Black Women & Girls, Gender-Based Violence, and Pathways to Criminalization & Incarceration
Marissa Alexander. Erica Sheppard. Bresha Meadows. Tondalao Hall. Kerry King. Tracy McCarter. The list of Black women and girls who have been victimized by gender-based violence and then criminalized is far too long.
Gender-based violence—including domestic violence—impacts an astonishing number of Black women.
More than 2 in 5 Black women have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
Approximately 1 in 5 Black women have experienced rape at some point in their lives.
Black women are 2 times more likely to be fatally shot by an intimate partner than white women.
Black women between 18 and 34 are 3 times more likely to be shot and killed by an intimate partner than are white women in the same age group.
Gender-based violence creates pathways to criminalization and incarceration for Black women and girls
When Black women and girls experience gender-based violence, the strategies we take to survive are often criminalized. As Mariame Kaba writes:
While self-defense laws are interpreted generously when applied to white men who feel threatened by men of color, they are applied very narrowly to women and gender non-conforming people, and particularly women and gender non-conforming people of color trying to protect themselves in domestic violence and sexual assault cases. Black women have been excluded from definitions of “respectable” and/or “proper” womanhood, sexuality and beauty, influencing how their right to bodily autonomy – and agency – is viewed.
We have seen again and again how the criminalization of survival creates an abuse-to-incarceration pipeline that overwhelmingly targets Black women and girls.
Black women are criminalized and incarcerated for “failing to protect” their children from their abuser. For example, when Kerry King found her boyfriend hurting her daughter, Kerry tried to intervene. Her boyfriend hurt her, too, and prevented both Kerry and her daughter from leaving. When the police finally arrived, both Kerry and her boyfriend were arrested. Her boyfriend was convicted of child abuse and sentenced to 18 years in prison with 7 years of probation. Kerry was convicted of failing to stop his abuse and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Black girls are criminalized for their responses to abuse or trauma, including running away, substance use, and truancy. Bresha Meadow’s father physically and verbally abused Bresha and threatened to kill her and her family for years. When she was 14 years old, Bresha killed her father. She was incarcerated and served time at a juvenile detention center and mental health facility before finally being released at 16 years old.
Black women are criminalized & incarcerated for defending themselves against their abusers. Like many incarcerated Black women, Erica Sheppard is a survivor of child abuse, intimate partner violence, and sexual assault. And like so many incarcerated Black women, her calls for help were ignored, and the systems that were created to keep her safe failed her. One month before the crime for which she was sentenced to death, she called the police for help after her partner repeatedly beat her, held a gun to her face, and threatened to kill her. The police did nothing. Then, she was coerced into participating in a robbery by a man who killed a woman in the process. Despite experiencing a lifetime of trauma and harm, the prosecutor argued that Erica deserved the death penalty. The jury that sentenced Erica to death was never informed of the past traumas she endured. She has now been on death row in Texas for 27 years.
Among women in prison, 70-80% have experienced violence from intimate partners, and among girls involved in the legal system, 84% have survived some form of family violence or abuse prior to confinement.
Considering the overrepresentation of Black women and girls in jails, prisons, and detention centers—and the underreporting of abuse and sexual violence—the impact of gender-based violence on Black women and girls who are incarcerated is significant.
Incarceration revictimizes survivors
Experiences of abuse do not end with incarceration. Women’s loss of bodily autonomy while in prison—from strip searches to being under constant surveillance—echoes their experiences of harm in their homes and communities. Black women and girls are also subjected to gender-based violence while incarcerated.
2.3% of women in prison reported staff sexual misconduct.
6.9% of women in prison reported sexual victimization by other women.
6.9% of girls in the juvenile legal system were sexually victimized by either another youth or staff member in the facility.
And it doesn’t end once women are released. Women who have been incarcerated are significantly more likely to report experiencing victimization across their lifespan, in comparison to women without incarceration histories.
Ending the criminalization of survival
This must not continue. We must decriminalize survival by addressing policies and practices that punish instead of protect survivors. Two organizations are focusing on just that:
Survived & Punished is a prison abolition organization. They believe that prisons, detention centers, all forms of law enforcement, and punitive prosecution are rooted in systems of violence, including racial, anti-trans/queer, sexual, and domestic violence. Their work specifically focuses on criminalized survivors to raise awareness about the integrated relationship between systems of punishment and the pervasiveness of gender violence. They aim to initiate mass defense projects that will free all survivors, which would require the abolition of prisons and other systems of punishment.
The Survivors Justice Project fights for decarceration through the New York Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act. The DVSJA takes a broad view of domestic violence as more than just intimate partner abuse and allows relief for survivors convicted of a range of offenses, including felonies categorized as violent. It allows judges to sentence survivors to shorter prison terms and, in some cases, community-based alternative-to-incarceration programs, and provides survivors currently in prison the opportunity to apply for resentencing. Passage of this pioneering legislation was led by criminalized survivors.
We must continue building on this work. Together, we must work toward dismantling the racist and patriarchal U.S. criminal-legal system and building, in its place, pathways to opportunity and healing for Black women and girls and all survivors of violence.