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In Texas, women's incarceration rates have increased dramatically over the past few decades—over 1000 percent since 1980. Within that group, Black single women are the persons with categorically the highest likelihood of ending up incarcerated. Still, conversations about the harms incarceration causes have historically and largely been centered around men. For the sake of women and our youth, women's incarceration rates are a topic that we must uplift and bring to the forefront of our policy and community-engaged conversations.
I am system-impacted, by both Child Protective Services and The Texas Department of Criminal Justice. I am also now a women's fellow at the Texas Center for Justice and Equity, where I work on state policy to support women before, during, and after incarceration, and am a champion of families.
I graduated high school at 15 years old and went on to attend the University of Texas at San Antonio, and my life and family were still dismantled by oppressive systems. I've seen the ways it's necessary for us to now have conversations with all communities, with impacted people, with the broader public, and—most importantly—in the offices of lawmakers about the lack of support women of color face in their daily lives, and how that lack of support has contributed to incarceration rates. These conversations can be pivotal to educating individuals, as well as guiding our leaders toward creating and implementing policy changes that have the potential to create a world where all women—no matter their background, race, or socioeconomic status—have the tools conducive to success, perpetuating intergenerational healing and prosperity.
To understand how women have become the fastest growing incarcerated population in Texas, and why Black and women of color are overrepresented in carceral settings, we must start to unpack the drivers of incarceration. Historically in America, Black families have been the target of systemic racism from the war on drugs to education inequity; thus, a catalyst into poverty—a significant factor to consider when understanding crimes of survival and the uptick in women's incarceration rates.
A 2014 survey by the Texas Center for Justice & Equity of over 400 women incarcerated in Texas found that 47 percent of respondents were unemployed immediately before entering the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. In the same survey, 52 percent of women reported that their pre-incarceration total household income, before taxes, was less than $10,000 per year.
The number of women in U.S. prisons is skyrocketing, but little data exists about their experiences.
Almost all of the data that exists about prison is based on the experiences of men.
Starting in the 1970s, the war on drugs placed Black and brown men into prisons by the thousands, punitively punishing substance use and addiction; and as such, creating instability in the areas of finances, emotional support, and child-rearing guidance for our Black and brown families. This intergenerational harm created a plethora of obstacles for women thrust by the state into single motherhood. The trauma and stress of how you become a single parent, and the uphill battle of navigating that life, lead to crimes of survival, substance use disorders, as well as unaddressed trauma that shows up in decision-making processes and other relationships.
This dismantling of Black and brown families also produced a foundational crack so deep that decades later these communities still experience the collateral consequences, and have not recovered. In the U.S. broadly, Black and Latinx families are also more likely than white families to have encounters with Child Protective Services. Removing children from families contributes greatly to the increased incarceration rate for women due to the ensuing trauma that can cause mental health issues, substance abuse disorders, and more. Black families have been devalued through government-sanctioned violence since slavery, when families were intentionally broken apart and sold to different plantation owners with the intention of not allowing the family to grow together, out of fear.
This separation—mentally, emotionally, and psychologically—resulted in a revolution. The close correlation of how the criminal legal system has dismantled these families beginning with our fathers, brothers, and sons is strikingly similar. It can be said in more than one aspect that incarceration is modern-day slavery. CPS is responsible for dismantling Black and brown families—taking away the very reason many women live—and thrusting children into often more harmful environments that have a traumatic impact; thereby increasing the likelihood that child(ren) will encounter the legal system again.
We have also failed children of incarcerated parents through a lack of community and legal resources available for systems-impacted youth. In Texas, until recent legislation in 2020, there was no pathway to ensure family reunification for parents who had their rights terminated as a result of incarceration. Notwithstanding the fact that we are in a foster care crisis and children are being swept up in a prison pipeline, going from what is said to be unfit homes, to foster care, to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. These barriers, including a lack of access to housing and employment, that Texas Legal systems have placed on Black and brown families have perpetuated harm within family dynamics, ultimately changing the trajectory of entire families' lives.
What further complicates the rising incarceration rate for women is that prisons were designed by men with men in mind. Reentry efforts, an essential part of determining whether an individual has the holistic tools needed to be successful and become a contributing member of the community, also largely mirror this structure. Although 81 percent of women incarcerated nationally are mothers, there are very few transitional homes that are equipped to handle women and children. Only two such places exist in the state of Texas, Exodus Ministries in Dallas and Perpetual Help Home in Victoria. This is a component that is grossly overlooked and critical to curbing the incarceration rate and preventing recidivism. Studies have shown that strong ties to family and community from the inside result in keeping more individuals from returning to prison after they are released.
In Texas, we are failing our women who are returning home by not having holistic wrap-around services in the community to support the areas of trauma, family unity, and poverty. One might ask how that looks, as the blueprint is almost nonexistent in Texas. Envision a community where a woman returning has access to housing, therapy, food support, day care, and job training. These elements are not all she will need to become safe and stable; however, they lay a solid foundation upon which she can build. These wrap-around services can propel women into sustainability, thus catapulting families toward self-sustainability and intergenerational healing, knowledge, and wealth.
These conversations about the lack of resources to address the unique needs of women returning from incarceration are vital to ending the cycle of mass incarceration. Not having resource-rich communities in a state that locks more people up than any other state is the equivalent of continuous punitive punishment. To ask a woman to reintegrate into society with a criminal background that bars her from housing and employment and attain the "American Dream" is illogical.
The vicious cycle of mass incarceration could easily be seen through the lens of purposeful and intentional harm to Black and brown people. To combat this systemic racist harm, we must demand services in our communities that support the needs of our women, in the hope that these resources will keep them from ever experiencing the trauma of incarceration—and that if they do, they can have access to an equal shot at success when coming home. It is important for communities to demand resources and wrap-around services to keep our communities safer and our women—particularly Black and women of color—in our communities and with their families.
There needs to be a cultural shift in how we view system-impacted women. There are resolution-seeking conversations to be had at your county commissioners' hearings and city council meetings, and organizing that can be done in communities to insist that resources be funded by counties and cities to make accessible wrap-around services. In taking these steps, we become part of the narrative shifting. Talking to your state representatives, senators, and other elected officials about what is important for your community and the growing rate of incarceration for women is a way that we can organize to combat this problem. It is also helpful to support organizations doing the work through either direct services or policy changes.
In order to curb the growing incarceration rate for women, it is essential to understand this history in which the value of Black and brown families was dismantled and how we can be a trauma-informed society to begin to repair the harm. We must consider the drivers into incarceration and have a more robust system of reentry that is designed with women and their unique circumstances in mind. A holistic approach must be used if we are going to honor their past experiences and support them in ways that are not harmful or systematically racist. We must organize in our communities and reach out to our state elected officials to support good policies and oppose harmful policies. It is time that we recognize the harm done to this population and intentionally recognize and repair the intergenerational trauma.
Lets value Black and brown women, because they are worthy and we are all created equal.