America’s Shame: It’s Time to Shatter the Silence About the Trauma-to-Prison Pipeline for Black Women and Girls

Last October, I participated in a press conference in D.C. concerning an Equal Rights Center (ERC) report about racial discrimination in housing for women with criminal records. Black women in D.C. with criminal records have a harder time than their white counterparts in obtaining safe, quality and affordable housing. One of the takeaways from the report is that criminal background checks are replacing racial discrimination in fair housing.

After the report was released, I noticed something: Nobody was talking about it.

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This report and press conference received very little coverage from the media. One of the most important aspects of the ERC report is that women with a criminal history often have survived trauma—domestic violence, childhood physical abuse, sexual violence. I call this the “Trauma-to-Prison Pipeline.”

One would think that such a groundbreaking report, with an excellent methodology, would definitely get some play in the Washington Post—as this is in their backyard. Yet they were a no-show at the press conference on the report released by Covington & Burling LLC and Washington Lawyers Committee on D.C. women in prison.Whenever there is an opportunity to sensationalize a story concerning a “criminal act” a Black woman is accused of committing, writers are all over the story, making sure it gets plenty of face time. However, few reporters have written about what Black women experience prior to incarceration or the racism they endure in the criminal justice system. I have yet to see one “redemption story” in the Washington Post, New York Times, or any other major media outlet about a Black woman who was incarcerated and returned home and changed her life—and there are plenty of these stories. I am one such woman.

There is a clear gender bias in the criminal justice reform movement. While everyone is speaking about the collateral consequences of mass incarceration of Black men, there is a complicity of silence amongst major media outlets and politicians concerning justice-involved women of color.

Hiding the truth about Black women who are justice-involved is maddening because silence offers no hope of changing the situation and the horrors we women of color survive before, during and post incarceration. The Vera Institute for Justice did an excellent report on women in jails in America—it’s a one of a kind report, much like the ERC’s report. However, the difference in media coverage is clear. Why? I believe it is because the ERC report dealt with live subjects to conduct their research. The women who participated had tangible stories and the data is factual not anecdotal, or self-reported. This is difficult to dismiss.

Thus the truth: America has always turned its back on poor Black women and, when coupled with a criminal history, what we have is Black women being marginalized in their marginalization—locked up for surviving.

Just as importantly, out of the media coverage that the ERC report did receive, only one newspaper interviewed someone other than the writers of the report—that was the Hoya News, which is the newspaper for Georgetown University. To date, none of the testers have been interviewed. In the recently released, much acclaimed documentary The 13th very little data or even lived experiences of Black women who are or were incarcerated are mentioned.

I think about Alicia Keys and her movement with Van Jones, #Cut50. When Keys speaks about incarceration and the collateral consequences for women, she is referring to Black women who have fathers, brothers, husbands, sons and/or boyfriends in jail or prison—not Black women who are incarcerated or justice-involved. Even Oprah Winfrey finds space and time to promote books by Black men who have been incarcerated. John Legend released a song about ending mass incarceration and redemption and the unjust over-representation of African Americans in the prison system—framed as the story of a Black man.

Can you hear that? That’s the sound of the silencing of Black justice-involved women and girls traveling the journey on the trauma-to-prison pipeline. A silence so deafening I wake in the middle of the night clutching my heart—because it is in my soul, my heart and mind. I will not forget. I will not be silenced ever again.

Black women are two times as likely to be incarcerated as white women. Two-thirds of Black women who are justice-involved are mothers of school-aged children and were the primary caregiver prior to incarceration. Our needs are different than those of our Black brothers.

In 2015, the White House held an event on “interrupting the sexual abuse to prison pipeline.” The only reason I was invited—not as a panelist or expert but as a member of the audience—was because I had given a talk on Building a Trauma Informed Nation with the Federal Partners a month prior and used the phrase “Trauma-to-Prison Pipeline.” This event at the White House was invitation only and received no publicity. Furthermore, they did not have any justice-involved girls or women on the panel, but “experts.” How could anyone hold such an event and not have justice-involved Black women and girls as participants?  If you do not have the stories, you cannot conduct the study for data to develop programs to interrupt the trauma-to-prison pipeline and thus create systemic and sustainable change.

Since women are one of the fastest-growing populations in the jails and prisons in America, one would think that in the last year or more, with bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, at least one woman who has been incarcerated would have had center stage on the issues. The fact that Black women are twice as likely as White women to be incarcerated means our country is filling up our jails and prisons with Black women survivors of trauma.

To date, not one high-profile politician has visited a women’s jail or prison. Women, especially poor Black women, carry the brunt of America’s racism. When we end up on the journey of the Trauma-to-Prison Pipeline we are cloaked in shame. This shame is reinforced by our society when our truths go ignored and our stories untold.

I have decided that in order to heal, I must share my story and shed the shame. This is America’s shame and I will not be complicit. I will not continue to be a statistic on the wrong side. This is why while incarcerated I created the Who Speaks for Me? Project. I have a story to tell, as do many other women like me.

The national media must do its part and spread the truth about justice-involved Black women and girls as widely as they do about Black men in this corrupt judicial system. Make our stories—the stories of us Black women and girls who are justice-involved, and the fact that 90 percent of us have survived some type of major traumatic experience in our childhood and/or adult life prior to incarceration—headline news. This trauma is exacerbated by incarceration and left untreated.

Just as importantly, politicians need to stop having closed door and invitation only meetings, and publicly discuss what the data and stories tell us about the Trauma-to-Prison Pipeline for Black women and girls. Society has to stop making us a footnote in this politically corrupt judicial system, as do those who are a part of the criminal justice reform movement. Only then can we really begin to build a just, equal and radically inclusive society.

Taylar Nuevelle is the Founder of Who Speaks for Me?, an organization she designed while incarcerated to raise awareness about the intersection of trauma and women’s incarceration. She is credited for creating the concept of the “Trauma-to-Prison Pipeline.” Taylar is a mother, advocate for justice-involved women and girls, writer, public speaker and spoken word artist. She teaches the Who Speaks for Me? reading and writing group, “Sharing Our Stories to Reclaim Our Lives,” at the D.C. Jail’s Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF) and has begun to conduct trainings for practitioner’s who work with justice-involved women and girls. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Talk Poverty, The Nation, the Vera Institute for Justice Blog and THE DECOLINIZER. 

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