The United States of Incarceration – The Feminist Wire

The United States of Incarceration

By LaToyyia Knight-Gonzales and Monica J. Casper

America has a prison problem. And this problem does not involve a shortage of jails. Nor is it that private corporations such as CCA are unable to turn a profit. Indeed, running a prison can be extremely lucrative both for corporations and the politicians who support them. The problem is also not one of security and containment, as in prisons are “just not safe enough” or “being a guard is tough labor.” No, the problem with prisons in America is that there are too many of them, and they are part and parcel of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC).

I can tell at once if an inmate has money and resources outside of the prison by the apparel or lack thereof with their standard-issue green uniform.  Individuals without outside resources wear prison issued brown steel toe boots and basic white underpants.  Those with economic privilege wear designer sneakers (tennis shoes) and keep such items in new like condition (an immaculate state).

Correspondingly, then, there are also too many prisoners. In our view, this is not a prison management problem, but rather a social justice concern. As scholars such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Dylan Rodríguez have shown, the problem with prisons is that America has become a carceral state, warehousing whole categories of disenfranchised people. (This is in sharp contrast to other developed nations, which have much lower rates of incarceration.) Locking up—and labeling—“criminals” has become the preferred American policy solution to pandemic poverty, inequality and despair. Prisoners have indeed become missing bodies in American society, rarely seen and even more rarely heard.

Currently, the prison population in the United States is at an all time high and continually growing, with estimates of one in 100 Americans behind bars. Between 1987 and 2007, the prison population tripled. People from the lowest social rungs, such as poor young African American and Hispanic men, are disproportionately locked up. In 2008, the Pew Charitable Trusts released a report that garnered extensive media coverage: Among white men ages 18 and older, one in 106 is behind bars, whereas for Hispanic men in the 18 and older category, one in 36 is imprisoned. Among black men in the same age group, the numbers are much worse: one in 15 is behind bars. And for younger black men, those in the 20-34 age range, a staggering one in nine is behind bars.

As per prison policy, a bra is not considered a necessity and thus bras are not issued to female inmates. If you have money and outside sources (people) that can obtain a bra for you, then you are allowed to have a few sent to you, but only if the guards who check mail approve this item and it is not seen as contraband or a weapon. Many of the inmates I see are without [bras]. I am anguished (disturbed) looking at the older women and women who nursed babies (before incarceration) who lack clothing to support an intimate part of their body.

Women are the fastest growing population of imprisoned Americans, in no small part because of their economic dependence on men and their social vulnerability. Although women often play minor roles in crimes, they may serve longer prison sentences than men. The female population in state and federal prisons combined has doubled in the last two decades. Among white women ages 35-39, one in 355 is behind bars; the corresponding figure for African American women in the same age group is one in 100. Many incarcerated women are in prison on drug and/or drug-related charges; thus, the war on drugs has, in many respects, become a war on women. If the women are pregnant, the punishments are even harsher.

Another marker of incarcerated women who come from privilege is they decorate and maintain their nails; theirs is a highly feminized look that can also include makeup. The sad condition of an inmate without economic means leaves her breasts dangling, bare nails filled with crud from intensive work duties, and feet covered with men’s work boots; the boots support female inmates who stand for hours on end in laborious activities.

The connection between rising incarceration rates and the increase in labor programs run by private corporations is hard to ignore, and has particular consequences for women. Prison labor offers an enormous economic benefit to the PIC. Two influential and successful corporations are CCA and UNICOR (part of Federal Prison Industries). Activists assert that the government and corporations lead to human rights abuses of incarcerated persons and many even describe prison labor as modern-day slavery. Private prisons are strictly commercial enterprises, with a significant part of their profits made from the labor of inmates. Prisoners work in deplorable conditions and perform duties that on the outside would be deemed dangerous and unfit. Also, in most cases, incarcerated persons have no advocate to address workplace safety and hazard issues.

Female inmates who are not able to work in the education, business office, or hospital area are assigned heavier labor. At the FPC in Phoenix, inmates are trained and work as welders, or in automotive, masonry, and other jobs that in the outside world are held mainly by men. These jobs may benefit female inmates; upon release to the community, women trained in such fields can earn higher wages especially if they obtain proper certification and further education. However, most of the women residents at the FPC are relegated to the prison’s Unicor recycling facility.

Inmates at prison sites are exposed to numerous hazards, including toxic chemicals. The largest use of chemicals in prisons is “e-waste,” a profitable endeavor through which inmates recycle electronics. Through such work, both inmates and prison staff are exposed to toxic metals as well as affected by other health and safety issues. Sociologist David Pellow provides a detailed account of prison workers who worked in an e-waste recycling facility dismantling computers for Dell Corporation. In a federal prison in Atwater, California, for example, inmates used hammers to smash computer monitors.  Prisoners complained there was no ventilation in the facility and they inhaled black particles from the air, leaving them with throat and nose problems. Women tend to suffer numerous health risks in prison, while at the same time receiving substandard care.

At a graduation function I attended, the female inmates who successfully completed the drug-counseling program at FPC spoke in front of an assembly of prison staff and inmates. I noticed that almost all the female inmates at the graduation ceremony consisted of Anglo women. From my personal discussions with them, I knew that most had previous secondary academic education before being incarcerated and/or also were of a higher social class than many of the inmates of color. All the women who gave speeches at the graduation were young, white, and attractive. While graduation was taking place, other women inmates were involved in work details such as landscaping, laundry, and cleaning of the campgrounds.

Who benefits from the labor of inmates? The prisoners do not receive much money from performing their duties nor do they receive a portion of profits from products sold. Most inmates earn less than $2.00 per day, and money is placed in an account so they may obtain personal items or extra food from vending machines. Their earnings are not sufficient to support children left behind in the community while prison time is being served. These dynamics are deeply gendered and may profoundly affect families. In 2006, for example, 77% of women in the nation’s jails and prisons were single mothers. Some 90% of women in California’s jails were, in 2008, single mothers.

Many of the women inmates who work in the Phoenix Unicor recycling factory have difficulty securing access to educational programs offered. Prison policy states that education hours are from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and if inmates are receiving education services, then they are excused from work duties. However, I found this to be inaccurate. Women inmates of FPC who work in the factory have a high absenteeism rate from educational programs compared to inmates who work in other areas of the prison.

The emergent field of carceral studies focuses critical attention on imprisonment, surveillance, social control, inequality and criminality, with connections to critical race and ethnicity studies. However, whereas activists have frequently drawn attention to links between gender and imprisonment, academics have been somewhat slow to follow. While some scholars—such as Angela Davis, Beth Richie, Dorothy Roberts, Rachel Roth and Azrini Wahidin—have produced important research, other fields have yet to incorporate insights from carceral studies. For example, despite the extraordinary interest in bodies and embodiment, few scholars have addressed the body’s institutional confinement in prisons. Scholars of human reproduction have explored issues such as the criminality of abortion, yet few have addressed what happens when pregnant women and/or mothers are imprisoned. Sociologists from various specialties look at inequality, race, gender and institutions, yet their work on prisons and incarceration often falls under the category of deviance, which renders from the start a less critical edge.

In the 21st century, women are arrested and prosecuted for new offenses such as school fraud (as in the case of Kelly Williams-Bolar), “trafficking” drugs to unborn fetuses and “smuggling” drugs across the United States/Mexico border, as well as the old standby crimes, prostitution and loitering. Men, especially young men of color, continue to be incarcerated at very high rates. And so American’s jail cells continue to fill and to spill over, even while pockets are lined. To address the racialized and gendered problem of America’s prisons, we need not only activism but also scholarship attentive to the social dynamics of imprisonment. This means not just carceral studies and critical race and ethnicity studies, but also feminist studies in all its forms.

As W.E.B. DuBois famously stated in 1909, “The cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.”


Guest contributor LaToyyia Knight-Gonzales, graduate student in the M.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies Program at Arizona State University, New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.  La Toyyia earned her bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University, Interdisciplinary Studies program.  During her undergrad studies she began an internship with sociologist and professor Dr. M.A. Bortner, director of the College Program, a prison-based education program that assists women inmates housed at the Federal Prison Camp in Phoenix, Arizona in obtaining their A.A. degree from Rio Salado College.  La Toyyia mentors the students enrolled in community college courses and communication seminars to help prepare them for release and to reduce criminal recidivism. Due to her positive and rewarding experience working with incarcerated women, after graduation from Arizona State University, she will continue working with incarcerated women.  Her ultimate goal is to develop a foundation that provides ex-inmates with educational scholarships to assists them toward obtaining advanced degrees in secondary education.  La Toyyia will complete her degree in May 2011.  Italicizedsections of this article are taken directly from her journals.