Author Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich

WASHINGTON, D.C.–When my late mother, Geneva B. Scruggs, joined her much younger friend, Constance B. Eve, in 1980 to form a volunteer group called Women for Human Rights and Dignity, their selfless goal was to help black women inmates maintain a sense of dignity and family while they did their prison time. The group bought or collected and distributed Christmas toys to the children of 156 mothers incarcerated in prisons and jails in and around Buffalo, N.Y.

Those volunteers called their holiday effort Project Joy because the brightly wrapped Christmas toys and modest personal grooming gifts given to the mothers permitted inmate mothers to save face with their children and maintain their own dignity.

My mother and Connie Eve financed this effort mostly from contributions, which often arrived anonymously at their homes in plain hand-addressed white envelopes, in single dollars. These tiny donations were made out of deep concern for a disturbing growth trend in the female prison population that was just beginning to be noticed.

My mother would be outraged by the deterioration of conditions and the increasing number of black women behind bars since then.

Since Women for Human Rights and Dignity started in 1980, the national women’s prison population has grown exponentially, increasing by over 500 percent by 1999. The number of female inmates in federal and state correctional facilities increased from about 13,400 in 1980 to more than 84,400 in 1998, according to a 1999 General Accounting Office Report to Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-Washington, D.C.). Other sources report that the number of female state prisoners convicted of drug-related offenses has increased by 888 percent–almost nine times–from 1986 to 1996.

Draconian criminal justice policies largely are responsible for this accelerated and intensified growth.

For example, mandatory sentencing forces judges to issue harsh sentences, particularly in drug-related cases, without regard for otherwise mitigating circumstances, such as first offenses or single motherhood. In 1997, 66 percent of women prisoners had at least one minor child. This policy has been especially harmful to African American and Latina women, who constitute 67 percent of federal and 64 percent of state inmate populations. These women inmates tend to be single parents, either unemployed or with inadequate, low-paying jobs and, given the destructive “Welfare Reform,” face a lifetime ban in 24 states from ever receiving welfare because of their felony convictions.

Inequitable sentences for black, white defendants in cocaine cases

Sentencing disparities are an equally inequitable derivative of mandatory sentencing which requires increased sentences for crack cocaine violations, while offering flexible alternatives in cases arising from powder cocaine arrests. Powder cocaine is used by predominantly white middle-class or suburban defendants.

More than 71 percent of women in federal prison and 35 percent of female state inmates have been convicted of drug offenses, usually involving crack cocaine, which carries mandatory sentences as long as 25 years for first time offenders. Moreover, large numbers of women of color convicted of crack offenses have been charged because of relationships with boyfriends, husbands or other significant males who themselves are statistically more vulnerable to police apprehension and racial profiling.

Two cases exemplify the numerous other instances of young African American women doing hard time for minor drug involvement.

Kimba Smith, a first time offender in Virginia, was unable to bargain with prosecutors because she could offer no information about the drug dealer with whom she was romantically involved. She was sentenced to federal prison for 24 years without possibility of parole–one year for each of her 24 years of age.

Dorothy Gaines, a mother of two minor children and guardian of two grandchildren, is serving a 19-year, seven-month federal sentence without possibility of parole. Many believe she was convicted not because of the scant evidence but because she had no information to offer against her live-in male companion.

The Prison Industrial Complex, driven by the momentum of privatized prison construction as an effective rural economic development tool, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It encourages more convictions, larger prison populations and longer prison sentences, even though these prisons increasingly have become warehouses for the mothers of black and brown children. In 1995, over $5.1 billion was allocated for new prison construction by federal and state governments, at an average cost of $58,000 for a medium security cell. Additional incarceration costs for each inmate exceed $30,000 annually, an attractive but diabolical income stream for the prison industry.

African American and Latina women shoulder another oppressive weight of the criminal justice system. When fathers, sons, brothers and other potential family providers are locked in the jailhouse, the women and children in their lives are locked in the poorhouse.

Bias in law enforcement, prisons places unfair burdens on women outside

The Bureau of Justice Statistics and The Sentencing Project report that late last year 32 percent of the 6 million Americans moving within prison, probation or parole–the “3 Ps” of the criminal justice system–were African American males between 20 and 29. This is the prime age for wedding, initiating fatherhood and building family economic stability. Instead, the women in these men’s lives are serving as single parents and grandparents, raising bail money, carrying alone the burden of family expenses, defending children and grandchildren against assorted predators, and generally, reluctantly, reinforcing the pejorative stereotype of black-woman-as-head-of-household.

This profound impact on women of unfair, racially biased law enforcement and criminal justice practices is misunderstood by many, often including male leaders in communities of color. In one example of many, an admirable national press conference was called in 1999 to deplore the targeted destructive effect on communities of color, of biased, unfair and inequitable treatment of African American and Hispanic men by police and by criminal justice system policies and practices. Not one African American or Hispanic woman leader was a presenter. The total group consisted of 32 black, Hispanic, white, ministerial and rabbinical men who spoke to a national television and print audience.

Too many black women are being locked in the jailhouse and/or locked in the poorhouse, but they also are locked out of a substantive search for viable remedies. No amount of volunteer effort alone can fix that–not even as effective an effort as the 1980 Scruggs-Eve Women for Human Rights and Dignity initiative that Constance Eve has expanded and successfully continues today.

Dr. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, a policy analyst and urban planner, is executive director and chief operating officer of the national Black Leadership Forum, Inc.

Other Women’s eNews commentaries by Scruggs-Leftwich:

Aug 24, 2000 Candidates: Don’t Underestimate Black Women