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December 13, 2008 -- TruthOut (US)

Black Women Struggle in Criminal Justice System

By James Wright, The Afro-American Newspapers

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Washington, DC -- If one were to see Shawn Mallory or Jennifer Gaskins in public, they could easily be indistinguishable. Not because they are invisible, for they are attractive, self-assured women, but because their demeanors would not draw attention to themselves. Mallory, a light-skinned woman with a full-figured face, could be a co-worker, a singer in the church choir or a frequent customer at clubs such as Love's or The Chateau.

Gaskins could be your neighborhood association president, your child's teacher or the saleswoman at a department store.

These women are neither. Despite their non-threatening personas, it would be a shock to some to find that Mallory, 39 and Gaskins, 55, are veterans of the criminal justice system.

Mallory was sent to prison in the early 1990s for aiding and abetting a sale of crack cocaine to a minor and Gaskins was sentenced in 2001 to prison for attempted distribution of crack along with a violation of probation. Both women served time in the D.C. jail and the women's federal prison in Alderson, W.Va.

They are in various states of probation, where they must submit a urine sample for drug testing and report to an officer on a weekly basis for verification. Mallory and Gaskins have admitted that they have used illegal drugs and, in the former's case, resorted to prostitution as a means of making a living.

Adult women are the fastest growing group in regards to incarceration. The number of female prisoners rose at a faster rate (4.8 percent) than the number of male prisoners (2.7 percent), according to a study, "Prison and Jail Inmates" conducted by the Department of Justice, Bureau of Statistics (BJS) in 2006. In that report, the BJS said that there were 111,400 female prisoners in federal and state prisons.

The report noted that the percent increase in female prisoners was almost twice that of male prisoners.

Black women make up a larger share of their gender incarcerated than in any other group.

According to research conducted by Pew Public Safety Performance Project "One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008", 1 in every 279 Black women is incarcerated compared with 1 in every 1,064 white women and one in every 658 Latinos. For ages 35 to 39, 1 in every 100 black women are in jail or prison-the highest proportionally of any female group.

Mallory said that being in the criminal justice system was very traumatic.

"I helped some young boys sell drugs on the streets and that is how I got caught," she said. "I was sent to D.C. Jail and it was really, really tough there. I remember one time I was put in a cell with a bunch of dykes and they raped me.

"I'll never forget the time I was being transported to Superior Court for a hearing and a U.S. Marshal raped me behind the judge's chambers. The people who did those things to me were punished, but it still has an effect on me."

Mallory's experiences in the D.C. Jail are not uncommon. In a survey released by the BJS on Feb. 28, 2007, more than 50 percent of women in jail said they have been physically or sexually abused in the past, compared to more than 10 percent of the men.

This behavior can have dire consequences for women inmates. A BJS study, "HIV in Prisons" conducted in 2004, reported that 2.6 percent of all female state prison inmates were HIV positive, compared to 1.8 of males.

Mallory decided to use the system to her advantage. While in D.C. Jail, she got her GED and took classes in street law, women's law, and parenting and had sessions with a psychiatrist. She continued to educate herself while at Alderson because she saw it as a means of self-improvement.

Gaskins said that doing time was "hard" but was determined to be an exception to the rule.

"When I got out, I made sure that I had clean urine and if I had an appointment with my probation officer, I went to it," she said. "I had a goal to get back into society and be a good citizen."

Black women offenders face a number of hurdles when they want to leave a life of crime. Brenda Smith, professor at the American University Washington College of Law and a consultant with the National Women's Center Women in Prison project, said that Black women offenders face systemic challenges that their White counterparts don't deal with.

"Black women in prison generally have a lack of family and community support," Smith, who authored a pamphlet, "An End to Silence: A Prisoner's Handbook on Identifying and Addressing Sexual Misconduct", for women offenders, said. "There are issues of poverty because they are less able to afford mental health and substance abuse treatment to divert them from jail or prison. They then end up committing crimes to support a habit."

Nkechi Taifa, a senior policy associate at the Open Society Institute, said that crack cocaine laws have increased the number of Black women in prison-unfairly.

"Black women are caught in the net," Taifa said. "Black women disproportionately are caught up in the criminal justice system because of these bad crack cocaine laws. They are caught up with what I call the 'girlfriend problem'." Many of these women date or have relationships with these men and they get charged along with them to harsh sentences. Basically, they are the wrong person at the wrong time."

Both Mallory and Gaskins said that supporting men with criminal tendencies brings women into a life of crime. Smith said that women would like to break free from these men but don't find it so easy to do.

"The man may be the actor but the woman is prosecuted as well," Smith said. "Often women have little information to bargain for a better plea and end up serving long sentences. Also, women are afraid the men will hurt them, their children or their families if they 'snitch' on them."

Taifa and Smith said that women have additional problems if they have a family.

"When women are incarcerated, they have very little contact with the family and especially the children," Smith said. "They are often single parents and when they go to prison, they may lose custody of their children to family members who are angry with them and therefore may face a legal termination of parental rights."

Taifa said that when a woman gets through serving a prison term, she will have problems finding a job or getting basic social services because of her record. "It no secret that a woman, especially a Black woman, will have a harder time getting a job and established than a White woman," she said.

The main hurdle that women offenders face in and out of prison is psychological. Dr. Wilma Butler acknowledges that and has formed a group in D.C., WINCA (Women in Control Again) that focuses on female offenders and putting them on the right track.

"Women who are in the criminal justice system have to deal with issues of low self-esteem, anger and, in some cases, mental illness," Butler said. "We try to deal with it in a holistic way, trying to keep the body and the mind sound. If the body is out of sync, the mind also can be out of sync, too."

Smith said that many women offenders take on the role of victim.

"The history of sexual and physical victimization puts them at risk for criminal involvement and poor decision-making," she said.

In an April 1999 BJS report, "Prior Abuse Reported by Inmates and Probationers", nearly 6 in 10 women in state prisons had experienced physical or sexual abuse in the past. The report said that 69 percent of the affected group said an assault occurred before the age of 18.

In contrast, only 16 percent of the male inmates surveyed confirmed physical or sexual abuse before incarceration.

Mallory and Gaskins admitted candidly that they had been sexually abused by family members and lovers.

"You know it happens but you don't talk about it to anyone," she said. "It affects you because it took away your power as a woman, but you tell yourself that it is not a big thing. But it is."

Gaskins is close to finishing her probation because she is clean and met her responsibilities. Still, there are temptations.

"When I go to the store I see the crack addicts that I used to hang with," she said," and I admit that a side of me wants to go over there and do what they are doing. But I fight that because I want a better life.

"You don't know how I feel when I get home from the store after walking by them."

Mallory is in a living environment where she is verbally abused by her housemates for staying away from drugs.

"Oh, I get called all kinds of names and it is tempting but I have better goals for myself," she said. Mallory works with an organization, HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive), which helps prostitutes get off the street and provides them with counseling and social services. "After you get out of prison, it is not easy, but it can be done with the help of the Lord and determination."

The above mentioned BJS reports are available at:

New American Media Editor's Note: James Wright's profile of black women in and out of prison won best investigative/in-depth article in New America Media's D.C. Ethnic Media Awards.

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