Society stereotypes Black women as angry, aggressive and masculine, and as a result, according to a recent report, their cases often become more punitive than supportive.
A report from a roundtable discussion released by the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) said many Black women and girls are experiencing a sexual abuse-to-prison cycle. The school-to-prison pipeline is often identified in relation to men and boys, the report said, but the same cycle should be recognized in the case of women and girls.
Regardless of their circumstances, Black women are likely to be seen as the perpetrator and aggressor. These biases can lead to the opinion that they cannot be battered nor be survivors of violence because they are violent and can protect themselves.
“Girls who are in physical confrontations with a parent or guardian or other adult residing in the home are often responding to a failure to be protected from physical, sexual, or emotional harm,” said Professor Francine Sherman, participant of the Roundtable.
Former President Barack Obama took note of the discrepancy in remarks he made to the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Awards Dinner that took place the night before the Roundtable.
“The incarceration rate for Black women is twice as high as the rate for White women,” he said. “Many women in prison, you come to discover, have been victims of homelessness and domestic violence, and in some cases human trafficking.
“They’ve got high rates of mental illness and substance abuse. And many have been sexually assaulted, both before they got to prison and then after they go to prison. And we don’t often talk about how society treats Black women and girls before they end up in prison.”
Bea Hanson, principal deputy director of OVW, read Obama’s remarks to the Roundtable.
As much as 90 percent of women in prison reported extensive histories of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. The abuse began in childhood for many and was committed by a family member, or someone the family trusted, said the report.
When the girls run away from home to escape the abuse, they are often labeled status offenders (runaways). They are sent back home or end up in foster care or in the juvenile justice system.
“Many leave again, determined not to return, and end up trading sex for survival and self-medicating with alcohol or drugs,” said the report. “They often end up in unhealthy relationships with older men.”
Many of these survival tactics bring them into conflict with the law, both as juveniles and later as young adults, and may be labeled “prostitutes.”
According to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) data, “Black girls experience higher rates of victimization and overall exposure to ACE risk factors, including poverty, addiction in the home, child welfare involvement, and having an incarcerated parent,” said the report.
Black girls were referred to juvenile court at three times the rate of White girls, noted the report.
While incarcerated, women can be re-traumatized by routine pat-downs, body cavity searches, lack of privacy, and exposure to violence while incarcerated. This can trigger reactive behaviors, making women more vulnerable to abuse by correctional staff, and the women can wind up facing periods of solitary confinement. Black women have the highest rate of solitary confinement among incarcerated women, noted the report.
The report added, “The criminalization of Black women and girls has been going on for a long time, raising the question of whether it has been going on too long to be unintended.”
“When decision makers in the criminal justice system are unaware of or allowed to include their biases in their decisions about the fate of Black women or girl survivors … violence against Black women and girls is perpetuated,” continued the report.
The January 2017 report was a summary of a Roundtable discussion held in September 2015, “The Impact of Incarceration and Mandatory Minimums on Survivors: Exploring the Impact of Criminalizing Policies on African American Women and Girls.”
OVW and DOJ’s Civil Rights Division will be awarding grants for new national training, programs, assistance initiatives and further research.