Women, incarceration and justice

January 29, 2021

From the January-February 2021 issue of News & Letters

On Jan. 13 the Minnesota ACLU hosted a seminar on “Women, Mass Incarceration and Criminal Justice” as part of a series of events, “Advancing Women’s Equality.” The moderator, Michele Goodwin, opened the meeting by noting that Lisa Montgomery was executed that day by the federal government. Despite Ms. Montgomery’s repeated attempts to get help against her torturers, the system’s failure to help her resulted in breaking her to the point that she committed a heinous crime. But that abusive history was not an issue in considering “justice” in her case.


The seminar showcased a new movie, Belly of the Beast. It was ten years in the making, partly because most people approached about funding did not believe that its topic—sterilization of imprisoned women—was really a problem.

The director, Erika Cohn, stated that denying a right to have a family is a violation of human rights. It is done to many but is most egregious in sterilizing women of color, which has been happening since the 19th century eugenics movement.

Goodwin describes how this practice is continued today in her 2020 book Policing the Womb: Invisible Women and the Criminalization of Motherhood, documenting the increasing turn to criminalize women for miscarriages, stillbirths, and threatening the health of their pregnancies. Women in prison give birth while shackled in leg irons, in solitary confinement, and even delivering in prison toilets. She mentioned one woman charged with murder for an accidental fall down the stairs resulting in a miscarriage. Such thinking is rooted in denying humanity to a large portion of society.

As the movie shows, even today, the doctors who perform sterilization of women in prison, mostly without their knowledge or consent, justify it by saying it is a service to taxpayers, saving money that might have to be spent on welfare for Black and Latinx children later.


Women in general and women in prison in particular, have organized against the assaults on them. Examples are women’s responses to the AIDS epidemic, demanding their right to basic information and human treatment (see the history of Shumate v. Wilson case in California in the 1990s.) This now continues in their fight with prison authorities’ debacle with COVID-19.

The question came up: why is men’s organizing visible and leads to reforms, and women’s does not? Cynthia Chandler, co-founder of Justice NOW, said women’s organizing has always had a larger understanding of the issue. HIV/AIDS (or COVID or sterilization) is not just about health. It touches on all aspects of life: housing, education and, especially, child custody. Viewing the problem more totally makes it hard to address through a mere reform.

Another reason the problem seems invisible is that those who witness it, who might want to come forward, are subject to retaliation. Women prisoners are already a captive population, but even “free” workers who witness the abuse are “discouraged” from speaking about it.

As we see over and over again, the problem with reforms is that no matter what their initial intent, they will be used to further demean and degrade those for whom they are aimed. The solution is not to make prisons more humane, but to realize a society based on caring for human beings, our shared humanity.

—Urszula Wislanka

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