Criminal Justice Reform Won’t Work Until it Focuses on Black WomenRoundup
tags: racism, African American history, criminal justice, black womens history, policing
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.
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.
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