(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a special Just Security “Racing National Security” symposium edited by editorial board member Matiangai Sirleaf. The goal of the symposium is to render race visible in national security to shift the dominant paradigm toward addressing issues of racial justice.)
An eerie metaphor overlaps the murder of George Floyd and the global pandemic known as coronavirus or COVID-19. As the viral video of Floyd’s tragic murder so graphically reveals, he could not breathe. Gasping for air and grasping for life itself, Floyd pleaded for help and ultimately his mother. His breathless solicitations wafting forth, unacknowledged; pleas finding no safe harbor. No relief availed him. Asphyxiation would soon settle in, robbing Floyd’s heart of oxygen. Predictably, death would follow.
As Officer Derek Chauvin (then a veteran on the Minneapolis Police Department) demonstrated to fellow officers and onlookers, in 8 minutes and 46 seconds, one can meticulously induce asphyxiation with the precision of a surgeon harvesting a heart. As if performing a well-rehearsed role for the crowd of onlookers and the camera itself, Chauvin maintained composure, knee on Floyd’s neck, and hands in pocket. His masterpiece was the murder of Floyd — and many of us watched — either in part or the whole horrific performance.
People throughout the world became spectators to this gruesome and sadly familiar American play, starring an unwitting and reluctant Black man and a White male police officer. In this pornography of pain, video captures the ugly realities of Jim Crow’s residue in familiar forms: chokeholds, gunshots, and even knees on necks. Perched on bookstore shelves, tome after tome in encyclopedic detail copiously report and analyze these tragedies: Paul Butler’s “Chokehold: Policing Black Men”; Angela J. Davis’ “Policing the Black Man”; Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
I am far too familiar with such stories as a scholar of both constitutional law and bioethics. The legacies of the fallen materialize on notepads and more on my desks. I research them, sifting through police reports and medical records of individuals sacrificed to the cruelties of institutionalized racism.
Unlike George Floyd, however, the dead whose lives live on my desk are the forgotten and invisible. They are women.
Strangely, the theater of Black men’s pain obscures other horrific realities in policing and the criminal justice system’s violence against women. Namely, institutional and infrastructural violence against women, particularly women of color in and by the criminal justice system.
That is, playing off mainstage, relegated to the corner of another theater is an all too common, but far less visible drama: women caught within the clutches of a broken or intentional criminal justice system, which ignores them as victims and survivors.
The understandable agitation, marches, and protests that quickly followed Floyd’s death contrasted the comparatively empty streets subsequent to Breonna Taylor’s murder by police in Louisville, Kentucky only two months before. Taylor, an African American essential care worker, shot at least eight times by law enforcement, would not live beyond the night to take another breath, or treat another patient. Her death was no less horrific.
These stories I know too well, having served on the board of Gina’s Team (Getting Inmates Needs Addressed), an organization named for a young mother incarcerated for a drug offense, who suffered a cruel death in an Arizona prison largely due to medical neglect. Gina was only months away from release when she stopped breathing; guards refused to provide her the medical care she asked for, desperately needed, and deserved. She lapsed into a coma on the day they finally took her temperature. She was dead three days later.
Far less attention was paid in the death of Andrea Circle Bear, 30, who died only a few weeks before Breonna Taylor, while in federal custody on a drug charge, unable to breathe as COVID-19 wracked her fragile, pregnant body. Pleas for her release from custody went ignored, despite the rapid spread of COVID-19, the inability to physically distance while incarcerated, and Circle Bear’s pregnancy. Her appeals for compassion went unanswered. She became the first woman to die from COVID-19 while in federal custody — weeks after giving birth by cesarean section in prison.
These problems are not new even in the post-Jim Crow era of racial violence. Emerald Black’s lawsuit against San Leandro has barely received notice. Filed on May 25, 2020, the day of Mr. Floyd’s murder, Ms. Black’s lawsuit states that officers pulled her boyfriend over in a traffic stop and dragged her out of the passenger seat. According to the lawsuit, she was pregnant at the time and had only moments before been released from the hospital. According to Ms. Black, police officers stomped on her pregnant stomach, leaving not only an indelible reminder in the form of their shoe imprints on her body, but also psychological scars. She suffered a miscarriage.
If Pauli Murray were alive today, she too might call this the new Jane Crow — a modern adaptation of the intersectionality to which she referred to in the 1940s to describe the unyielding, state-sanctioned violence against Black women.
For years now, I have written about invisible women and the criminal justice system. America’s unending war on drugs holds them to account for their drug dependency and the drug crimes of their boyfriends, then discards them as collateral damage. The inescapable reality is that women remain unseen and ignored as targets of police violence, as a growing part of America’s mass incarcerated populations, as mothers in the criminal justice system, and as victims of state violence behind bars.
To better comprehend the scale and scope of U.S. incarceration, consider that it incarcerates more women than any other country in the world. To place this in context, the United States jails more women than Russia, China, Thailand, and India combined. Nearly a third of the world’s female inmates are incarcerated in the United States.
According to the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice, the leading national policy center quantitatively and qualitatively researching women in prison, the population of women in prison grew by 832% in the period spanning 1977-2007 — nearly twice the rate of men during that same period. This staggering increase now results in more than one million women incarcerated in prison or jail or tethered to the criminal justice system as a parolee or probationer in the United States. Of these women, the majority are mothers or will become so during their incarceration.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics underscores the problem, explaining in a “Special Report” that “[s]ince 1991, the number of children with a mother in prison has more than doubled, up 131%,” while “[t]he number of children with a father in prison has grown [only] by 77%.”
Problematically, male-centered accounts depicting the criminal justice system and the many problems found within it, while troubling, fail to offer a nuanced and detailed reading of American criminal justice. More importantly, male-only depictions of the criminal justice system fall short of informing the American public about the damage of female incarceration, including medical neglect associated with breast, cervical, and ovarian cancers behind bars. The metaphor for being unable to breathe and under the weight of an out of control system certainly applies here.
Nor does a male-centered focus on criminal justice include a serious examination and critique of children reared in prison alongside their mothers — as a means of rewarding mothers for “good behavior.” The children of these incarcerated mothers are reared behind barbed wire and in regular sight of machine guns. Such systems seem far too reminiscent of the patrolling of Black women’s bodies during slavery.
Male-centered accounts about mass incarceration fail to paint a vivid and illuminating tapestry about children forced into foster care due to mothers’ incarceration, or the dramatic increase in the number of women incarcerated for drug-related offenses. Pregnant women who are non-violent, low-level drug users are subjected to penalties similar to those imposed on black market drug traffickers with ties to cartels, large-scale organizations, and gangs.
Predictably, the mass incarceration of women suffers from similar features of male criminal institutionalization — namely race and class disparities. Even though 1 in 111 White women stands a likelihood of imprisonment in her lifetime in the United States, Latinas can expect that 1 in 45 will be imprisoned at some point in her lifetime; and for African American women the numbers are worse: 1 in 18 will likely experience incarceration. Yet, with far too little reporting on women in the criminal justice system, much of this goes ignored.
Sadly, the story of criminal justice over the past three decades is one in which women struggle to be heard, made visible, and quite honestly to breathe.
Significantly, drug offenses account for the 800% increase in the rate of female incarceration over the past three decades. Notably, however, women’s drug use has not increased in the last thirty years — only their rates of incarceration. In fact, women’s incarceration rate for drug offenses now surpasses that of men. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2014 that at the state level, 25% of incarcerated women were serving time for drug offenses compared to 15% of incarcerated men. Of these women, African Americans are statistically overrepresented.
For example, the U.S. Department of Justice reports that the rate of incarceration for Black women is 113 per 100,000, more than twice that of White females (51 per 100,000). The data is even more troublesome for young Black women in their late teens and early adulthood as they are five times more likely to be incarcerated than their White counterparts. And despite comprising roughly 6% of the U.S. population, Black women make up 22% of women’s incarcerated population.
Thus, despite the fact that the United States incarcerates more women than any other nation in the world, mass incarceration, the drug war, and police violence continue to be misread as a male problem. As long as this persists, women will remain invisible victims of a broken criminal justice system.