It’s midmorning on September 22, and Sue Ellen Allen stands before a crowd of over 70 faculty, advocates, law professionals and students in a large seminar room at the UC Irvine School of Law—attendees of the school’s summit, “Women and Mass Incarceration: The U.S. Crisis of Women and Girls Behind Bars.” Allen, whose ginger red hair (a wig, she acknowledges) is as vibrant as her personality, holds a pillow. Dingy and frayed by age, it’s woven not out of cotton or polyester, but heavy duty pads meant for post-birth bleeding. It’s also a prized possession, she tells the crowd.
Seventy-year-old Allen was incarcerated at Arizona State Prison for seven years, convicted along with her husband for securities fraud. While incarcerated, Allen battled stage three breast cancer in appalling conditions, she says. While awaiting hospitalization for a mastectomy, she was held in a roach-infested, freezing cell alongside other inmates awaiting court hearings. Post-surgery and back at Arizona State Prison, Allen was not granted a pillow to rest under her arm, despite her doctor’s recommendation as she was at high risk of contracting Lymphedema. The pillow she holds before the crowd was crafted by her fellow inmates.
“At the darkest time of my life, the drug addicts, prostitutes and drug addicts took care of me,” Allen says soberly. Today, Allen dedicates her life to educating the public on the failures of the criminal justice system. She’s co-founder and Executive Director of Gina’s Team, a non-profit that works to rehabilitate inmates at Arizona prisons. The organization is named for Allen’s former cellmate, 25-year-old Gina Panetta, who served as Allen’s caregiver during her incarcerated battle with cancer. Panetta fell severely ill during her stint in prison. After cycling through two months of multiple dismissals of her symptoms by prison medical staff, she was hospitalized for myeloid leukemia—something that could have been caught early on by a blood test. She eventually fell into a coma and passed away.
“I was mad,” Allen recalls. “I was supposed to die. Why am I here? I’m here to tell you about it. Education, not incarceration, is the cheapest form of crime prevention.”
The U.S. prison industry is booming by all business measures: it’s the only industry that pulls in $70 billion from taxpayers with a 60 percent failure rate. The U.S. is responsible for a quarter of the world’s incarcerated population, despite it only housing five percent of the world’s total population, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Over three percent of the U.S. is under correctional control, either incarcerated or under parole or probation supervision. The incarceration system especially targets people of color: African Americans constitute roughly one-third of the total incarcerated population in the U.S., while Hispanics and African-Americans together constitute 58 percent of the total incarcerated population.
For women, mass incarceration poses unique challenges. The U.S. incarcerates more women than anywhere else in the world, and the growth rate of incarceration for women is more than double the rate of that of men, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Women prisoners are more likely to be HIV positive than their male counterparts, have mental health issues, and to have been victimized by sexual and physical abuse. Approximately 70 percent of women under some form of correctional control have minor children, and women prisoners report higher rates of drug usage than men.
These staggering figures owe largely to the so-called “War on Drugs.” The number of incarcerated people in the U.S. quadrupled from 1980 to 2008, due in part to mandatory minimum sentencing laws that obligated jail time for nonviolent drug offenders. According to a panel of experts assembled during the UC Irvine summit, the drug war was founded on shoddy, over-interpreted science.
So says panelist Dr. Claire Coles, Professor and Director of the Maternal Substance Abuse and Child Development Program at Emory University. Coles watched as her colleagues and peers participated in what she calls a “maelstrom of misinterpreted science, media scare tactics and racial stereotyping” at the onset of the drug war. She decries the myth and hysteria surrounding the “crack baby,” a concept that arose from the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and ‘90s.
“These damaged children were expected to overwhelm schools, social services, and societal safety nets with their special needs, ultimately creating a ‘new underclass.’ Drug-addicted pregnant women were prosecuted as drug dealers, child abusers, even murderers,” an Emory Magazine article featuring Coles reads. Coles notes that cocaine exposure resulted in only subtle brain changes of research subjects, unlike alcohol and smoking, which are proven harmful to fetuses. Still, hysteria surrounding crack cocaine led to persecution of women, particularly low-income women of color, many of whom lost custody of their children. The pervasive stereotype even prevented the adoption of children characterized as “crack babies” due to unfounded fears surrounding the child’s development.
Calling the research fueling the drug war “bad science” may be too generous, according to fellow panelist Dr. Carl Hart, Director of Residential Studies and Methamphetamine Research Laboratories for New York State Psychiatric Institute and neuropsychopharmacologist at Columbia University. During the summit, Hart called out the “overly-simplistic” reliance on positron emission tomography (PET) scans, a form of brain imaging used to “prove” the effects of certain drugs, noting the scans were indirect measures. “We need to call out the politicized nature of drug-related research and hold public officials accountable for using drugs as scapegoats,” Hart said.
In another panel on racial disparities in the criminal justice system, Minnesota judge and former President of the Minnesota Council on Crime and Justice Pamela Alexander called out the longstanding racial bias of the United States’ attempts at criminal justice. Alexander recounted the history of racism of the United States as part of its very foundations. “This country that has built its laws on racism needs to look at itself … We’ve had racist criminal policy since this country began, and it’s time to remedy that.”