By placing mass female incarceration in the context of American slavery my entry reveals how our criminal justice system has always disproportionately targeted Black, Indigenous, Women of Color, more so than men, in order to use them as a source of cheap labor. By choosing to partner with Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Community College that enabled me to interview Native female college students who’ve been affected by the iniquities in our criminal justice system I’ve demonstrated the hundreds of thousands of women who are being disappeared from mainstream society every year as a result of disenfranchisement and legalized discrimination.
This project that involved my collaboration with the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Community College in Wisconsin where I interviewed formerly incarcerated Native female college students to learn more about their experiences inside of the American criminal justice system resulted in me being shortlisted for the Financial Times/Bracken Bower Prize 2020 where I examined the historic misogyny aimed at female offenders. I was also awarded the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize 2020 that recognises one woman who through her writing has raised awareness of state violence against women.
Reception to this piece on Medium was particularly positive and resulted in me being recognised as a top writer in racism. A shorter version of this piece has been accepted for publication in the printed edition of the Harvard Women’s Policy Journal to be published in April 2021.
My entry uses oral testimony, recent research and statistics to provide a personal and nuanced portrayal of the ongoing female incarceration crisis, situating women’s mass incarceration in the context of American slavery. My entry enables the reader to gain a strong understanding on what is quite a complex subject as it starts in the modern day before moving back to the nineteenth century that coincided with the beginnings of the modern American penal system, before returning to the present. My entry explains what drives female reoffending, why the criminal justice system disproportionately targets women of color and the implications this has for the United States. When interviewing the women I use the Zoom software and encrypted recorded interviews in order to protect their identities.
What was the hardest part of this project?
As a former prisoner myself I would say the hardest part of this project was first gaining the trust of Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Community College and the women I later went on to interview in 2020. So often when women in prison are asked to tell their stories they’re rarely presented as individuals and in the past I’ve encountered resistance whenever I’ve tried to explain to others that women in prison rarely fit the stereotypes society has of them. Any woman who has left prison and made a success of herself is routinely presented as the exception. The difficult part of the project was humanising these women and also explaining what is it about our criminal justice system that means women are more likely than men to fare poorly.
What can others learn from this project?
The key learning points other journalists can take away from this project is making it a point to interview individuals who are directly affected by the story. I was motivated to write Excluded because so often when a journalist writes about female offenders the reader hears from everyone in the criminal justice system, from the Guard to the Healthcare Professional, everyone that is apart from the person serving the actual prison sentence. If I hadn’t made it a point to speak to women who had been directly affected by the racial inequalities present inside our criminal justice system I, like a lot of people would take it for granted that the reason why women are more likely than men to return to prison is that they’re lazy or incapable of reform. The only way to challenge established narratives is by interviewing those whose voices are so often marginalised. If we’ve learned anything from 2020 it’s that tolerance and understanding is only possible when everyone, regardless of their background, is afforded the opportunity to speak.