Women and the prison industrial complex

Women and the prison industrial complex

by Val Codd
Off Our Backs,  Feb 2001

The U.S. war on drugs has become a war on women, specifically women of color. According to a Department of Justice Report, since federal drug laws ushered in mandatory sentencing in 1986, the incarceration rate for women has increased 400 percent, and the figure for black women is 800 percent. While the current rate of imprisonment for black women is more than eight times that for white women, the rate for Latina women is four times that for white women, according to Amnesty International.

The disempowerment of women bred by physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, including impoverishment, is highly correlated with women’s criminal activity, including drug use, and subsequent imprisonment. Women are charged most often with the types of “petty” crimes that mark efforts for daily survival. In addition, women charged with drug crimes are often not the major players in the drug trade. Such male “kingpins” enjoy a lot more slack in the criminal justice system, due to their ability to trade information for reduced sentences.

Very little drug treatment is available for women in prison, and the programs that are offered are often modeled around a male user, including a lack of childcare provision.


A study conducted by the Drug Policy Research Center of the California-based RAND corporation found that if $1 million spent on delivering long, mandatory sentences was used to treat drug addicts, cocaine sue could be cut by over 100 kilos. This finding reveals the actual usefulness of imprisoning those accused of drug-related crimes.

More than two-thirds of women are in prison for non-violent crimes, and the same percentage are mothers, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Pregnant women in prison receive little or inadequate prenatal care, and Amnesty International has reported that women have been forced to give birth in chains.

Although white women are more likely to use drugs during pregnancy, black women who use drugs during pregnancy are more likely to be criminalized by medical practitioners, and subsequently imprisoned for the duration of pregnancy. The disproportionate incarceration of pregnant drug users represents the continuation of patriarchal, racist criminalization of women’s bodies, and is indicative, too, of the overemphasis placed on the fetus by anti-reproductive rights forces. In terms of cocaine use, it is actually lack of adequate prenatal care, as opposed to the drug, that poses more of a danger to the fetus.

HIV+women in prison face horrid conditions. According to Blind Eye to Justice: The HIV+Women Incarcerated in California, a film produced by the Women’s Positive Legal Action Network, while 400 male prisoners in California have died from AIDS since 1985, no one knows how many female prisoners have died. Prisoners, however, say countless numbers of women have died, with an average of two to three deaths per day in a single prison in California. Healthcare in prison is virtually nonexistent, with extreme delays in already inadequate medical treatment. As identified in Blind Eye to Justice, a lack of trained medical practitioners is one factor. In addition, correctional officers, who women prisoners have identified as extremely prejudiced against and abusive towards HIV+prisoners, are the first point of contact in accessing medical care. As HIV+women in prison have said, the state of healthcare in prison is reminiscent of a concentration camp.

Angela Davis is an activist around what she has termed the “prison industrial complex.” The prison industrial complex refers to the boom in federal contracting to private companies for building and running prisons. In addition, contracting for prison labor has become a cheap and highly exploitable source of production for such companies as Microsoft, Victoria’s Secret, and Chevron. The capitalist system and the federal government’s priorities fuel one another. While the government does not benefit financially from such privatization, the federal cut-backs in social programs that are happening at the same time point to a racist and classiest move by the government to “disappear social problems,” according to Davis.

As an interviewee noted in Blind Eye to Justice, all of the above conditions around the imprisonment of women signify patriarchal, racist, and capitalist oppression of women, and serve only to further punish women for suffering under patriarchy.

K. KersplebedebK. KersplebedebK. Kersplebedeb

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