Black woman incarceration rising at an alarming, disparate rate

formerly incarcerated
Courtesy of NNPA Newswire

Missy Venable (not her real name) said she has trouble sleeping at night.

It’s not the typical case of insomnia. It’s the after-effects of spending more than seven years in prison — which, incidentally, is where her fellow inmates began calling her “Missy,” and the name just stuck.

She made up her last name for this article, choosing to hide her identity because her children are both of school age and she doesn’t want their classmates teasing them.

It’s a similar story to the one shared by her friend, Tina Blackman — also a fictitious name.

Blackman, who said she’s in her mid-40s, spent nearly nine years in prison. “When I went in, I left behind two teenagers and one child that was 8 years old and autistic and another child that was two,” Blackman told NNPA Newswire.

While Venable was imprisoned for insurance fraud, Blackman was sentenced on drug charges.

Venable said she thought she was referring people to get legitimate assistance with old, broken down vehicles and didn’t know the auto shop’s owner, who was once one of her closest friends, was committing insurance fraud.

Blackman said her ex-boyfriend always denied being a drug dealer and she could find no evidence that he was. No bankroll, no fancy car and certainly not a stack of cash, because she was often late on rent and utility payments.

“Every day, I’d take mail to his friend’s because his friend didn’t have a reliable mailbox,” Blackman explained. “They all looked just like regular mail, letters, and stuff,” she said.

However, one of the envelopes contained drugs and she was charged for selling narcotics.

Venable, a mother of two, had barely made ends meet when an opportunity of a lifetime presented itself. Or, so she thought.

“A friend of mine was running this auto shop not far from my house and he asked that I send him some clients and he’d pay me for it,” Venable said.

Promised $250 per client, Venable said she turned a blind eye to what really was going on in the auto shop — insurance fraud.

“The clients would be folks who wanted to get rid of their cars and my contact knew just how to get rid of them, get the clients paid and of course pocket the insurance money,” she said.

“I did time … hard time and I know it was partly because I was naïve and mostly because I was stupid,” Venable said.

An alarming trend

After hearing their stories, one might wonder, why so much time? Blackman and Venable are part of an alarming trend: Black women represent a disproportionate rate of imprisonment in the growing popultion of incarcerated women in America.

A 2018 report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) showed the number of incarcerated U.S. women overall has increased dramatically in recent decades — from just 26,000 in 1980 to 219,000 in 2017. And, while a recent NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet noted that Black people are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of Whites, the imprisonment rate for African American women is even worse — at twice that of White women.

Another report, “The Status of Black Women in the United States (SOBW),” echoed those statistics. Coauthored by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington and the National Domestic Workers Alliance in New York, the 2017 report revealed that Black women are more prone to being jailed than White women, and that tendency starts in school.

Racial disparities in discipline exist throughout the nation’s education system, the SOBW researchers said.

Between 2011 and 2012, Black girls accounted for 45 percent of all girls suspended from K-12 public schools nationally, and they represented 42 percent of all girls expelled. They were also suspended and expelled at higher rates than Black boys, according to the SOBW, as reported by New American Media, which also noted that the “nation’s Black women are jailed at unfair rates.”

The disciplining of Black girls appears to be influenced by school administrators’ stereotypes and racial biases, wrote SOBW researchers.

Black girls are more likely to be seen as disruptive or loud, compared with other students. They’re more often punished for dress-code violations, talking back to teachers and “defiance” than other girls. What’s worse, Black girls with disabilities are more prone to being suspended from school than other Black girls.

One of the many detrimental effects of incarceration is that it’s associated with higher odds of low birth weight, preterm birth, and infant mortality.

The CAP report also noted that infant mortality and mass incarceration are major issues affecting the Black community. But, while they are often thought of and dealt with on separate tracks, structural racism firmly connects these critical issues.

Structural racism exposes Black women to distinct stressors — such as contact with the criminal justice system — that ultimately undermine their health and the health of their children, according to the CAP report.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the spike in female incarceration has disproportionately affected Black women, especially young Black women. While Black women overall are twice as likely to be imprisoned as their White counterparts, Black women ages 18 to 19 are three times more likely to be imprisoned than their White counterparts, the CAP report noted.

Alarmingly, the report concluded that if current incarceration trends continue, one in 18 Black women will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetime. Such mass incarceration has exposed millions of Black women to dangerous stressors that threaten their health and the lives of their offspring, CAP officials said, while noting that lawmakers must act to put an end to this persistent form of structural racism.

“As perhaps the United States’ clearest manifestation of structural racism, the criminal justice system is an important place to start,” wrote its authors.

Stacey Brown is an NNPA Newswire correspondent.