The Social Impact of Mass Incarceration on Women

Beth Richie, University of Illinois at Chicago

Women, in general, and women of color from low-income communities in particular, occupy a set of uniquely vulnerable positions when we consider the social impact of mass incarceration. On the surface, women's vulnerability within the prison industrial complex mirrors other settings in which gender arrangements serve to marginalize some women by limiting access to social resources and undermining women's participation and our power; in places like traditional nuclear families, conservative community and cultural groups, occupational hierarchies and other hegemonic social institutions. A closer analysis of the social consequences of mass incarceration, however, reveals a much more complex interactive effect of a racialized justice system, persistent poverty, and gender oppression than is found in an analysis of other social problems. In this chapter I will argue that the nature of this interaction not only leaves women vulnerable to the harsh criminal justice practices that have caused the skyrocketing incarceration rates in this country, but in fact, sets in place a tightly organized system of injustices, disenfranchisement and social stigmas that leave women facing some of the most pernicious effects of the prison industrial complex.

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Updated 05/20/2006