Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Neoliberalism, Illiteracy, and Poverty: Framing the Rise in Black Women's Incarceration

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Neoliberalism, Illiteracy, and Poverty: Framing the Rise in Black Women's Incarceration

Article excerpt

"The huge expansion of the criminal justice system in the United States over the past thirty years has replaced social welfare programs with mass incarceration"

(Sturr, 2006).

According to Angela Davis (1998), imprisonment has been the response to the social problems confronting individuals caught in the cycle of poverty. As Davis further contends,

   These problems often are veiled by being conveniently
   grouped together under the category "crime"
   and by the automatic attribution of criminal behavior
   to people of color. Homelessness, unemployment,
   drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy
   are only a few of the problems that disappear from
   public view when the human being contending with
   them are relegated to cages (1998, para 1).

As of June 30, 2008, state and federal correctional systems had legal authority over 1,610,584 prisoners and 785,556 inmates were being held in local jails (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2009). These figures represent an increase of 0.8% during the first six months in 2008 compared to 1.6% increase during the same period in 2007. Similarly, there was an increase of 0.7% in the local jail population during the same period in 2008 "accounting for the slowest growth in 27 years" (Bureau of Justice Statistics, p. 1). Since sixteen states actually reported a decline in the number of prisoners, the Bureau of Justice Statistics declared that the "growth in prison and jail populations is slowing" (2009, p. 1).

In a display of differing interpretations, during the same month the Bureau released its figures, an article entitled "U.S. Prison Population Explodes" (Hales, 2009) was published in Workers World. Hales' interpretation of the numbers was based on a Pew Center report that presented incarceration profiles by states. Unlike the bureau of Justice that profiles adult incarceration rate, the Pew Center calculates the incarceration rate using the total population rather than the adult population as the denominator (Liptak, 2008). These two contrasting headlines, published within three weeks of each other, suggest that the prison population debate is one of extremes. Prisoner advocates see the numbers as significantly high; whereas, justice agencies highlight the drop in incarceration rates and focus on what they term "slow growth."

The fact remains the United States has an overall incarceration rate of 750 per 100,000--the highest in the world (Hales, 2009). The next highest rate, Russia is 529 per 100,000, while Canada's rate is 116 per 100,000 (Sturr, 2006). According to Hales, The U.S. prison population accounts for 25% of the world's prison population. Even though the U.S. historically has been called the "land of the free," the incarceration statistics indicate a different reality. This reality is especially harsh for people of color. For instance, while the rate of incarceration for Caucasian men is 990 per 100,000, Black men face much higher incarceration rates of 4,919 out of 100,000 (Sturr, 2006). Compare that to South Africa, a country that at the height of apartheid only incarcerated 851 Black males per 100,000 (Soering, 2006).

Peeling Back the Layers

When one analyzes the data on the imprisoned through race, class, and gender, it becomes clear that women of color are overrepresented in the prison and jail system. According to Minton and Sabol (2009), female incarceration rates, while still lower than male incarceration rates, have increased 33% since midyear 2000. While a 33% increase in under a decade may seem shocking, this figure seems mild when one learns that women's imprisonment in the United States has seen a 2,800% increase from 1970 to 2001 (Sudbury, 2005). Black women are the ones most impacted by these staggering statistics. They are incarcerated at a rate of 349 per 100,000, which means they are twice as likely to be incarcerated as Hispanic females (147 per 100,000) and are over 3. …

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