[Pnews] Against Carceral Feminism - increased policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as the primary solution to violence against women

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Oct 17 11:44:40 EDT 2017


  Against Carceral Feminism

Victoria Law - October 17, 2017

Cherie Williams, a thirty-five-year-old African-American woman in the 
Bronx, just wanted 
to protect herself from her abusive boyfriend. So she called the cops. 
But although New York requires police to make an arrest when responding 
to domestic violence calls, the officers did not leave their car. When 
Williams demanded their badge numbers, the police handcuffed her, drove 
her to a deserted parking lot, and beat her, breaking her nose and jaw, 
and rupturing her spleen. They then left her on the ground.

“They told me if they saw me on the street, that they would kill me,” 
Williams later testified.

The year was 1999. It was a half-decade after the passage of the 
Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which deployed more police and 
introduced more punitive sentencing in an attempt to reduce domestic 
violence. Many of the feminists who had lobbied for the passage of VAWA 
remained silent about Williams and countless other women whose 911 calls 
resulted in more violence. Often white, well-heeled feminists, their 
legislative accomplishment did little to stem violence against less 
affluent, more marginalized women like Williams.

This carceral variant of feminism continues to be the predominant form. 
While its adherents would likely reject the descriptor, carceral 
feminism describes an approach that sees increased policing, 
prosecution, and imprisonment as the primary solution to violence 
against women.

This stance does not acknowledge that police are often purveyors of 
violence and that prisons are always sites of violence. Carceral 
feminism ignores the ways in which race, class, gender identity, and 
immigration status leave certain women more vulnerable to violence and 
that greater criminalization often places these same women at risk of 
state violence.

Casting policing and prisons as the solution to domestic violence 
both justifies increases to police and prison budgets and diverts 
attention from the cuts to programs that enable survivors to escape, 
such as shelters, public housing, and welfare. And finally, positioning 
police and prisons as the principal antidote discourages seeking other 
responses, including community interventions and long-term organizing.

How did we get to this point? In previous decades, police frequently 
responded to domestic violence calls by telling the abuser to cool off, 
then leaving. In the 1970s and 1980s, feminist activists filed lawsuits 
against police departments for their lack of response. In New York, 
Oakland, and Connecticut, lawsuits resulted in substantial changes to 
how the police handled domestic violence calls, including reducing their 
ability to not arrest.

Included in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the 
largest crime bill in US history, VAWA was an extension of these 
previous efforts. The $30 billion legislation provided funding for one 
hundred thousand new police officers and $9.7 billion for prisons. When 
second-wave feminists proclaimed “the personal is the political,” they 
redefined private spheres like the household as legitimate objects of 
political debate. But VAWA signaled that this potentially radical 
proposition had taken on a carceral hue.

At the same time, politicians and many others who pushed for VAWA 
ignored the economic limitations that prevented scores of women from 
leaving violent relationships. Two years later, Clinton signed “welfare 
reform” legislation. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity 
and Reconciliation Act set a five-year limit on welfare, required 
recipients to work after two years, regardless of other circumstances, 
and instated a lifetime ban on welfare for those convicted of drug 
felonies or who had violated probation or parole.

By the end of the 1990s, the number of people receiving welfare (the 
majority of whom were women) had fallen 53 percent, or 6.5 million. 
Gutting welfare stripped away an economic safety net that allowed 
survivors to flee abusive relationships.

Mainstream feminists have also successfully pressed for laws that 
require police to arrest someone after they receive a domestic violence 
call. By 2008, nearly half of all states had a mandatory arrest law 
The statutes have also led to dual arrests 
<https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/218355.pdf#page=23>, in 
which police handcuff both parties because they perceive each as 
assailants, or they can’t identify the “primary aggressor.”

Women marginalized by their identities, such as queers, immigrants, 
women of color, trans women, or even women who are perceived as loud or 
aggressive, often do not fit preconceived notions of abuse victims and 
are thus arrested.

And the threat of state violence isn’t limited to physical assault. In 
2012, Marissa Alexander <http://www.freemarissanow.org/>, a black mother 
in Florida, was arrested after she fired a warning shot to prevent her 
husband from continuing to attack her. Her husband left the house and 
called the police. She was arrested and, although he had not been 
injured, prosecuted for aggravated assault.

Alexander argued that her actions were justified under Florida’s “Stand 
Your Ground” law. Unlike George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed 
seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin three months earlier, Alexander was 
unsuccessful in using that defense. Despite her husband’s sixty-six-page 
in which he admitted abusing Alexander as well as the other women with 
whom he had children, a jury still found her guilty.

The prosecutor then added the state’s 10-20-LIFE sentencing enhancement, 
which mandates a twenty-year sentence when a firearm is discharged. In 
2013, an appellate court overturned her conviction. In response, the 
prosecutor has vowed to seek a sixty-year sentence during her trial this 

Alexander is not the only domestic violence survivor who’s been forced 
to endure additional assault by the legal system. In New York state, 
67 percent of women sent to prison for killing someone close to them had 
been abused by that person. Across the country, in California, a prison 
study found that 93 percent of the women who had killed their 
significant others had been abused by them. Sixty-seven percent of those 
women reported that they had been attempting to protect themselves or 
their children.

No agency is tasked with collecting data on the number of survivors 
imprisoned for defending themselves; thus, there are no national 
statistics on the frequency of this domestic violence-criminalization 
intersection. What national figures do show is that the number of women 
in prison has increased exponentially over the past few decades.

In 1970, 5,600 women were incarcerated across the nation. In 2013, 
111,300 women <http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p13.pdf> were in state 
and federal prisons and another 102,400 
<http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/jim13st.pdf> in local jails. (These 
numbers do not include trans women incarcerated in men’s jails and 
prisons.) The majority have experienced physical and/or sexual abuse 
prior to arrest, often at the hands of loved ones.

Carceral feminists have said little about law-enforcement violence and 
the overwhelming number of survivors behind bars. Similarly, many groups 
organizing against mass incarceration often fail to address violence 
against women, often focusing exclusively on men in prison. But others, 
especially women of color activists, scholars, and organizers, have been 
speaking out.

In 2001, Critical Resistance, a prison-abolition organization, and 
INCITE! Women of Color against Violence, an anti-violence network, 
issued a statement 
assessing the effects of increased criminalization and the silence 
around the nexus of gender and police violence. Noting that relying on 
policing and prisons has discouraged organizing community responses and 
interventions, the statement challenged communities to make connections, 
create strategies to combat both forms of violence, and document their 
efforts as examples for others seeking alternatives.

Individuals and grassroots groups have taken up that challenge. In 2004, 
anti-violence advocate Mimi Kim founded Creative Interventions 
<http://www.creative-interventions.org/>. Recognizing that alternative 
approaches to violence need to be demonstrated, the group developed a 
site to collect and publicly offer tools and resources on addressing 
violence in everyday life. It also developed the StoryTelling and 
Organizing Project <http://www.stopviolenceeveryday.org/>, where people 
can share their experiences of intervening in domestic violence, family 
violence, and sexual abuse.

In 2008, social-justice organizers and abuse survivors Ching-In Chen, 
Jai Dulani, and Leah Lakshmi Piepnza-Samarasinha compiled “The 
Revolution Starts at Home 
a 111-page zine documenting various efforts in activist circles to hold 
abusers accountable. Piepnza-Samarasinha described how trusted friends 
helped devise strategies to keep her safe from a violent and abusive ex 
who shared many of the same political and social circles:

    When he showed up at the prison justice film screening I was
    attending, held in a small classroom where we would have been
    sitting very close to each other, friends told him he was not
    welcome and asked him to leave. When he called in to a local South
    Asian radio show doing a special program on violence against women,
    one of the DJs told him that she knew he had been abusive and she
    was not going to let him on air if he was not willing to own his own

    My safety plan included never going to a club without a group of my
    girls to have my back. They would go in first and scan the club for
    him and stay near me. If he showed up, we checked in about what to do.

In their article “Domestic Violence: Examining the Intersections of 
Race, Class, and Gender,” feminist academics Natalie Sokoloff and Ida 
Dupont mention another approach taken by immigrant and refugee women in 
Halifax, Nova Scotia, one which tackled the economic underpinnings that 
prevent many from escaping abusive relationships.

The women, many of whom had survived not just abuse but torture, 
political persecution, and poverty, created an informal support group at 
a drop-in center. From there, they formed a cooperative catering 
business, which enabled them to offer housing assistance for those who 
needed it. In addition, women shared childcare and emotional support.

As these examples demonstrate, strategies to stop domestic violence 
frequently require more than a single action. They often require a 
long-term commitment from friends and community to keep a person safe, 
as in Piepnza-Samarasinha’s case. For those involved in devising 
alternatives, like the women in Halifax, it may require not only 
creating immediate safety tactics, but long-term organizing that 
addresses the underlying inequalities that exacerbate domestic violence.

By relying solely on a criminalized response, carceral feminism fails to 
address these social and economic inequities, let alone advocate for 
policies that ensure women are not economically dependent on abusive 
partners. Carceral feminism fails to address the myriad forms of 
violence faced by women, including police violence and mass 
incarceration. It fails to address factors that exacerbate abuse, such 
as male entitlement, economic inequality, the lack of safe and 
affordable housing, and the absence of other resources.

Carceral feminism abets the growth of the state’s worst functions, while 
obscuring the shrinking of its best. At the same time, it conveniently 
ignores the anti-violence efforts and organizing by those who have 
always known that criminalized responses pose further threats rather 
than promises of safety.

The work of INCITE!, Creative Interventions, the StoryTelling and 
Organizing Project, and “The Revolution Starts at Home” (which sparked 
so much interest that it was expanded into a book 
<http://southendpress.org/2010/items/87941>) are part of a longer 
history of women of color resisting both domestic and state violence. 
Their efforts shows that there is an alternative to carceral solutions, 
that we don’t have to deploy state violence in a disastrous attempt to 
curb domestic violence.


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863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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