Let’s Not Forget About the Women in the Prison-Industrial Complex

We’re Sorry You Couldn’t March With Us: Prison Injustice is a Feminist Issue

State-sanctioned punishment is informed by patriarchal structures and ideologies that have tended to produce historical assumptions of female criminality linked to ideas about the violation of social norms defining a ‘woman’s place.’ Considering the fact that as many as half of all women are assaulted by their husbands or partners combined with dramatically rising numbers of women sentenced to prison, it may be argued that women in general are subjected to a far greater magnitude of punishment than men
- Angela Davis

In the United States, there are more than 8x as many women incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails as there were in 1980. Prior to their imprisonment, a substantial number of women in the prison system have been physically and sexually abused by men. For example, as many as 92% of all women in California prisons had been “battered and abused” in their lifetimes. Oftentimes, the women locked behind bars are overlooked in the feminist movement and disregarded by some altogether. Sadly there is a historical continuum between domestic and state-inflicted punishment of women and physical abuse has been forcefully integrated into the lives of women subject to state punishment.

Political activist Angela Davis suggests that there are “historical and philosophical connections between domestic violence and imprisonment as two modes of gendered punishment — one located in the private realm, the other in the public realm”. Patriarchal structures of violence in the public sphere is linked to the physical punishment inflicted upon women in domestic spaces and specifically for black women, violence was inflicted through the system of slavery. Angela Davis argues that in nineteenth century discourse for prison reform, race limitations and the normalcy of a woman’s role as subservient to man ruled out the possibility of linking domestic torture with public torture, and thus of a related campaign against the gendered violence visited on women’s bodies. Large proportions of women in the prison system have experienced oppression and abuse domestically, and continue to suffer in the public sphere as they are stripped from their freedom and do not have control over there own bodies.

In the prison system, invasive procedures and inflicted violence by mainly male prison guards serve as daily reminders to incarcerated women of their previous traumas of control and abuse. Incarcerated women are subjected to random and degrading searches and in many women’s prisons, male officers are allowed to watch the women when they are changing, showering, and using the toilet. Clearly, there is an imbalance of power between female inmates and the prison guards which leads to an incarcerated woman’s complete dependence on guards for basic necessities. Along with a prison guard’s ability to withhold privileges from female inmates, studies on abuse of women in prison reveal that male correctional officers sexually abuse female prisoners with almost total impunity. Even if incarcerated women report groping by male prison staff during frisks and searches, or other sexual and physical abuses, they are completely ignored and the daily cycle of abuse goes on continuously. Angela Davis states,

“the sexual abuse of women in prison is one of the most heinous state-sanctioned human rights violations within the United States today. Women prisoners represent one of the most disenfranchised and invisible adult populations in our society. The absolute power and control the state exercises over their lives both stems from and perpetuates the patriarchal and racist structures that, for centuries, have resulted in the social domination of women”.

Prison environments only work to further exacerbate traumas experienced by women; prisons are not meant to “reform”women but are instead used as powerful institutions for exercising patriarchal violence. Power and control is the core of domestic violence, and this concept has evidently been translated outside of the private home into public prison systems.

As Rene Renick, the vice president of programs and emerging issues at National Network To End Domestic Violence, states, “If you talk to women in any prison, you will find a huge percentage of them are there for crimes related to their abuse…think about how different this would be if we spent the money to help these women escape abuse instead of locking them up.”

Prison injustice is a feminist issue and in many ways prison life reflects that of society since violence against women is perpetuated both in the private sphere as well as in the public sphere through prison systems. The difference between domestic violence and sexual assault “in home” is that in recent years, domestic violence has become more “criminalized”, whereas violence against women in the prison setting is not. Uniting the anti-violence movement against sexual abuse and domestic violence with the women’s prison movement can only work to benefit the lives of countless women especially as the number of imprisoned women continues to rise.

Angela Davis affirms that the “rapidly increasing percentage of imprisoned should not be used as a pretext for ignoring the complicated web of women’s punishment. The moment may very well be ripe for forging alliances and for establishing links with international movements for human rights”. Domestic violence and women’s prison movements must no longer remain largely separate so that we can establish the links with international human rights that Davis talks about. Women’s rights goes hand in hand with human rights, and the fight against prison injustice intersects with both.