Prisoners of War: Black Female Incarceration at the End of the 1980s

By Rolison, Garry L.; Bates, Kristin A. et al. | Social Justice, Spring-Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Prisoners of War: Black Female Incarceration at the End of the 1980s


Rolison, Garry L., Bates, Kristin A., Poole, Mary Jo, Jacob, Michelle, Social Justice


IN THE WORDS OF THE U.S. BUREAU OF JUSTICE STATISTICS, THE PAST TWO DECADES have witnessed an "incredible increase in incarceration rates..." (Chaiken, 2000: 5). As Chaiken notes, the incarceration rate has "more than quadrupled" since 1975. Even more striking is that this rate is distributed disproportionately so that the black population, Which is approximately 12% of the general population in the United States, represents 50 to 60% of those incarcerated individuals. This trend results from multiple factors, including the War on Drugs, differential sentencing for types of cocaine, harsher laws like three-strikes and mandatory sentencing, an increased number of law enforcement agents, and inequitable access to legal representation due to economic disparities. Accompanying these changes has been a shift to a highly racialized public discourse that has attempted to justify the above changes in incarceration. As del Olmo (1991: 12) noted, the "various discourses erected around drugs have allowed the creation of stereotypes--the best expression of informal social control--so necessary to legitimating formal social...control." Similarly, Bhavnani and Davis (1997:7) contend that the symbiotic discourses of the welfare mother, the immigrant, and the "criminal" create a "retrograde racial politics" and present a danger to democratic possibilities for the future.

Following del Olmo and Bhavnani and Davis, we argue that race is central to any attempt to understand the increased rates of incarceration in the United States that started in the 1980s. To do this, we offer a statistical analysis of black and white women who were incarcerated at yearend 1991. We are mindful that embedded in the statistics we analyze and present is a broad socio-historical context in which the influence of politics and the media is not directly accessible through statistical analysis.

Whence the New Prisoners?

A cursory examination of speeches by U.S. politicians and a glance at the U.S. media since the 1980s would lead us to believe that there has been an increase in criminal behavior over the past two decades. However, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that violent crimes and property crimes have decreased during this time (Chaiken, 2000). Indeed, only incarceration for drug-related crimes has increased. Thus, the crime "explosion" is best understood as the collective clink of prison cell doors due to a mythical drug war initiated in the Reagan era.

Using the term "Second Reconstruction," Marable (1991) compares the post-Civil War Reconstruction period to the Reagan years. Like the First Reconstruction, this Second Reconstruction failed to achieve racial equality and thus failed blacks. This' was due in part to "the loss of northern white support" and the "reemergence of the South's traditions of inequality and racial prejudice as the dominant theme of U.S. public policies vis-a-vis blacks" (Ibid.: 4). The loss of northern white support is reflected in government and corporate policies and decisions made during this period. In particular, federal taxation policies benefited corporations, big business, and the wealthy, leaving a large part of the tax burden on the working class and poor (Ibid.: 207). This heightened the disparity in the distribution of wealth. As multinational corporations sought lower-wage labor markets lacking U.S. regulatory constrictions, urban industries that paid a decent living wage began to close. Wacquant and Wilson (1989) descr ibe a shift to low-paying service-sector jobs, which aggravated preexisting racial segregation in employment. As unemployment increased and the urban tax base eroded, people of color were effectively disenfranchised economically.

In this context, crack cocaine first appeared in the inner cities. Though its origin is uncertain, the impact of its appearance in communities of color differed from the impact powder cocaine had on the white community.

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