The Time to Act is Now: The Urgency of Ending Mass Incarceration

Since the 1970s, the number of incarcerated women has gone from 20,000 to 220,000, and 80 percent of them are mothers. Moreover, one in four women in the U.S. have an incarcerated loved one.

Now more than ever, it’s time for a collective effort against mass incarceration.

The Time to Act is Now: The Urgency of Ending Mass Incarceration
Andrea Circle Bear and her fifth son, Landon Avery. (Courtesy of the Circle Bear Family)

Andrea Circle Bear was a mother of five and pregnant with her sixth child when she was sentenced to over two years in prison. Circle Bear was a citizen of the Cheyenne Sioux River tribe, a resident of South Dakota, and was arrested for “maintaining a drug-involved” house where methamphetamine was sold. She was eight months pregnant when she was transferred to a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, this spring.

Within days of arriving in Fort Worth, Circle Bear was hospitalized with COVID-19. She was put on a ventilator and her baby was delivered by emergency Cesarean section. Three weeks later, Circle Bear was dead. She never got the chance to hold her baby.

Circle Bear’s story isn’t an exception to the rules; it’s one of many examples of mass incarceration causing undue harm to families and communities. Her grandmother said that Circle Bear was trying to access drug treatment, but there were no beds available close to her home. Instead of receiving adequate care, Circle Bear was sent over 1,000 miles away from her home and her young children. She wasn’t a dangerous person; on the contrary, prison was deadly for her.

“We could have saved her life,” wrote Holly Harris, President of Justice Action Network, “and instead we sent her to the deadliest place on earth right now: an American prison.”

Andrea Circle Bear was the first woman to die in federal prison from COVID-19, but she wasn’t the last. Now more than ever, it’s time for a collective effort against mass incarceration. The pandemic is so often a death sentence for incarcerated folks, and the government has done little to limit the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons (for example, refusing to release incarcerated people vulnerable to COVID-19 and not uniformly mandating mask-wearing in prisons). But when the pandemic ends, prisons and jails will still be dangerous places, and incarceration will still be a failed attempt at creating a safer and more supportive society. 

The dangers of incarceration are particularly heightened for women, who are the fastest-growing population of incarcerated people. Pregnant women in North Carolina have been inhumanely placed in solitary confinement, trauma-informed care is rare for survivors of sexual assualt, and trans women are almost always housed with men and report egregious rates of sexual assault in prison.

And, appallingly, one in four women in the U.S.—and nearly one in two Black women in the U.S.—have an incarcerated loved one. The result is a health crisis, compounding the effects of the coronavirus pandemic: Women with incarcerated loved ones report significant detrimental effects on their physical and emotional health, including anxiety, depression, migraines and insomnia. 

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Since the 1970s, the number of incarcerated women has gone from 20,000 to 220,000, Lois Ahrens, founding director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, a national organization working to end incarceration, told Ms.

“It’s not because their crimes are worse or they’re worse people. It’s because the laws have changed, and gotten so much more punitive.”

And, tragically, 80 percent of today’s incarcerated women are mothers.

Punitive laws, like the “war on drugs” era laws that led to heightened sentences for people like Andrea Circle Bear, are the lynchpin of mass incarceration. Therefore, lobbying lawmakers and voting are some of the most important ways to fight mass incarceration.

President-Elect Biden has pledged to pass a variety of policies which will minimize some harmful effects of incarceration. He says he will end mandatory minimum sentencing, a policy which disregards a judge’s discretion and leads to longer sentences, and has committed to end all incarceration for drug use alone and to instead invest in treatment. He promises to ensure that women receive adequate healthcare while incarcerated, and has emphasized the necessity of robust education and healthcare systems to limit “crime” in the first place. 

These policies are all a great start, and we must hold the Biden-Harris administration accountable to these promises. But in order to mitigate the harms of incarceration, we must also push them further.

The Time to Act is Now: The Urgency of Ending Mass Incarceration
The March 4 Day of Action in Redwood City, Calif., on March 4, 2010. (Dave / Flickr)

An ideal world is one in which the perceived harms and dangers of someone’s behavior aren’t met with life-threatening punishment, nor with actions that leave children parent-less. An ideal world is one without mass incarceration, where people are given the tools they need to heal and thrive without imprisonment. 

Ahrens is confident that legal changes are necessary to pave the way for an end to incarceration. And, she argues, all sorts of policies can help to support and protect people who might brush shoulders with the criminal justice system: the Green New Deal, Medicare For All, and more federal investment in housing, jobs, education, mental healthcare, and addiction treatment.

With these policies, “the investment would be in the things that bolster people, rather than tear them down,” Ahrens says.

It’s up to us to push Biden—and our senators, representatives and local politicians—in the right direction through advocacy, support of grassroots organizations, and community organizing.

Luckily, organizers and theorists around the country are working to imagine a future without mass incarceration. Organizations like Critical Resistance and Project NIA, and websites like TransformHarm, all offer a vision of the future where harm is handled justly and without punishment. 

And formerly incarcerated women across the country are leading the way in the fight for a more just and safe world for people like them. Organizations like Families for Justice as Healing in Massachusetts and Operation Restoration in New Orleans are working tirelessly for a better future. Connecting with formerly incarcerated women in your community is a great place to start your advocacy against mass incarceration.

Incarcerated women, Ahrens says, are more than what they’ve been criminalized for.

“They are mothers, they are friends, they are sisters, they are people that are connected to their community. When they get locked up, not just their family, but their whole community suffers.”

We must invest in a less punitive and more nurturing country. While the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the danger of incarceration, the harms of this system will persist long after the pandemic—and it’s up to us to build a better future.

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Ari Jewell is a junior at Smith College majoring in the Study of Women and Gender.