Prisons and Black Motherhood

By Rev. Nikia S. Robert, Ph.D.

Unconscionably, the United States is a world leader in mass punishment.1 According to an ACLU report, “the U.S. imprisons more people—both per capita and in absolute terms—than any other nation in the world, including Russia, China, and Iran.”2 A separate ACLU report indicates that “Despite making up close to 5 percent of the global population, the U.S. has nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.”3 Despite their oft invisibility in discussions about criminal justice reform, “Black women are 30 percent of all incarcerated women in the U.S. but represent only 13 percent of the population of women generally.”4 Women are among the fastest-growing population in prisons, and two-thirds of state prisoners are mothers.5 In addition, 80 percent of women in jails are also mothers and most of whom single-handedly provide for their families.

Incarceration, including pretrial detention for mothers awaiting bail, has a major impact on families. Black mothers are the head of household in eighty percent of households. Black mothers have the sole responsibility to provide and act as caregivers, but remain the poorest of any other ethnic group except Native American women. In addition, many of the women imprisoned have endured unprocessed physical and/or sexual trauma that can significantly alter life outcomes.6 Black women are commonly incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, such as drug offenses in connection to an intimate partner or for survival. These harms have cumulative consequences for families.

A ripple effect ensues when children lose a mother, families lose a breadwinner, communities lose stabilization, churches lose a pillar, and the economy loses resources because of the exorbitant spending that incarceration requires. According to Angela Davis, “huge numbers of people lose jobs and prospects for future jobs. Because the economic base of these communities is destroyed, education and other surviving social services are profoundly affected. This process turns the men, women, and children who live in these damaged communities into perfect candidates for prison.”7 Resources and not retribution, and care and not cages, are needed to ensure that Black mothers and their communities thrive.

The church is also implicated in the dismissal of Black women who navigate carceral contexts. According to a Pew Study report, Black women are the most religious demographic and count on their spirituality to get through difficult times. However, only one-third of churches actually mention the criminal system from the pulpit. While women struggle to provide for their families, are criminalized for their survival, are imprisoned with unprocessed trauma, and are vulnerable to the highest poverty and incarceration rates, the church is reticent.

There is an economic interest in mass incarceration. Prisons are profitable. Racial capitalism benefits from the incarceration of Black bodies. However, government spending for prisons and policing takes away funding from job creation, education, affordable housing, and other social services that are essential for poor Black women to survive. With the investment in the carceral state and divestment in communities, poor Black mothers often go underemployed, underpaid, undervalued, and treated as a perpetual underclass.

Hence, Black mothers incur the compounded force of carceral systems and structural inequities without support from their communities or sanctuary within many churches. Mass punishment reveals a moral failure of our democracy and the forfeiture of communal values. The call for abolition is urgent. Black women and mothers need resources now, treatment now, mental health services now, equal pay and a living wage now, housing security, and other social services and resources to thrive now. The Church needs to respond immediately and end its silence. A faith-abolitionist movement trains faith leaders and laity to increase civic participation by identifying policies and transformative justice strategies to end mass incarceration and the criminalization of Black motherhood. Together, we can create a world beyond prisons.

1 “Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration,” American Civil Liberties Union, accessed September 16, 2019.
2 Ibid.
3 “Mass Incarceration,” American Civil Liberties Union, accessed July 31, 2020.
4 “Facts about the Over-Incarceration of Women in the United States,” American Civil Liberties Union, accessed August 28, 2020.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?, Open Media Book (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003), 16.