Private Prisons Profiting at the Expense of Women of Color

By Jones, Elaine R. | The New Crisis, March/April 2001 | Go to article overview
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Private Prisons Profiting at the Expense of Women of Color


Jones, Elaine R., The New Crisis


Like any other business, the private prison industry is driven by economic incentives. The industry has benefited from the increased incarceration rates of the past two decades, and overcrowded prisons represent greater profit margins.

Companies that run private prisons assume that the rate of incarcerations will continue to rise, or at least remain stable. The nation's current devotion to mandatory prison sentences and severe, inflexible sentencing "guidelines" for nonviolent offenses, are the policies which have increased the prison population.

Women prisoners make up a small percentage of that population-just under 6 percent, according to 1999 Department of Justice statistics-yet they are the fastest growing population in prison. Since 1980, the rate of incarceration for women has increased by almost 400 percent. African Americans make up nearly half of the female prison population. The incarceration rate in the South is the highest of that of any region-65 female prisoners per 100,000 female residents. The national average is 57 female prisoners per 100,000 female residents.

The vast majority of women prisoners are far from being hardened, violent criminals. Seventy-two percent of them are in prison for drug offenses, and 12 percent for property offenses. In general, women of color are overarrested, overindicted, oversentenced, and underdefended. They serve more of their sentences in comparison with that of white women. African Americans and Hispanics represent a disproportionate share of women sentenced to prison for drug offenses.

For example, Kemba Smith was held for more than six years under a draconian 24-year sentence forced upon her by tough federal drug sentencing laws. While a student at Hampton University, Smith began a relationship with an abusive boyfriend who led her into a crack cocaine ring. Although Smith never used or sold drugs, and committed only a few minor unlawful acts, she was sentenced as if she were a drug kingpin. Even though this was, for her, a first-time, nonviolent offense, Smith was convicted and had to leave behind an infant son.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) represented her through four years of fruitless litigation before successfully seeking clemency from President Clinton, who granted it on December 22, 2000. Smith's release was an important first step in LDF's campaign to change overly harsh drug sentencing laws and the heavy incarceration of African Americans convicted of nonviolent crimes.

Dorothy Gaines also received clemency from President Clinton the same day as Smith. Her conviction and imprisonment bore similarities to that of Smith's. She too was dating a man involved in drugs. Gaines was arrested in Mobile, Alabama, as part of a conspiracy. She had no prior felony offenses and no physical evidence against her. Gaines testified that she was unaware of the conspiracy. Nonetheless, the court found her guilty Testimony by witnesses who were vying for reduced sentences convicted her. Gaines' sentence-19 years-was longer than that of anyone else involved in the case.

According to a study conducted by The Sentencing Project in November 1999, the average woman in prison is a "young, single mother with few marketable skills; a high school dropout who lives below the poverty level. Seventy-five percent are between the ages of 25 and 34, are mothers of dependent children, and were unemployed at the time of arrest. Many left home early and have experienced sexual and physical abuse. Ninety percent have drug- or alcohol-related history."

Given this profile, the increase of private prisons is especially disturbing for women, and in particular women of color. Private prisons interfere with parentchild relationships, are often run by untrained staff and guards, do not segregate nonviolent offenders from violent offenders, and can result in sexual and economic exploitation of prisoners. These maladies are true even though some private prisons are less crowded than state and federal prisons, and have better facilities for women than do public prisons.

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