Imagining Liberty and Peace
for African American Women

Paula C. Johnson

As the United States government ratchets up the call for war in Iraq, the collateral damage of wars here at home continues to mount. Collateral damage is an unfortunate term, a disembodied term, for the decidedly human toll of war. Like the war on terrorism, the "war on crime" is a broad-based attack being waged primarily against vast numbers of people of color and poor people who languish in American prisons and jails. Largely, their crimes are more self-destructive than socially threatening. People of color have lived with the terror that accompanies the war on crime for a long time. As the writer Walter Mosley notes in a recent article in the Nation, "An African-American Appeal for Peace": "We _ black men and women in every stratum of American society _ live in and are part of an ecosystem of terror." Part of this ecosystem of terror is a prison population that has swelled to two million incarcerated persons.

In recent years, African American women have experienced the greatest increase in criminal justice system supervision of all demographic groups in the United States. This has been true historically as well as in modern times. Across all age groups, Black non-Hispanic women are more than twice as likely as Hispanic women and eight times more likely than white non-Hispanic women to be in prison. In the 1990s, the 78% increase in criminal justice control rates for Black women was more than double the increase for Black men and white women, and more than nine times the increase for white women. As the Bureau of Justice Statistics recently reported, "Women in State prisons … were most likely to be Black." This situation is replicated in federal prisons. African American women's incarceration primarily is based on drug offenses, property offenses, and other non-violent and economically motivated crimes.

The criminal justice system purports to operate in an evenhanded manner throughout society. Ostensibly, mandatory minimums and guideline sentencing schemes were designed to ensure equal treatment in the criminal justice system. Instead, they have accounted for great increases in the prison population, and have exacerbated the well-documented race, gender, and economic biases that pervade the system. In a recently published book, Inner Lives: Voices of African American Women in Prison (NYU Press, 2003), I have attempted to contribute greater understanding and alternative analysis on the disproportionate impact of contemporary criminal law and punishment schemes. Perhaps more important, Inner Lives includes the voices and photographs of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated African American women in the book. This comprehensive approach _ legal analysis, data, and women's voices _ is an effort to present a whole picture, rather than a caricature or distortion of African American women who have been involved in the criminal justice system. Thus, it was imperative to include the women's perspectives about their lives and experiences before, during and after imprisonment.

In telling their stories, the women often shared similar experiences of traumas throughout their lives, such as physical and sexual abuse. In many instances, criminality was a coping mechanism or escape from abusive circumstances. Often, their traumas were rooted in family dysfunction surrounding alcohol and drug abuse. In other cases, it was the women's difficulty in making wiser decisions about close companions, and the perceptions or realities of limited options for productive, fulfilling, and economically viable lives. Underlying these difficulties, the women expressed keen awareness about the devaluation of their lives as African American women. As sociologist Patricia Hill Collins has recognized, "Identified with and blamed for the deterioration of the American public sphere, poor Black women simultaneously become symbols of what's wrong with America."

For some women, prison was a conscious-raising experience and they gained important skills and a better sense of themselves. For most of the women, however, prison was a desultory experience that did little to offer constructive alternatives to the criminal behavior that resulted in repeat incarceration. Despite obvious needs, the correctional facilities rarely addressed the women's addiction and other mental and physical health care concerns. Similarly, their educational and vocational needs were largely unmet. As the majority of incarcerated women are mothers, mostly single-mothers, the participants in Inner Lives also discuss their attempts to remain involved in the lives of their children and families during incarceration. Maintaining such connections was especially difficult, however, considering the great distances of women's prisons from the women's communities of origin. Moreover, few prisons create environments that are conducive and friendly for family visits.

The women who participated in Inner Lives readily acknowledged responsibility for their behavior, while also making critical distinctions between their wrongdoing and discriminatory or excessively harsh treatment by criminal justice authorities. Their stories contradict prevailing stereotypes about African American women's lack of integrity, purpose, and vulnerability. In this vein, simply because the larger society finds little value in African American women's lives, does not mean that they find little value in themselves. The narratives of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated African American women attest to African American women's resistance to demeaning stereotypes and societal indifference. As stated in their own voices, the women's journeys to self-validation have been arduous and uncertain at times. Nevertheless, they persisted in their struggles for self-worth and meaningful relationships with their children and other family members.

As a disproportionate number of the prison population, African American women increasingly experience the greatest damage from our domestic wars. If projections of their increased incarceration rates are accurate, it will mean further loss and devastation in the lives of African American women, their families, and their communities. Thus, just as a massive movement for peace and justice has emerged to counter the bellicose behavior of the US government regarding a proposed foreign war, so too should voices rise to counter the political expedience of excessive punishment and the enormous human toll it has exacted. As preventive measures, human needs must be met, and our society must create safe spaces in the lives of African American girls and women. In the criminal justice system, viable alternatives to prison must replace the over-reliance on incarceration. Now is the time to fulfill the democratic promise of liberty, equality, dignity, and justice for African American women in US society.

Paula is a professor at the Syracuse University Law School and the author of the recently published book Inner Lives: Voices of African American Women in Prison (NYU Press).