Criminal Justice Reform Won’t Work Until it Focuses on Black Women


President Biden’s racial equity agenda, launched with executive actions taken to address systemic racism and inequality in America, promises to end the use of private prisons. It is a first step toward reducing mass incarceration, an epidemic that disproportionately affects Black women.

For more than 150 years, Black women have experienced extreme rates of arrest, conviction and incarceration in jails and prisons in the United States. Starting in 1865, White authorities sought to imprison and deny citizenship rights to formerly enslaved people. They overpoliced and over-punished Black women — a practice that continues today. Today, Black women make up only 13 percent of women in the country but represent 30 percent of the women’s prison population and 44 percent of women in jail. Black women continue to outnumber White women in rates of incarceration by two to one. Yet this reality is missing from public conversations about criminal justice reform and mass incarceration.

Emancipation marked the beginning of a new war on Black freedom. It started with the creation of Black Codes, a set of laws put in place to regulate and restrict the freedom of formerly enslaved people. This enabled White police, judges and lawmakers to lock up formerly enslaved people and their children for nonviolent, quality-of-life misdemeanor “crimes” such as stealing food, loitering, disorderly conduct, spitting in public or refusing to move off the sidewalk for a White person.

County judges then forced thousands of Black women and girls to do hard labor on chain gangs for being too poor to pay fines; for being unemployed; for selling sex; for bootlegging liquor; and for stealing baby dresses. On March 1, 1897, 18-year-old Lizzie Boatright was sentenced to six months hard labor on a Georgia chain gang after she was accused of taking $5 worth of garments. Her family could not afford to pay a $50 fine and court fees, so the county took temporary ownership of Lizzie’s labor instead.

Between 1866 and 1928, every Southern state in the United States profited from a system known as convict leasing. It allowed private companies to lease prisoners with felony convictions, the majority of whom were Black, from the state for a fee. And it overwhelmingly impacted Black women, who made up more than 80 percent of the nation’s female prison and jail population. In some states, such as Georgia, they made up roughly 99 percent.

Those convicted of felonies such as murder, manslaughter and arson — often resulting from self-defense — were put in prison, usually for life, and forced to work, ultimately becoming the labor that rebuilt the post-Civil War South.

Black women prisoners worked from sunup to sundown, grading surfaces for railroads, laying tracks, mining clay, firing bricks, digging ditches, smelting iron, building roads, chopping down trees, harvesting turpentine, plowing fields, hoeing weeds, washing clothes, cooking meals and picking crops.

In the course of their dizzying work routines, they also expended energy fighting off sexual predators and nursing their wounds. Women such as Ella Gamble, a wife and mother from Georgia, spent their days running from a whip or the sexual predator on the other end of that whip. Other young women, like Mattie Crawford, were beaten out of their skirts and forced to work in blacksmith shops. Black women lacked protection in Southern prison camps. The only time they were viewed as real women was when they were raped.

Convict leasing and chain gangs were banned in the 1920s and 1950s, respectively, to eliminate competition with free laborers, to open up job opportunities for unemployed White men during the Great Depression, and to avoid widespread public criticism over the systems’ cruelties.

And yet the war on Black freedom continued through the mass imprisonment of civil rights protesters. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Black women and girls were arrested for standing on the steps of county courthouses, walking down the street, riding city buses, congregating in local parks, sitting in restaurants and standing in line at segregated movie theaters.

In July 1963 in Americus, Ga., 15 girls were jailed for attempting to enter the Martin Theater through the front entrance instead of the back alley. Officers attacked the 12- to 15-year-olds and locked them up in the Leesburg Stockade for 45 days. Such arrests stripped Black girls of their innocence; robbed Black women of their hard-earned income; and hurt entire communities. Even so, they continued to fight for their freedom.

In the 1970s, with segregation officially outlawed, the war on drugs became a new vehicle for the state to target Black freedom. Tough-on-crime rhetoric and drug-busting operations resulted in the mass incarceration of Black women once again. Those addicted to crack were criminalized and locked away in cages instead of being admitted to rehabilitation facilities.

What’s more, while convict leasing and chain gangs were gone, similar structures to those underpinning these exploitative systems were reimagined through the prison industrial complex, a term used to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing and imprisonment as lucrative solutions to economic, social and political problems.

Since 1980, prisons have become a growth industry in rural America. Declines in farming, mining and manufacturing have increased demand for prison construction in communities. Tough-on-crime laws with harsh penalties helped rebuild the economies of these White communities, with private prisons serving as key economic drivers. Structural racism anchored the rise of the private prison boom, and the prison-industrial complex has resulted in the mass removal of Black women from society into institutional captivity.

Why have Black women been ignored in conversations about mass incarceration if they have been a target for so long? There are multiple reasons. Their negligible numbers when compared with Black men punished by the carceral state have been used as an excuse to justify their erasure. This erasure has been exacerbated by the nation’s emphasis on the plight of Black men killed at the hands of the police, a narrative that has been covered extensively in the media.

The recent focus on the opioid “crisis” that has shifted the conversation to White women — who are being mass incarcerated for the first time in American history for drug offenses — may cause us to lose sight of Black women altogether.

Ending private prisons may help promote racial equity, but it won’t erase the silence around Black women’s experiences. It’s time to include Black women in the conversation about mass incarceration. Until we do, true justice cannot exist.

**This piece is reprinted in collaboration with The Washington Post’s ‘Made by History.’

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Talitha LeFlouria

Talitha L. LeFlouria, an African-American studies professor at the University of Virginia, is the author of “Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South.” Follow her on Twitter @TLeFlouria.