The Canary in the Coal Mine: Racism, Human Rights and Fighting for Incarcerated Pregnant Black Women

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 70 this month—and while I light the cake to celebrate, I am reminded of the need to commit the next 70 years fighting to make human rights real for every single incarcerated Black woman.

Black women are grossly over-represented in the carceral system, and they’re at risk for the kinds of brutality and human rights violations that rarely get highlighted when we talk about prison reform. (One exception being conversations led by other Black women—like Kimberle Crenshaw, whose organization, African American Policy Forum, launched the #SayHerName campaign to draw more attention to police violence against women.)

Borrowing from Lani Guinier’s theory that the crumbling status of Black America is a telltale sign of the dangers and threats that eventually befall all Americans, Black women here are the canary in the coal mine—and not just for all incarcerated women, but for women across the country. Incarcerated Black women have the highest maternal mortality rate among all women. They are more likely to be killed, raped and assaulted by police. Yet their experiences are rarely made a priority, except when more laws are being written in order to punish them.

In a world where poor working class Black women were valued and not dehumanized and brutalized, no pregnant person would be sent to prison who requires social services. Instead, that is the exact story of a large majority of women in prison and jail  right now. In a world where the human rights of poor, working-class Black women were fully embraced, we would see a real commitment to ending mass incarceration, especially for the majority of female inmates who committed non-violent crimes and but are punished disproportionately in the criminal justice system.

This isn’t to say that nobody is paying attention to or taking action around improving the conditions and experiences of incarcerated pregnant women. They are. The Dignity for Women Act is at the forefront—and would guarantee that the experiences of incarcerated women align with the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners. Advocacy to end the shackling of incarcerated women during pregnancy and labor has exploded across the country; there are now laws and policies that limit the practice in 22 states, and legislation to do the same in all federal prisons has been introduced in Congress. And even the menstrual equity movement has taken hold for incarcerated women.

The expansion of the carceral system is rooted in the over-policing and mass incarceration of communities of color, particularly Black communities. This is no less true for incarcerated women: Black women are 11 times more likely to be incarcerated than white women and to receive harsher punishments for the same crime, and while women’s incarceration has doubled in the last decades, the numbers of Black women in the system rose by 800 percent alone. 

The complex identities of Black women, and the interlocking nature of their oppression, expose how systems of power and privilege uphold white supremacy and patriarchy, and the struggle for incarcerated people won’t be over until they achieve justice. Black women have a unique story to tell about carceral violence that’s rooted in a history of capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy and patriarchy.

We must start listening—and heed their warnings—if we want to build a better world.

Every year, Ms. sends thousands of magazines to women in prisons and domestic violence shelters. To support our efforts and help us expand our reach—and to show women in prisons that they aren’t alone—please give to our Women in Prisons and Domestic Violence Shelters program today.


Crystal M. Hayes, MSW, is a social work PhD candidate (ABD) at the University of Connecticut. Crystal is a reproductive justice scholar and activist. Her research focuses on reproductive justice for incarcerated women. Her activism began early. Born and raised in New York City at the end of the civil rights movement, on the cusp of the Black Power Movement and by parents in the Black Panther Party, she lives by the Audre Lorde quote: “your silence will not protect you." Crystal has more than seven years of experience teaching in both online and on-the-ground social work programs at both the undergraduate (BSW) and graduate levels (MSW).