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Michelle S. Jacobs

excerpted from:  Michelle S. Jacobs , Piercing The Prison Uniform of Invisibility For Black Female Inmates; Book Review: Paula C. Johnson, Inner Lives: Voices of African American Women in Prison (New York and London: New York University Press, 2003). 339 pp., 94 Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 795-821, 808-811 (Spring 2004) (149 footnotes omitted)

A woman's struggle to protect herself from violence in the home is difficult under any circumstance; however, African American women have an added dimension to their struggle. In addition to the gendered nature of violence, they must also contemplate the effect that reporting violence may have on the black community in which they live. Frequently, black women are asked to subordinate their own needs as women to the needs of the community. Cooperating with authorities against black men can "result in community abandonment or scorn because of the perception that black men are selectively penalized."

The reality confronting black women requires a multidimensional approach to evaluating the lawbreaking of black men and a woman's response to such activities. Black women know the experience of living in an oppressed community. They know their communities are both underserved by the police and at the same time are subject to "hyper-aggressive policing [,]" resulting in large scale arrest and incarceration of black men and other men of color. Black women feel the effects of racism on their community and the economic consequences of racism, not only for themselves, but for their men as well. Many black women, even those experiencing violence at the hands of black men, will try to avoid subjecting black men to the possibility of law enforcement oversight or control. Black women "may connect the physical abuse with racism." In her research on battered black women, Beth Richie coined the phrase "gender entrapment" to explain black battered women's interplay of loyalty and racial identity. Richie posits that gender entrapment helps keep black women locked into relationships where violence occurs. The loyalty trap affects the ability of black women to seek protection and effective counseling. For example, African American women do not feel comfortable discussing their problems in an integrated setting. The fear is that the disclosure may hurt the community. Therefore the prohibition against airing dirty laundry becomes more important than healing.

This complex play of loyalties surfaced in the narratives of the women in Inner Lives. Their narratives poignantly depict the struggle the women face between choosing what is best for themselves and choosing what is best for their black community, or more specifically what is best for their men. Their positions, both as women and as black people in subordinated communities, "colored" their decision making at every moment. This is reflected in the narrative of Marilyn who refused to testify against her co-defendant, a boyfriend who brutalized her. Her failure to plead and testify against him earned her a sentence of twenty-two years to life. Judge Juanita Bing Newton, whose narrative appears in the third section of Inner Lives, also mentions the phenomenon of loyalty in connection with the case of Angela Thompson. Thompson, a young black woman, played a small role in a drug ring run by her uncle. She was arrested and faced a possible sentence of fifteen years to life under New York's Rockefeller drug laws. Judge Newton later learned that Thompson had refused a plea which would have exposed her to only three years in prison because she believed if she accepted the plea she would be required to testify against her uncle, who raised her after her parent's death.

What do black women receive in return for race loyalty? Does the level of violence against them drop? Are they valued and respected more in the community? It does not appear that they are. Black women who have been incarcerated have a difficult time re-entering their own community. Wives, girlfriends and mothers make efforts to see incarcerated men, and the men are welcomed back to the community upon release. The same cannot be said of black women who serve time. They do not receive the same number of visitors as black men. Karen Michele Blakney, for example, received no visits from her family while she served time in a federal prison. They simply could not afford to travel to where she was incarcerated.

In contrast, when a black man who has children is arrested, the children's mother, his mother or grandmother may assist in raising the children. When a woman goes to jail, who maintains her family? Very rarely is it the father of the children. If she has immediate relatives who are able, they may take her children; otherwise they are placed into the foster care system. If her incarceration is extended, she may lose her children. She may not even know where her children are. In the narratives of many of the women, they expressed concern about the wellbeing of their children and they worried about how to keep their families intact. Joyce Ann Brown, Ida McCray, and Donna Hubbard Spearman have all started organizations since their releases to address the conditions women are facing in prison. In particular, Joyce Ann Brown and Ida McCray seek to help women maintain ties with their children by arranging visits between child and mother, and by providing counseling for the children. Sandra Barnhill's organization (AIM) does the same. They also provide support services to the caregivers who step in for the mother while she is incarcerated, who are frequently stressed and subject to the same living conditions that the incarcerated woman faced.

Once black women are released from prison, they do not receive the same reception from the community that black men do. In the words of Donna Hubbard Spearman:

[M]en are almost made martyrs and heroes when they come out of prison and go back into the community. But when we go back into our communities, we are not only unfit people, now we're unfit mothers, and it's hard to trust us. . . . The communities want women who come back from prison to become gray shadows and to disappear, because if you are there, then we have to address you. Through her work, Rhodessa Jones of the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women helps the women learn who they are, to think through the unresolved issues in their lives, and to gain discipline through performance. She helps the women find their voices and gives them an outlet to express the emotions which may be trapped inside.

Despite the adversities which they have all experienced, the black women of Inner Lives refused to remain silent. These women will not be gray shadows. In telling their powerful stories they demonstrate that they are a force to be reckoned with both while incarcerated and upon release.


[a1]. Professor of Law, Frederic G. Levin College of Law at the University of Florida.