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Do County Jails Treat Black Women Worse Than Other Prisoners?

by Kevin Bliss

Black women in pretrial detention were treated worse than any other group of detainees due to the inherently racist, sexist, and economically prejudiced practices in the criminal justice system, according to an Al Jazeera report published July 7, 2021.

The United States currently incarcerates over two million people, with an additional 4.4 million serving some form of supervision. That is both a number and a per-capita rate that is higher than anywhere else in the world. Mass incarceration has cost the federal and state governments a combined $182 billion each year according to a 2017 analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative. This is a very conservative undercount that only counts operating costs and does not include longer term expenses like capital construction costs, pension obligations, etc.

The Al Jazeera report—Treated Worse then Animals’: Black women in pretrial detention—points out that the number of women in U.S. jails and prisons has grown more rapidly than the number for any other demographic group, rising 700% between 1980 and 2019. This is roughly the same percentage of growth the male prisoner population has seen from 1970 to present. Determinate sentencing is likely one of the reasons the imprisonment of women has increased over this time period though still remaining far below the imprisonment rate of men. Yet men still remain the overwhelming majority of prisoners, both in terms of percentage of the prisoner population and in raw numbers. The highest rates of incarceration for women, the report adds, are for those who are Black or Hispanic.

Although the number of women incarcerated is increasing, the number of convictions has remained the same, at least for the 15 years. The report says that is largely due to the money bail system used by many courts, in which a pretrial detainee is assessed a money bail amount that must be paid to secure his or her freedom while awaiting trial.

Many analysts note the money bail system mainly works to punish the poor. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to end up in pre-trial detention than Whites because their bail is typically set at an amount that is twice as high as Whites receive, on average. The median income for people in jail in 2015 was $15,109, half what it was for people of similar ages who had never been incarcerated. And the numbers for women and non-Whites were below that.

“You can look at wealth and race and guess what is most likely going to happen to a person when they’ve been arrested and whether they will be detained pretrial,” said a Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) defense attorney, Tiffany Roberts.

Roshell Traylor spent nearly a year in Atlanta’s Union City Jail (UCJ) before an organization called Women on the Rise posted her bail. Women held there were treated like “animals,” according to Traylor, who called the conditions deplorable, the guards offensive and abusive, and the food unfit for human consumption. She said she had to resort to purchasing food from the canteen if she wanted to eat.

Her cell was infested with ants and cockroaches. Many mentally ill people filled the jail because of insufficient space in psychiatric hospitals. Moreover, hygiene products were next to impossible to come by.“People who experience menstrual cycles are forced to live in filth and discomfort simply because of something that happens to their bodies naturally,” Traylor said.

Conditions for prisoners suffering mental health issues were so bad that SCHR and the Georgia Advocacy Office filed suit against the jail in 2019. The suit claimed 32% of all women in jail suffered from some form of serious mental illness, more than twice the rate for men. It also said that many of the mentally ill were being housed in pods that were locked down 23 hours per day for months on end, noting that prolonged solitary confinement for these individuals could lead to worsening symptoms such as decompensation, psychosis, self-injury, or even suicide. See: Georgia Advocacy Office et al v. Labat, USDA, N.D. Ga, Case No. 1:19-cv-01634-WMR

A federal judge ruled against UCJ that same year and issued a preliminary injunction ordering improved treatment in the jail. He also called the conditions “deplorable,” specifically indicating that the women should be allowed four hours a day, five days a week of out-of-cell time. But SCHR communications director, Hannah Riley, stated that conditions did not improve, despite the ruling. Contempt motions had to be filed against the jail before 2019 was over. [See: PLN, March, 2020.]

Locking women up has been a destabilizing force for families. A report by national nonprofit agency Child Trends stated that 80% of the women in jails have children and are the primary caregivers for those children. It said while one out of every twelve children in America has had a parent incarcerated at some time during their lives, one out of every nine Black children has had a parent who was imprisoned. A second study done in 2016 showed that 56% of all pretrial detainees have children and 40% said incarceration would have or did have a detrimental effect on their families.

The stress of pretrial detention forces many defendants to plead out of their cases early simply to alter their circumstances. A Marshall Project study showed that 97% of all federal cases and 94% of all state cases plead out for lesser sentences. Most of those who make such deals are concerned with returning to their families and jobs as quickly as possible. Some said pretrial detention drove a person to want to plead guilty to charges they were innocent of. In addition, racial disparities existed even in plea bargaining, with poor African-Americans more likely to receive longer sentences, often because they have longer criminal histories and prior convictions.

“We constantly conflate the impulse to punish with an outcome of safety,” said Roberts. “This is what allows people who are in charge of these jails to do outrageous things with our money and on our watch.

“The way the criminal legal system treats Black women is reflective of how America has treated Black women—which has been defined by a process of dehumanization throughout our country’s history,” she adds. “It’s irrational and perpetuates enormous amounts of harm onto our communities. Throwing women into cages, separating them from their children, abusing them, and traumatizing them is not going to make anyone safer.”

Editor’s Note: Alas, this is also how poor people of all races and genders are treated by the American incarceration machine. Apparently, no one has informed Al Jazeera that all prisoners are treated pretty badly by jails around the country. Any type of exclusively race based analysis ignores the many places in America that are not very racially diverse and which mostly imprison white people in abysmal conditions. 


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