Michelle Alexander presented her thoughts on race, rights, and mass incarceration in the United States at a recent talk in Washington, DC. A law professor and civil rights lawyer, Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. In this book, Alexander examines how State political-economic policy—specifically the War on Drugs—has created a regime of caging and profiling Black and Brown men and led to a new racial caste system, a New Jim Crow.
At her talk in DC, Alexander said that she wanted her book to be not just a tool for educating more people on mass incarceration. She remarked that it should be a starting point for further organizing and activism. Alexander stated, “Nothing short of a major social movement, a human rights movement, has any hope of ending mass incarceration.”
However, in conversations about mass incarceration, including in Alexander’s book, women are left out of the narrative. Women, especially women of color, have faced the fastest-growing rate of incarceration in the world. Though in the United States women’s imprisonment has slowed a bit, this fact remains true globally.
When asked a question about how the lack of women in her book and talk adds or subtracts from movement building, Alexander affirmed the importance of women’s experiences and voices in conversations about ending mass incarceration. She highlighted that “women often pay a higher price than men do” in the prison system, such as the burden of being separated from their children. Alexander added that because men are the vast majority of targets of mass incarceration, women and other people’s experiences (such as immigrants, gays, and lesbians) are often marginalized, though it is extremely important to include them in movement-building conversations.
Alexander is correct, but her answer is incomplete, for two reasons. First, the State positions women’s incarceration in the neoliberal economy as both a pre-condition and most extreme condition of economic exploitation. This means that women get jailed the fastest, women experience extra violence in prison, and, as Alexander also noted, women must do the work of surviving and fighting back in criminalized communities. It means that women’s migration provides enough bodies to fill the new warehouses of immigrant detention centers, and that we must connect the reasons for women’s migrations—namely economic interventions of the IMF/World Bank, militarism by the United States, and the worldwide crusade to criminalize sex work—to the rise of mass incarceration, as well. Women, especially women of color, have always been primary, not secondary, targets of the global prison system, just as women have always been primary, and not secondary, targets of economic exploitation.
The second reason is that movement building cannot relegate women’s experiences to just ‘being included.’ Women of color, immigrants, LGBTIQ people, and all others marginalized under neoliberalism must be (and already are) leading the conversations from the beginning. By ensuring our anti-incarceration conversations follow their lead, we can best do as Alexander suggested in her talk: not just preach to, but organize the choir.