The execution Thursday night of Wanda Jean Allen for the murder of her lesbian lover in Oklahoma made news mostly because Allen was black and female, and Jesse Jackson got himself arrested in a protest outside the prison where she was scheduled to be put to death. But what has gotten almost no media attention is the stunning increase in the number of black women behind bars.
In its latest report on imprisonment in America, the Sentencing Project, a Washington public advocacy group, reports that the number of women locked up in America has skyrocketed during the past decade. At the end of 1999, nearly 100,000 women were incarcerated in federal and state prisons.
Black women have been the hardest hit by the incarceration craze. More are now behind bars than at any time in American history. They fill jails and prisons in greater percentages than black men and are seven times more likely to be imprisoned than white women. For the first time in American history, black women in California and several other states are being imprisoned at nearly the same rate as white men.
Black women have almost single-handedly expanded the prison-industrial complex. From 1930 to 1950 five women's prisons were built nationally. During the 1980s and 1990s, 34 more were constructed. Even this hasn't kept pace with the swelling number of women prisoners. Women's prisons are understaffed and overcrowded, lack recreation facilities, serve poor-quality food and suffer chronic shortages of family planning counselors and services, OB-GYN specialists, drug treatment and child care facilities, and transportation funds for family visits.
The reasons for the sharp escalation in the number of black women behind bars are not hard to find. One out of three crimes committed by women are drug-related. Many state and federal sentencing laws mandate minimum sentences for all drug offenders. This virtually eliminates the option of referring nonviolent first-time offenders to increasingly scarce, financially strapped drug treatment, counseling and education programs. Stiffer punishment for black cocaine users than white users also ensures that more black women land in prison.
Also, more than one out of three black women have incomes below the poverty level. One out of seven is unemployed. One out of two is a single parent. One out of three is employed in a low-wage, semi- or unskilled service job. One out of three has not completed high school.
Yet many still believe that mostly men, especially black men, are locked up. The media continually reminds the public that one out of three young black men is in prison, on probation or parole. Black males make up half the prison population in America. I counted dozens of crime stories in major newspapers in 1999 on the plight of young black males in or facing prison. During the same period, there were three articles on women in prison and none specifically on black women in prison.
But even more insidious, black women are saddled with a load of these racial and gender myths:
The quantum leap in black women behind bars has had its greatest impact on black children. More than 80 percent of women prisoners have children. The children are frequently denied visits because the mothers are deemed "unfit."
Some criminal justice experts and family rights advocates contend that the tragedy of incarceration and family breakups has been worsened by state and federal parental rights termination laws. The federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) gives states the authority to terminate parental rights and put a child up for adoption if a child has been in foster care for 15 out of the past 22 months. If the child is younger than 3 years, states can begin termination proceedings in six months. Half of the states now have laws that cite incarceration as a factor to permit termination proceedings.
The states have not been reluctant to use these laws. The number of parent termination cases has sharply increased since 1996. While much of the public still supports capital punishment and tough crime measures, few legislators are willing to stick out their necks and advocate increased funding for job training, drug treatment, education, child care and health and parenting skills programs.
None of these measures might have saved Wanda Jean Allen from a date with the executioner, but it could've saved countless other black women from winding up in a prison cell.
© 2001 Pacific News Service