PDF Partners Challenge the Growing Incarceration of Women and Girls
Women are the fastest-growing prison population in the United States, especially for Black, Indigenous and other women of color. In fact, the incarceration rate of women has doubled and surpassed their male counterparts since 1985, despite little public attention to this troubling trend. Patriarchy and sexism are pervasive in the criminal justice system and conversations about ‘mass incarceration’ typically center on the experience of men, effectively erasing and marginalizing the experiences of incarcerated women and girls.
Recent Community Organizing Grant partners of the Peace Development Fund, including Who Speaks for Me?, Women Against Mass Incarceration, and others, are raising awareness surrounding the skyrocketing incarceration of women and girls. These organizations seek to empower currently and formerly incarcerated women to heal from trauma, build community, and organize to create systemic change.
Taylar Nuevelle, the founder of Who Speaks for Me?, an organization based in Washington D.C., said recently, “Long before people deemed us criminals, somebody had done something criminal to us, be it that they forced us to live in poverty, be it racism, sexism, or homophobia. Those are crimes against humanity.”
Before entering the carceral system, many women carry various trauma with them, only to experience new traumas while being incarcerated. Nuevelle explains that the “Trauma-to-Prison Pipeline,” a term she helped to coin, is a major factor in women’s incarceration and that Who Speaks for Me? works from a trauma-informed perspective to empower women and LGBTQ+ folks caught up in that system.
Who Speaks for Me’s program ‘Beyond Me Too: Prison Rape Elimination Act,’ raises awareness of rape and sexual assault of incarcerated women with the end goal of eliminating such violence in prisons, jails, and halfway houses. “Sexual abuse is an abiding, though an unacknowledged, form of punishment to which women, who have the misfortune of being sent to prison, are subjected,” writes Angela Davis in her seminal work, Are Prisons Obsolete?. In federal women’s facilities, 70% of the guards are male and for decades, women have been subjected to rape, sexual assault, sexual extortion, and groping during searches.
Sexual violence has long been institutionalized as a form of punishment that disproportionately affects Black and Brown women. While the #MeToo movement was critical in illuminating the pervasiveness of sexual violence, the experiences of incarcerated women and girls and the rampant sexual violence behind bars remain in the shadows.
Nuevelle says, “I often say if you want to understand sexism in America, go to a women’s prison. Prisons are built and run by men, for men.”
She added, “When people don’t know their rights, and when you are marginalized, and told to be ashamed of the fact that someone deemed you a criminal (in and out of prison), you’re not supposed to make waves, right? But I’m all about making waves. I want to make a tsunami. I’m going to drown you in information and make you pay attention.”
Through education, community organizing, and material support, Who Speaks for Me? is building a tidal wave of organized women to challenge the Trauma-to-Prison Pipeline and the growing incarceration of women and girls.
Another PDF grant partner from the last two years, Women Against Mass Incarceration (WAMI), based in Bridgeport, CT, works towards uplifting, educating, and supporting women who have been negatively affected by the criminal justice system. One project WAMI leads involves a partnership with the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project (YUPP) and is composed of two initiatives: a reproductive justice initiative that works to increase access to menstrual products for imprisoned women and a campaign for clemency throughout the state of Connecticut.
It is important for women, girls, and LGBTQ+ individuals to have access to reproductive products while incarcerated, but unfortunately, they are often denied this basic medical care. Since prisons are male-model-oriented, they often do not have health care providers who are trained in either obstetrics or gynecology, and therefore “lead to decreased rates of screenings and erroneous interpretation of test results” (Ziazadeh, 2019). Furthermore, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, about 6%-10% of people in prisons and other carceral spaces are pregnant but lack basic reproductive health care, such as prenatal care and screenings.
To address this issue, WAMI and YUPP created care packages containing reproductive health products as well as PPE for women based inside prisons in Bridgeport. Tiheba Bain, the founder of WAMI, said that the feedback they received was incredibly rewarding, “The looks on these women’s faces… not only do these care packages help the women inside the prison, but also their family members. It gave them hope.”
She reminds us that, “When you incarcerate a person, you don’t incarcerate just one person, you incarcerate the entire family. The families pay the price, especially to children of anyone that’s incarcerated, but especially for mothers.” More than 80% of incarcerated women are mothers, who generally are their primary family caretakers (Kajstura 2019).
Beyond these care packages, WAMI and YUPP created toolkits for the organization’s main programmatic focus, the Clemency Campaign. Each toolkit contains information about the program, how to get involved with the campaign, fact sheets, and other important resources.
Recently, WAMI teamed up with other organizations such as Once INCarceration, the Commission of Women, Children, Seniors, Equity and Opportunity (CWCSEO), Partners in Action, and Smart Justice to host the Clemency Quilts Tour. One of the stops was the state Capitol Building of Hartford, where many women came together to advocate for the “release of female inmates who are eligible and are actively seeking clemency in Connecticut” (Chan 2021).
While mass incarceration of women and girls continues to be a major problem in the United States, WAMI and Who Speaks for Me have touched the lives of so many women and their families. Both organizations are not only raising awareness of this growing crisis, but are supporting directly impacted women, girls, and LGBTQ+ folks to address root causes of this issue and enact tangible policy changes.
PDF’s Community Organizing Grants program supports dozens of organizations from across the country working on a wide range of issues and these two groups exemplify the importance of grassroots organizing work in challenging injustices.
PDF is excited to be featuring both Taylar Nuevelle and Tiheba Bain, along with Morning Star Gali of Restoring Justice for Indigenous People, at an upcoming event on November 17th, entitled: A Vision to Free Our Folks: Ending Incarceration of Women, Girls and LGBTQ People.
You can find out more about this online event and register by visiting this link.
Learn more about the Peace Development Fund’s 40-year history as a progressive, public foundation by visiting our website or following us on social media, and consider making a contribution to support our grantmaking.
- Davis, Angela Yvonne. Are Prisons Obsolete? Seven Stories Press, 2003.
Author: PDF Intern,
From Albany, New York, Cristina is a rising senior at Mount Holyoke College and is currently pursuing a degree in Spanish and International Relations with a concentration in Human Geography and Latinx Studies. She joined PDF’s team as an intern this summer and is hopeful to continue writing on important social justice issues.