Senator Cotton Wants More Women of Color Behind Bars, and For Longer

On May 19th, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas stood before an audience gathered for the Hudson Institute’s event on Crime and Justice in America and argued that the United States of America is currently suffering from an under-incarceration problem. Yes, Senator Cotton believes that the country with 25% of the world’s prison population has an under-incarceration problem.

The gist of Senator Cotton’s argument, and overly simplified linear logic, is how could we have a mass incarceration problem when so many “criminals” are getting away. Well, Senator Cotton, allow me to explain. The problem with mass incarceration is not simply how many people we have incarcerated (though that is a big part of it) but who this country is incarcerating by the millions. The simple answer is low-income men and women of color for predominately low-level drug offenses.

To better understand the fallacy of the ‘Gentleman’ from Arkansas’ logic, we can turn to the fastest growing prison population: women. Since the introduction of federal and state level policies like broken-window policing, 3-strike laws, mandatory minimums (policies Cotton credits with turning around our society), the number of women in prison has risen 700%. Of the 215, 332 women who have entered prison, nearly half have entered for drug-related offenses. In the world Tom Cotton lives in, a longer prison sentence will help these women beat drug addiction and rehabilitate them into law-abiding citizens. In reality, these women will sit in prisons where only 10% will receive any form of substance abuse treatment. For those that do receive treatment, the treatment they receive is based on the substance abuse history of men and has been found to be largely ineffective.

Prisons do not just serve as makeshift substance abuse treatment centers, in which the majority of incarcerated women have substance abuse histories and barely any women actually receive substance abuse treatment. Prisons also serve as mismanaged, ill-equipped, and overcrowded places to house women with mental health concerns. While 12% of women in the general population have mental health concerns, 73% of women in state prisons, 61% of women in federal prisons, and 75% of women in jails have mental health disorders. Again, these women are largely low-income women of color. For these women, “treatment” often comes in the form of restrictive housing (solitary confinement), a form of punishment that has been shown to cause psychotic episodes, hallucinations, and suicidal tendencies.

Cotton also gives credit to the “thankless” work of Correction Officers who work tirelessly to rehabilitate individuals in prison and keep them safe. In reality, women are perhaps in more danger inside cell walls. Kim Shayo Buchanan describes prisons as if “the clock has been turned back to the nineteenth century. Women, especially women of color, are exposed to institutionalized sexual abuse, while a network of legal rules prevents them from seeking protection or redress in courts. Guards know they can sexually exploit women without fear of institutional sanction or civil liability”. Despite making up only 10% of the prison population, women make up nearly half of all survivors of sexual assault in American prisons.

Senator Cotton, the prisons you imagine, places where bad people go to repent for their wrong doings, do not exist. The US penal system currently operates as a place to control, abuse, and neglect our nation’s poor and mentally ill. The answer to the issues Senator Cotton worries about is not an increase of punishment but an increase in attention and investment to the communities that are being effected by our MASS incarceration.

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Women organize the choir to end mass incarceration … and beyond

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.


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