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SAY HER NAME, Part II: Women, Violence, and Incarceration

(Part I is here)
“The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is my own government.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967

“I am convicted of murdering my ex-husband who abused me for years. I have done 33 years of my 25-to-life sentence. I am 68 years old, and disabled.  I was just denied at my fifth parole board hearing. My hearing was horrendous, focusing almost entirely on the instant offense. [A parole board member] told me that I was not abused. Actually, the hearing relitigated my case.” – K.E., Taconic Correctional Facility, 2015

The pervasive presence of violence against women and gender-based violence is a threat to women’s and all people’s wellbeing, a leading indicator of the ill health of our society, and a marker of dangerous times in the U.S. and the world.

We cannot understand violence against women without understanding the role of violence in our society as a whole.

Mass incarceration is a system of violence – the deprivation by force not only of freedom, but of much that makes life worth living, imposed by those more powerful on those less powerful. The beatings, humiliations, and various forms of torture that anyone who has spent time behind bars can describe are not incidental but fundamental to this exercise of power. The justification that this system is necessary to enforce social safety and security is transparently false to any of us who have seen its ugly underbelly – arbitrary, unaccountable, senselessly cruel, and completely ineffective at doing what it says it is set up to do. It is part and parcel of an overall social system which needs violence to maintain gross inequalities of wealth, power, and life chances. White supremacy, capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy are its root. War, destruction of the environment, police brutality, and incarceration are its manifestations.

Violence is a trickle-down social phenomenon: it starts at the top, with global warfare, racism, and mass incarceration, and ends up at the bottom, with neighborhood violence and the abuse of women, children, and other vulnerable people. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his 2015 book, Between the World and Me,  describes how, in the Black neighborhood of Northwest Baltimore where he grew up, violence is the product of fear, structural neglect, and deprivation, the “correct and  intended result of government policy.”

Every stage of the criminal justice process involves violence, from stop and frisk to post-prison discrimination – whether the violence is physical, verbal, economic, or legal.  All this official violence trickles down into over-incarcerated communities, prison guards, communities dependent on prisons for economic livelihood, and society at large.  So our starting point for gender-based violence is the violence of the system – but it is not our ending point.

Violence is a trickle-down social phenomenon: it starts at the top, with global warfare, racism, and mass incarceration, and ends up at the bottom, with neighborhood violence and the abuse of women, children, and other vulnerable people.


For women, and for transgender and other people whose sexuality lies outside society’s norms, violence comes in multiple forms. Racism, as an essential form of violence in the U.S., subjects women of color to both the same and different forms of violence as those experienced by men of color. Police brutality may come in the form of shooting or beating, and it may come in the form of sexual assault. Incarceration, disproportionate by race, subjects women to the same humiliations and deprivations as men, and also to such sex-specific ones as shackling during pregnancy, gynecological interventions that reproduce sexual trauma, and sexual abuse by people in positions of power. Economic violence – social policies that cause poverty, lack of health care, poor education, neighborhood deterioration, urban neglect, gentrification, environmental destruction, joblessness, homelessness – hits women especially hard because of their caregiving responsibilities. Transgender people are targets of additional forms of violence and abuse, both in and out of prison.

And derived from the structural violence but experienced very differently, is the personal physical and sexual violence women, trans people, and other sexually non-conforming people  experience at the hands of individuals, usually men, who are not in official positions of power. More often than not, these men are family members, partners, community members, acquaintances, or dates, rather than strangers.

The overwhelming majority of women in prison are survivors of domestic abuse or sexual assault; the majority of women in prison for killing someone killed their abuser. One in three women are the victims of intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. One in five women are survivors of rape or attempted rape. Statistics say that fewer than half of incidents of domestic violence and rape are reported to law enforcement – but the reporting is almost certainly even less than that.  Poor women are four times more likely to experience violence than wealthier women. The parade of numbers is endless. In real life it means that virtually all women live with trauma or fear or restricted activity informed by trauma and fear for much of their lives, especially those most disempowered by race, poverty, non-normative sexuality or other disadvantaged statuses. It is a hidden and saddening truth that men, too, are often subjected to sexual violence, especially as children and especially as a precursor to and during incarceration. Violence is the air we breathe.

How do we achieve safety for women without calling in the criminal justice system and thus increasing the power and reach of mass incarceration?


In both the anti-incarceration movement and the movement against violence against women, we are confronted with a dilemma. Women and other people who are targets of violence have a right and an urgent need to be safe. Incarceration is brutal and racist. How do we achieve safety for women without calling in the criminal justice system and thus increasing the power and reach of mass incarceration? A person in danger may have no choice but to rely on the criminal justice system. When called, the system may do more harm than good, failing to protect the person who is in danger and prosecuting them for protecting themselves.  In many cases the racist and oppressive nature of the criminal justice system means women and other targeted people find themselves with no recourse at all, ensuring that violence will continue.

These dilemmas can only be addressed by a movement that combines these concerns and is informed and led by the experiences of women, trans people, prisoners, communities of color, and all who are most impacted by both incarceration and violence.  As we build community in our work for justice, we also build the potential for solutions that take gender-based violence seriously and develop alternatives to incarceration for responding to it. The better we grasp the bigger picture, the more we see demands for a living wage, better health care, jobs, education, environmental justice, and other basic life needs as part of defeating both mass incarceration and gender-based violence. No one group or individual can do all these things but we can work toward coalitions, alliances, collaborations, and cooperative strategies that create, out of our scattered pieces, a larger whole fighting for the wellbeing of humans and the earth.

From NetWORKS, the monthly column of the New York State Prisoner Justice Network

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