whether he could request today that the charges be dropped but, the lawyer said, that’s not possible because Pete had not informed him that he didn’t want to press charges.

Since the lawyer had not been in touch with Ginger over the months between the arraignment and yesterday’s court date we were a bit miffed, an emotion I was ready to show but that Ginger – far savvier than I – refrained from expressing. A minute before the judge re-entered the courtroom the lawyer gave Ginger his business card and told her to tell Pete to call him. Ginger explained that “there’s no way Pete will call.” “That’s not a problem,” the lawyer replied. “You can call me and tell me that Pete doesn’t want to press charges.”

The judge called Ginger’s name. The lawyer agreed to a court date in September and a minute later the next case was called. Ginger is out $190 dollars and her case is still considered “open”.

Return to debtor’s prison

A 2014 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons: The Way Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor, documents the resurgence of what look a lot like debtors prisons. “State and local courts have increasingly attempted to supplement their funding by charging fees to people convicted of crimes, including fees for public defenders, prosecutors, court administration, jail operation, and probation supervision. And in the face of mounting budget deficits at the state and local level, courts across the country have used aggressive tactics to collect these unpaid fines and fees, including for traffic offenses and other low-level offenses. These courts have ordered the arrest and jailing of people who fall behind on their payments, without affording any hearings to determine an individual’s ability to pay or offering alternatives to payment such as community service.”

Elizabeth, a homeless woman I met in Massachusetts at about the same time I initially met Ginger, decided one night to sleep on a bench at a train station. She had come to feel that it was too dangerous to sleep in more open places like parks where, as she explained, “people are murdered all the time.” At the station she was arrested for trespassing by a police officer who “doesn’t like homeless people.” In court she was ordered to pay a $300 fine. She did not have the money. Exasperated, she noted, “This is a waste of the court’s time…they should be going after real criminals.”

Living on Social Security, Elizabeth could not pay the $300 at one go. So, when a month or so later she called the police for assistance (a motel clerk tried to steal money from her), the officers who came looked at her ID, saw that she owed the $300 fine, and arrested and handcuffed her. “I spent three days in jail waiting for a judge because it was a three-day-weekend.” The lesson Elizabeth learned from this experience: If you have outstanding warrants – even for court fees – do not call the police even if you are being threatened or attacked.

Cases like Elizabeth’s are shocking enough. But if I hadn’t been able to help Ginger not only would she have sat in jail for three days waiting to be arraigned, but she also would have become one of the many women I know who have accumulated fees WITHOUT being convicted of a crime. As a consequence, she would be liable to be locked up for any minor infraction of the law: jay-walking, littering, or simply failing to pay the court fees on a case that was dropped or in which she was acquitted.

Something even conservatives can get behind

Not only are these practices likely unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection clauses, they are also fiscally nonsensical. We pay to keep people in jail awaiting arraignment or trial for the price of $200 or so per day because they cannot afford to pay bail as minimal as $100 [Guilty Until Proven Innocent]. And I saw in court with Ginger yesterday, we finance droves of prosecutors, public defenders and court staff who split their time between hanging around waiting for cases to be called and processing people like Elizabeth for “trespassing”.

Ginger would be the first to agree that violent criminals should go to prison. Indeed, she has been the target of violence far too often for too many years. But – I believe – she’d also be the first to agree that yesterday’s farce does nothing to keep her or anyone else safe. Quite the contrary, it sends the message that justice has a price – in Ginger’s case (so far) — $190.

Follow this link for another post on a related theme: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Civil Commitment: If You Build It They Will Come

Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 123, Section 35 permits the court to involuntarily commit to an inpatient substance abuse treatment someone whose alcohol or drug use puts themselves or others at risk. Last week the Massachusetts ACLU, together with Prisoners’ Legal Services and the Center for Public Representation, filed a class action suit in US District Court in Boston challenging the constitutionality of sending women committed under Section 35 to state prison.

Melanie

Melanie grew up in a close-knit, working-class Boston family. When she had her first child, “The hospital messed up my C-section and left staples inside.” She developed a painful infection, and was prescribed Fentanyl, Percocet and Klonopin. Her second child also was delivered by C-section, and again there were complications. Six surgeries and many pain clinic sessions later, Melanie muses, “Maybe I was hooked on meds, but nothing touched the pain.” At about that time an acquaintance suggested heroin, which successfully quelled the agony while opening up whole new sets of challenges. A year or so later she moved out of the house she shared with her children and husband and moved in with her parents because she didn’t want her kids to see her high on drugs. Maintaining a close relationship with them, she shuttled back and forth between the two households nearly every day for a year or so.

Melanie’s parents desperately wanted to help but were out of their depth. Finally one day, after she called them from the police station in a neighboring town to tell them that she had been picked up for shoplifting at a local pharmacy, they discussed with the police and the judge the best course of action. Her parents and the judge decided that given the absence of a criminal record and the presence of a supportive family (and, I surmise, the fact that she and her family are white) the judge did not charge her with shoplifting. Rather, he civilly committed her under Section 35.

For the purposes of Section 35, a substance abuser or alcoholic is defined broadly and rather vaguely as a person who “chronically or habitually” uses controlled substances or alcohol to the extent that “such use substantially injures his health or substantially interferes with his social or economic functioning . . . or . . . he has lost the power of self-control over the use of [controlled substances or alcohol].” Petitions for civil commitments can be made by a relative, guardian, police officer, physician or court official, or one can petition for commitment on one’s own behalf. While the law requires that the court call for a psychological assessment, it is unclear what that assessment means. In any case, there is no trial, no due process, and no possibility for appeal.

What Melanie’s parents didn’t know is that under Massachusetts law, a person can be committed under Section 35 to prison if there is no space available at a licensed substance abuse treatment facility. Melanie’s parents thought they were doing the right thing. They thought Melanie would receive treatment for her addiction and maybe even for her chronic pain. They were shocked to see her handcuffed and led out of the courtroom. Sick and vomiting, she sat in a holding cell at the courthouse for a full day. And then she was shackled and put on the bus to MCI-Framingham, the medium security women’s prison where she spent the next month.

According to ACLU staff attorney Jessie Rossman, upon arrival at MCI-Framingham, women committed under Section 35 are strip-searched, deprived of their personal possessions, and issued a prison uniform and number. Then they “are sent to the medical unit for detox – what [the Department of Corrections] calls detox, which essentially is just you being given a bucket. They are given over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol and Tums,” but no medication such as methadone, Suboxone or Vivitrol which are frequently used to facilitate detox. After detoxification in the medical unit, civilly committed women are sent to “The Mod”, a large room with bunk beds where women being held pre-trial are imprisoned. Unlike other prisoners they cannot visit the library, pray at the chapel, or participate in prison programs. Civilly committed women at MCI-Framingham cannot even access the addiction treatment programs available to sentenced prisoners. Ironically, the original reason for this policy seems to have been to discourage MCI to be used as a treatment facility.

“If you build it they will come”

By every measure, the MCI-Framingham “solution” to drug addiction is a disaster. The average length of stay for women sectioned to MCI-Framingham is longer than for women sectioned to the Women’s Addiction Treatment Center (a “staff-secured, but not locked” facility) licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to treat women who have been civilly committed. According to data compiled by the Massachusetts Women’s Justice Network, women sectioned to prison are less likely to be released to an outpatient facility and more likely to return to court (11% compared with 3%). Most damning, women of color are more likely than white women to be sectioned to prison rather than to the Women’s Addiction Treatment Center (31% compared to 9%).

The way out of this mess suggested by nearly everyone – judges, prison officials, public health officials, legislators, Governor Deval Patrick and most advocacy groups — is to fund and allocate more substance abuse treatment “beds” (that’s the term that is used) in non-prison facilities.

On the face of it this argument makes sense, but a bit of digging through the record indicates otherwise.

Massachusetts opened the Women’s Addiction Treatment Center in 2007 in order to provide an appropriate treatment setting for women committed under Section 35. In a classic instance of “if you build it they will come,” the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported in a February 12, 2014 hearing held at the Massachusetts State House that the number of women committed through Section 35 dramatically increased over the following years, growing from 347 in FY 2006 to 1591 in FY 2012. At the same hearing, Department of Correction Commissioner Luis S. Spencer reported that the number of women committed to MCI-Framingham also continued to increase, going up from 221 women in 2007 to 310 women in 2012.

Spencer explained that many of the people committed under Section 35 are not only dealing with addictions but also with other mental health challenges as well as physical health problems including diabetes, heart disease, COPD, liver diseases, infectious diseases, Hepatitis C and dementia. Many have long histories of sexual victimization, self-injurious behavior, and psychiatric treatment. Brian Sylvester of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health estimates that 20% of those committed through Section 35 do not meet the criteria for commitment; rather, they are committed because no one knows where else to send them. People self-commit and are committed by others because there are insufficient spaces in detoxification facilities, because their insurance will not pay for detoxification or rehabilitation or even because they cannot afford housing. According to Sylvester, “Section 35 has become the catch-all for gaps in the system: substance abuse, mental health, criminal justice and medical.”

It is a travesty that drug users who have not been arrested, arraigned, tried or sentenced are sent to prison. And it is a travesty that needs to be seen in the broader context of local and national policies. The National Institute on Drug Abuse states in its Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment, “To be effective, treatment must address the individual’s drug abuse and any associated medical, psychological, social, vocational, and legal problems.” But how (and the Institute does not ask this) can an individual’s vocational problems can be addressed when so many Americans work at jobs that do not pay a living wage, and when individuals with criminal records often cannot land a job at all? How can an individual’s social problems be addressed when poverty locks millions of people into communities with high rates of violence, when a quarter of American women experience sexual or intimate partner violence at some point in their lives? And how can an individual’s legal problems be addressed when the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world?

As a nation we’ve gone the route of building more and more prisons in unsuccessful efforts to manage the devastation caused by economic and racial inequalities. I’m far from convinced that building more and more “staff-secured” treatment centers will prove any more successful.

You can read more on the confluence of punishment and treatment in Incarceration by Any Other Name: A Return to the Cuckoo’s Nest?

Incarceration by Any Other Name: A Return to the Cuckoo’s Nest?

The big news coming out of Los Angeles County – the county with the largest number of incarcerated people in the country – is the approval of a plan to replace an overcrowded, decaying jail with a correctional center that provides care for  incarcerated men suffering from mental illnesses and substance abuse. The plan includes a $1.9 billion proposal to tear down Men’s Central Jail and construct a 4,885-bed “Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility”. The proposal also calls for “upgrading” the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster into a 1,040-bed facility for women. Altogether, these proposals would add about 1,000 beds to the county’s jail system, bringing the total to just over 21,000.

No doubt about it – the jail that many consider to be one of the worst in the country – needs to come down. No one has anything good to say about the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail – a facility known for its abhorrent conditions and rampant violence. However, replacing a “jail” with a “correctional treatment facility” is, at best, a cosmetic change. At worst, it sets the stage for rebranding individuals who have been drawn into the correctional system from “offenders” (that is, people who did bad things) to “sick” (that is, people who are a bad thing.)

“Treatment” certainly sounds more benevolent than “punishment.” And it certainly is the case that the overwhelming majority of people serving time in U.S. jails and prisons suffer from physical and mental health challenges. Around the country incarcerated men and women have higher rates of hypertension, anxiety, myocardial infarction, psychotic episodes, asthma, arthritis, major depression, cervical cancer, urinary tract infections, chronic headaches, tuberculosis and hepatitis, than Americans in the general population.

I acknowledge that we are holistic beings whose physical, emotional, mental and spiritual lives are, on a deep level, one and the same. But, just for now, let’s bracket that deep epistemological insight and ask: Why the newfound public attention to mental illness – a vague, subjective and stigmatized category, rather than physical illness – far more concrete, less stigmatized, and usually more treatable. Why the sudden surge of interest in mental health treatment for criminalized Americans?

Over past year or so we have reached a tipping point regarding mass incarceration. In the current mid-term elections, every single candidate I have heard has spoken about the need for “prison reform” (a vague idea that typically centers on getting “treatment” for the many mentally ill prisoners.) That we’ve reached this point reflects the hard work of anti-incarceration and human rights activists, the inability of states and counties to afford the economic cost of incarceration, the cumulative numbers of people impacted by decades of mass incarceration making it harder for “average” Americans to see so-called criminals as “Other” (my guess is that by now most Americans personally know someone who has been locked up on a minor charge because of “tough on crime” policies), and perhaps simply the usual waxing and waning of the popularity of public policies.

But I think that there is another factor at work here. Redefining criminalized Americans as mentally ill resonates with deeply rooted ideas regarding sin: That deviant behaviors and identities are manifestations of core personal flaws. The fluidity of “criminal,” “sinful,” and “mentally ill” classifications in the United States are clearly seen in the rebranding of homosexual desire from sin to criminal to mental illness over the course of a single century. That is far from the only example of this sort of fluidity. Psychoactive drug use has been labeled a Christian sin (most clearly in the case of Native American religion), a crime (and indeed the largest driver of mass incarceration today), and an illness (according to the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association and virtually all psychotherapeutic authorities.)

How particular identities or practices are branded drives how those who are associated with those identities or practices are treated. And, on the face of it, we’d assume that those who are categorized as “ill” will be treated better than those who are categorized as “sinful” or “criminal.”

So here is where I want to push back a bit. It seems to me that sinners – in normative American Christian understandings — can be “reborn” and their sins can be washed away. Criminals (in theory) can “serve their time,” “pay their dues to society,” and be “rehabilitated.” Those who are classified as mentally ill, however, are diagnosed with a chronic – that is, incurable – condition. Medication can help control the symptoms, but if the individual ceases to be compliant with doctor’s orders, that person will relapse – the mental illness that was suppressed by treatment will reemerge. Rhetoric about not blaming the mentally ill for their mental illness (after all, it’s biological, chemical or genetic) is a two edged sword. As the women’s movement has long argued, excusing groups of people from the responsibilities of civic life because of inherent weakness ultimately serves to disempower. You cannot control what you cannot control. Continue reading Incarceration by Any Other Name: A Return to the Cuckoo’s Nest?

Marissa Alexander and the Shot Not Heard Around the World

I’ve been thinking a lot today about Marissa Alexander, the woman who could be incarcerated for as long as sixty years for firing a single warning shot in the direction of her abusive husband. Today she is back in court, again, requesting immunity under “stand your ground” in light of new evidence of her husband’s abuse. The shot most certainly not heard around world injured no one and may well have saved her from further abuse at the hands of a violent man. It has not, however, saved her from abuse at the hands of the courts. In 2012 she was convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Marissa Alexander had given birth a week before the incident, her husband had beaten her up during her pregnancy, and she had a court injunction that was supposed to keep him away from her. She also had a license to carry a concealed weapon, was trained in using the weapon – and, it bears repeating – no one was hurt.

At the time of her trial and verdict the Court denied her right to use a gun in self-defense under the “stand your ground” law in Florida. The contrast to the ruling in the case of the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman seemed a clear demonstration of how racism, even in our era of “colorblindness” (see Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow) permeates the law enforcement, judicial and penal systems.

But today when I read her message to her three children who are growing up without their mother, I’ve been thinking more about Marissa Alexander’s gender.

For the past six years I’ve spent a great deal of time with women in the Boston area who had been incarcerated in Massachusetts. Studies consistently show that the about 70% of women drawn into the correctional system have been targets of physical and sexual violence (Meda Chesney-Lind has written powerfully about this issue.) In my own observations this estimate may actually be on the low side. Furthermore, having been in prison sets women up for further abuse and assault. As “ex-offenders” they lose their eligibility for government-subsidized housing and as a consequence are likely to become homeless. In fact, a 23 city report by the United States Conference of Mayors confirms that domestic violence is the primary cause of homelessness for women (www.usmayors.org). Women who are homeless or insecurely housed are vulnerable to assault on the streets, and, with few alternatives available, may move in with a man who is – as several women I know put it – “sketchy” which puts them at even greater risk of intimate partner violence.

Why – despite efforts our society has put into helping victims of violence – do Marissa Alexander and so many other women continue to suffer intimate partner assaults, abuse, sexual exploitation, and rape? The Violence against Women Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton on September 13, 1994, increased penalties for repeat sex offenders, trained law enforcement officers and established the National Domestic Violence Hot Line. We have police, social workers, psychologists, battered women’s shelters, rape crisis hot lines, mandatory reporting requirements – surely these should have, or at the very least, could have solved the problem of violence against women. We have public proclamations that raise awareness of childhood sexual abuse, date rape and domestic battering. But the culture of violence that endangers women, children, and many men has not changed; rates of gender violence have not declined; and men who rape or abuse women are unlikely to be charged with a crime, if charged they are unlikely to be convicted, and if convicted are unlikely to serve significant prison time (more on this in the National Violence Against Women Survey).

Continue reading Marissa Alexander and the Shot Not Heard Around the World

Sex, race and prison’s violent double standard: Incarcerating men hurts women, too

This piece originally appeared in Salon in April, 2014

When I first met Gloria, over five years ago, she was in what she and others sometimes call “the homeless life.” That is, she circulated through a variety of homeless shelters, relatives’ couches, and apartments of men with whom she informally exchanged sex and domestic chores for a place to stay. Like other women in similar circumstances whom I met as part of a long-term project involving marginalized Boston-area women, Gloria (a pseudonym) was always concerned about lack of housing. Knowing that she would not survive on the homeless circuit much longer, she turned to a social service agency that placed her into a subsidized room in a “single room occupancy” (SRO), what used to be called a boarding house.

As is typical in SROs, she was not permitted to have overnight guests in her room. However, when her boyfriend was released from jail, he had nowhere else to go. For a while she snuck him into the building, a situation that humiliated both of them when she stood guard outside the communal bathroom door to make sure that no one saw him enter or leave.

Within less than two months he locked her in her room, destroyed her telephone, raped her and beat her up. Gloria was afraid to call in the police. She had learned through past experiences that women who report sexual violence may become vulnerable to negative repercussions from a variety of state agencies. In fact, a survey conducted by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that at least 11 percent of evictions from public housing and Section VIII (subsidized) residences targeted women because they experienced domestic violence. In some cases, women were evicted for defending themselves. In other cases they were evicted simply because the violence created a “public disturbance.”

* * *

Gloria’s dilemma will soon be faced by many, many more American women.

Despite the well-publicized fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, there is good news: America’s race to incarcerate may be slowing down. California, the state with the largest number of people behind bars, has been ordered by a panel of federal judges to reduce the state’s prison population by approximately 10,000 to deal with prison overcrowding. (After several appeals, the court extended the deadline for compliance to February 2016.) Nationally, incarceration rates are going down for Black men and women and for White men (not for White women). Declining incarceration rates can be attributed to a variety of factors, including changing social attitudes regarding drugs (particularly marijuana); large numbers of inmates finishing the lengthy mandatory sentences they were ordered to serve at the height of the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s; budgetary constraints including rising cost of prison healthcare as prisoners age; and the ongoing advocacy work of community and prisoners’ rights organizations.

American men remain incarcerated at 20 times the rate of women. And as Gloria knows well, the legacy of their imprisonment continues to play out in the lives of their families and communities long after their release. In a large-scale Oregon study, Margaret Braun found that at least 25 percent of male ex-prisoners engaged in acts of violence against wives and girlfriends within the first several years post-release.  The impetus for this violence simmers during confinement. In focus groups conducted by researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice and the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African-American Community, currently and recently incarcerated men stressed their demands that wives and girlfriends demonstrate loyalty to them while in prison, running errands for them, putting money into their prison account, and – above all – avoiding even a suspicion of new romantic interests.

Loyalty often was framed in terms of control. As one man explained, “One view of women is they just there to do what I want them to do. Slaves … somebody to be there at your every beck and call.” And in the words of another man, “I’ve seen over and over since I’ve been here [in prison], guys will get on the phone and they’ll accuse their wives or girlfriends of cheating with someone else. I mean, it’s never just a regular conversation.”

More broadly, prison culture amplifies the sexist attitudes and gender violence of so-called free society. Young men thrown into overcrowded jails often learn that in order to survive they have to become tough, numb to the pain of others; they learn to be the aggressor in order not to be the victim. This dynamic is deeply gendered. Criminologist Donald Sabo and his coauthors write, “Rape-based relationships between [same-sex male]  prisoners are often described as relationships between ‘men’ and ‘girls’ who are, in effect, thought of as ‘master’ and ‘slave,’ victor and vanquished.”

These attitudes do not suddenly evaporate upon release. Over the past decades, both the incidence and intensity of violence against women has risen in communities with high rates of incarceration. Indeed, Beth Richie, author of “Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation,” links the rising rates of brutal sexual violence carried out against black women to the disproportionately high rates of incarceration of black men during the regime of what law professor Michelle Alexander calls the “New Jim Crow.”

Tonya, an African-American woman in her 30s who has had abundant experience with men in prison (her child’s father was incarcerated shortly before he was born; she spent a great deal of time, energy and effort visiting her man while he was in prison; and now that he has been released he has moved into her house), helped me understand the links among mass incarceration, prison culture and violence against women. “I believe that there is a level of violence and anger in any person, that anger can be increased … depending on … how much time was given for the crime, and the level of violence that the individual has to deal with in the correctional facility. Do I believe that violence can trickle out into the community? Yes and no. Some men have the ability to take traumatizing experiences and utilize it to teach others about the violence, homosexuality and verbal abuse from state officials and correctional officers they have to deal with on an everyday basis … [But] this type is atypical … In my opinion men who are typical … have displayed behaviors of cheating, lying, stealing, manipulation of women and people who don’t know any better … Males only have so much patience before snapping and reliving what they view as an attack on them.”

Tonya explains that for men, “It can easily go both ways depending on what kind of support you do have when you get out of jail, what resources are available to you, and what is not available. See, it’s a cycle,  ‘I don’t have an education, so I can’t get the job I want, I can’t pay child support because no job and no education, my girlfriend or wife is stressing because I got a record which is stopping me from working and paying child support, which if you don’t  pay child support they take your licenses and you go back to jail, so I have to go back to robbing someone or selling drugs, because there’s no food in the house for the kids, which is making me feel less of a man, so I become angry which leads to violence on my women, my kids, and anyone else that is coming at me in what I view is negative.”

* * *

Structural barriers created by misguided policies add fuel to the fire. Many men exit prison to find themselves barred from ever obtaining employment in the legal economy, unable to afford stable housing, and unable to support their families. When men leave jail they compete with women for the limited number of (typically low-paying) jobs available in low-income communities that already experience high unemployment rates. Barriers to employment for former prisoners are driven by social stigma and lack of work experience, and by laws permitting or even mandating criminal background checks, a practice that puts men (who are more likely than women to have a criminal record) at a disadvantage.

Throughout the country, low-income Americans are especially likely to be incarcerated. As a consequence, prisons and welfare offices often “serve” demographically similar populations – except in regard to gender. Welfare eligibility tends to be limited to poor women with children; and nearly all Section VIII subsidized housing vouchers (housing subsidies for low-income households) go to female-headed households. Because laws exclude individuals holding criminal records from eligibility for public and subsidized housing, people released from prison (again, more likely men than women given the demographics of incarceration) often find that they are dependent upon women for a roof over their heads.

However, the same housing laws allow (and sometimes require) law-abiding citizens to be evicted if a former prisoner or someone who commits a crime is caught staying in their house. In fact, women like Gloria risk losing not only their housing but also their welfare and food stamps or even custody of their children when a man – even the child’s father in some cases– is “caught” living in “her” apartment. Yet a low-income man who has to pay his own rent may not be able to pay child support. And failure to pay child support, in turn, can be used by the courts as a reason to send a parent to jail.

* * *

As I have come to know Gloria and other women in similar situations I have become aware of ways in which gender-based violence is reinforced by economic policies and welfare laws that pit women and men against one another. These policies set up poor and marginalized women to become the targets for the fury, confusion and exaggerated machismo that are nurtured in prison. And while these policies may seem irrational, there is, in fact, a deep logic behind them. The promotion of  competition and conflict along gender lines shifts attention away from harmful public policies to the wrongs committed by individual members of the “opposite sex.” Taking a step back, we see that throughout history ruling elites have fostered animosity between ethnic groups, between the very poor and the working class, the young and the old, immigrants and non-immigrants – between groups whose solidarity could threaten the wealth, status and power of the privileged few. Gloria’s conflict with her boyfriend is just the latest chapter in that history.

Large-scale prison release is imperative if we wish to rebuild a democratic society. But while we are opening prison doors we need to institute policies that prevent the violence of prison culture from spilling over into communities. These policies must include eliminating structural barriers to housing and employment for formerly incarcerated people, investing in jobs and housing, expanding eligibility for welfare and other social services, facilitating reunification of families and households destroyed by decades of mass incarceration, and developing programs of restorative justice that provide men with the resources to develop more positive ways of responding to the women and other men in their lives.

Follow this link for more on gender and incarceration: Marissa Alexander and the Shot Not Heard Around the World

Our Prisons are Drugging Women

This piece originally appeared in Salon in August, 2013

A report issued earlier this month by the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that doctors have sterilized as many as 148 women inmates in California prisons during the five-year period from 2006 to 2010. As a feminist and a mother, my initial response to the report was fury at the prison system for its blatant disregard of women’s rights and sadness for the women who will never again be able to carry, birth, nurse and raise their children. As a sociologist who works with criminalized women in Massachusetts, my second response (I am ashamed to say) was relief: Here in Massachusetts, with our top universities and progressive politics, such a thing would never happen.

Once I finished seething, crying and telling myself how lucky I am to live in Massachusetts, a slightly different picture began to form in my mind. Forced sterilization is an outrageous human rights violation, and prison rights advocates correctly argue that any sterilization performed on incarcerated women is by definition coercive. But this is only part of the story of how women in prison are controlled. In Massachusetts we may not sterilize incarcerated women, but we sure do drug them.

Having followed a group of 20 women post-incarceration for the past five years, I have become increasingly concerned with the use of medical procedures and treatments to “manage” the problems caused by social and economic policies and by overuse of incarceration.

I first met Elizabeth, a white woman in her early 40s, as a participant in a study I was conducting among women who have been incarcerated in Massachusetts. A decade or so earlier she had the misfortune of losing the sister with whom she had been especially close throughout her life. Devastated by the death of her sister, she struggled to keep up the smiling expression demanded in her job as a waitress. Told by her boss that her teary demeanor made the customers uncomfortable, she was let go. Without a job she was unable to keep up with her rent, and at the age of 32 she became homeless. Without a secure place to live, Elizabeth became a target for repeated robberies and sexual assaults.



Like many other homeless people, she was arrested for loitering, drinking in a public park and resisting arrest when a policeman she had called to protect her from assault decided to arrest her instead. In prison she was put on Thorazine and Lithium, medications that typically are used for psychosis (she has never been diagnosed as psychotic). Elizabeth explained, “This [the drugs they gave me] made me gain weight and made me into a [space cadet]. It’s not the right medicine. I’m not crazy, that’s for crazy people. I have PTSD and depression from being raped.” In a fog from the medication, Elizabeth lost privileges such as use of the prison canteen and was repeatedly confined to her cell for failing to cooperate with the orders of correctional officers. She was lucky; her cell mate spent two weeks in solitary confinement.

America’s astronomical rates of incarceration (the highest in the world) and America’s equally astronomical rates of psychotropic drug use (also the highest in the world) are two sides of the same coin. Both medicalization (the tendency to characterize social problems or conditions in medical terms and adopting a medical approach to address those problems) and criminalization construe social problems as the moral failings of individuals. This formulation draws attention away from the social miseries that lead to pain, disability, illness and the need to do whatever it takes to survive. When Elizabeth needed job security and affordable housing, what she received was a prison sentence and a cocktail of psychotropic medication.

Such medication certainly can be beneficial for people whose emotional distress or mental confusion interfere with their ability to stay safe, make sound decisions or experience pleasure or satisfaction in life. But the medications Elizabeth was prescribed actually diminished her capacity to make sound decisions and stay out of harm’s way. The issue for Elizabeth is that prisoners have very little – if any — power over what medication they receive, or are denied. Talk therapy is also much less accessible in prison than outside. And any treatment inmates get tends to emphasize individual pathology rather than acknowledging the social injustices that brought many women to prison in the first place.

While men are more likely than women to be caught up in the net of incarceration, women are more likely than men to be controlled through seemingly more benign medical practices. In Massachusetts in 2012, 56 percent of women inmates were treated with psychotropic medication while in prison. (In comparison, only 17 percent of male inmates were treated with psychotropic medication.) In prisons and jails across America, psychotropic drugs are used to subdue inmates. Ostensibly prescribed in order to treat inmates’ pathologies, these drugs often function to restrict autonomy in much the same way as shackles and solitary confinement; they can cause serious side effects including lethargy, seizures and menstrual irregularities; and they are liable to interfere with prisoners’ ability to participate in the preparation of their own defense cases.

I have reached out to various people in the Massachusetts penal system about these issues. Though none have been willing to speak on the record, most people who work in positions of power in the system in Massachusetts are well-intentioned and clearly understand that women inmates struggle with a variety of problems and barriers including histories of sexual abuse. They genuinely want to help women inmates improve their life situations. And they believe that psychotropic medications are a crucial part of that mission. Thus, in response to my questions about overuse of medications, I typically am told that they feel the problem is the underuse of medications.

Medical and penal interventions are often used in tandem to modify, reform, punish and control people – especially poor people and people of color – who are seen as lying outside of, or as threatening, social norms and power hierarchies. The vast majority of female inmates have experienced sexual abuse or assault (estimates vary from 70 percent to 90 percent). Whether through medical or penal practices, women are held responsible for dealing with the consequences of rape. While few people nowadays openly blame women for being raped, the fact is that a history of sexual abuse substantially increases a woman’s chances both of ending up in prison and of being treated with psychotropic medication while there. As Elizabeth learned the hard way, our national solution to “rape culture” is to “fix” women who have been assaulted rather than to change the social attitudes and policies that set women up for abuse.

In this wider context, forced sterilization inside of prisons is one – albeit particularly horrifying — instance of the use of medical procedures and treatments to “manage” marginalized women. In “Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty,” Dorothy Roberts documents how the forced sterilizations of the eugenics campaign of the early 20th century (a campaign meant to improve the human gene pool by preventing the “unfit” from procreating) functioned to keep women – and particularly black women – in check. More recently, coerced sterilization has raised its ugly head in public debates regarding the family cap for recipients of welfare (the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 allows states to deny mothers further financial assistance after the birth of another child) and in blatantly racist proposals to require contraceptive implants for mothers accused of using crack.

Women like Elizabeth face double jeopardy, first in their difficult life circumstances and then in the way they are treated once they enter into the criminal justice system. I do not claim that psychiatric medication (or sterilization, for that matter) is never appropriate. But when two of the most powerful social institutions — medicine and prisons – join forces, the threat of coercion is all too real. We rightfully express outrage when women in prison are sterilized, but our silence in the face of inappropriate medicalization could justly be called criminal.

For more on this theme: Incarceration by Any Other Name: A Return to the Cuckoo’s Nest?