[Pnews] How Latinas Became One Of The Fastest-Growing Prison Populations
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Aug 30 11:15:19 EDT 2018
How Latinas Became One Of The Fastest-Growing Prison Populations
Raquel Reichard - August 28, 2018
The future looked bright for Maria Medina in 2010. She was 27 years old
and had just received her Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Arts from DePaul
University, bringing the Mexican-American graduate one step closer to
her goal of attending law school and becoming an immigration attorney.
Then she received a text from an old friend that completely changed the
trajectory of her life. The man, Ricardo, wanted to get in touch with
Medina’s cousin, a well-known drug dealer in their Chicago neighborhood,
to purchase an ounce of cocaine. He was persistent, calling and
messaging her. Finally, she told him that she’d let her relative know
that Ricardo was trying to reach him.
Two years later, Medina was arrested.
Ricardo was an informant, helping police take down Medina’s cousin. For
agreeing to help him — which Medina, now 35, insists she never actually
did, though she had offered to — she was ultimately found guilty of a
Class 1 felony, “delivery of a controlled substance,” and sentenced to
five years imprisonment at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Ill.
Medina is one of a growing number of Latinas who have been incarcerated.
Currently, women are the fastest-growing jail and prison population
<https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/women_overtime.html>. According to
the Vera Institute of Justice <https://www.vera.org/>, the number of
women in jail has increased 14-fold in recent decades — from less than
8,000 in 1970 to nearly 110,000 in 2014 — and most are women of color.
Despite making up just 9.7 percent
<https://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/sp/1051.pdf>of the total U.S.
population, Latinas constitute 15 percent
those incarcerated at the state level and 32 percent
<https://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/sp/1051.pdf>of those detained at the
federal level. They now experience an incarceration rate nearly twice
that of white women and are almost three times as likely as them to go
to prison at some point in their life.
Experts consider tough-on-drugs policies, known as the “war on drugs,”
as the single greatest force behind the growth of the prison population.
Like Medina, 25 percent
women in state prisons, and 29 percent
those in jail, are there for non-violent offenses related to narcotics.
Even more, nearly a third
all women in jail live with a serious mental illness, like
schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression, and a stunning 86
experienced sexual violence in their lifetime.
Many, including Medina, believe that the mandatory minimum sentences
applied to drug-related crimes are excessive.
“I never made a dime out of the whole deal, and I ended up losing four
years of my life and $20,000 in fees,” she says.
Medina served two years of her five-year sentence and completed two
years of parole. Her cousin, however, was never indicted, and another
man implicated in the crime received a two-year sentence. Both men had
priors; Medina did not. Such are the inexplicable ways of the criminal
Elizabeth Swavola, co-author of the Vera Institute report, says this
isn’t unusual. According to her, many women are incarcerated because of
crimes committed by the men in their lives, and sometimes are even
punished more severely.
“Let’s say it has to do with drug sales. If a woman keeps a suitcase in
her apartment, or takes a phone call, or rents a car for her partner,
even if she’s unaware of any criminal activity, she’s subject to the
same potential punishment that he is,” Swavola says. “What’s
particularly unfair is that oftentimes, because the woman is not as
involved, she doesn’t have the information to trade with prosecutors and
doesn’t know the specifics of the crime that the men, who are more
involved, know, allowing them to get better deals than the women who
weren’t nearly as involved.”
Eight years after receiving her degree, Medina’s life is not as she had
envisioned it. A new mom, she has filed for bankruptcy and is currently
out of work, with her felony making it difficult to obtain a job.
“You know how many times I’ve gotten hired and fired? Three times I’ve
been told, ‘Yes, you got the job,’ and then I come in and fill out
papers, letting them know I have a felony, and they look into it and
say, ‘I’m sorry. We went with somebody else,’” she says.
While Medina finds herself struggling financially after her release from
prison, being impoverished is what landed Cassandra Spellman behind
county jail bars in San Diego, Calif. In 2007, she was homeless,
alternating nights on her friends’ sofas and her green Ford Escort
wagon. Her vehicle registration had expired, and she received some
tickets that brought her renewal fee to about $300. Once she saved up
enough to pay it off, she thought she might start to get back on track.
Her timing was minutes too late.
“I had just gotten the tags and was going out to put it on the car when
I saw it on a tow hitch. I freaked out, hopped in the car, locked the
doors and demanded that he take off the hitch because I had my
registration,” said Spellman, 32, who is part-Puerto Rican.
The tow-truck operator eventually called the cops, and Spellman was
forced to get out of the vehicle. Her car was sent to an impound, where
she had to bike and bus to retrieve it two days later. When she arrived,
she learned it was up for auction, and with only a few dollars in her
pocket, she was quickly outbid.
Months later, a carless Spellman was stopped by an officer for sitting
on the rooftop of a parking lot. When the cop ran her license, he found
an outstanding warrant for her arrest, related to the vehicle
registration. Without an address, however, she had never received a
notification of the warrant. Still, she was taken to county jail for one
“I couldn’t believe it was real. How can you just put somebody in jail
for nothing, for being poor,” said Spellman, who ended up paying about
$3,000 in impound and court fees.
Like Spellman, many Latinas are snared in the justice system as a result
of their efforts to cope with poverty and unemployment. Thirty-two
all women locked up have been found guilty of property offenses,
including crimes like shoplifting, burglary and vehicle theft. And 21
public order offenses, such as sex work.
For transgender Latinas, just existing in a public setting can be cause
for arrest. A study
nonprofit social service organization BIENESTAR of trans Latinas’
interactions with law enforcement in Los Angeles County found that
almost 60 percent of those stopped by an officer in 2011 believed they
hadn’t broken any law. Many of the women reported that they were stopped
while engaging in everyday activities, like “waiting for the bus,”
“coming back from the grocery store,” “walking home” and “shopping.”
Several were presumed to be sex workers, simply for strolling while
brown and trans.
Isa Noyola, director of programs at the Transgender Law Center
<https://transgenderlawcenter.org/>, believes that anti-transgender
policies and legislation, such as bathroom bills, discrimination
carve-outs, health care legislation and ID bills, have allowed law
enforcement to discriminate against trans individuals, especially those
“Anti-trans bills that aim to profile, criminalize and penalize trans
bodies for existing in public spaces signal to the community that they
should be fearful and hostile toward us,” Noyola says. “This creates a
culture of fear and adds to the stigma that we are less than human. But
it also signals to other institutions, like the police force, courts,
legal professionals and shelters, that trans people don’t deserve safety
Although men far outnumber women behind bars, male arrests have
decreased while female apprehension is on the rise. Since 2010, the
number of women in jails has grown about 3.4 percent each year. A
crackdown on lower-level offenses, like those committed by Medina and
Spellman, as well as those perceived to be carried out by trans Latinas,
is behind the soaring incarceration rates.
Locked away, these Latinas, most of them survivors of sexual violence,
are re-traumatized in facilities that were never even made to house women.
Read: 5 Things To Know About Latina Girls And The Sexual Abuse-To-Prison
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