This story is part of Prism’s series on incarceration as gendered violence. Read the rest of the series here.
Jails and prisons were designed as sites of reproductive coercion.
Women’s divergence from what is narrowly considered appropriate gender performance under patriarchy, particularly around sex and reproduction, has been the foundational basis for their “criminality.” Early on, incarcerated women had to participate in re-education to cure their deviant behavior. As Angela Davis explains in Are Prisons Obsolete?, for middle class white women, the goal was to produce more obedient and nurturing wives and mothers. For Black and poor women, it was to produce skilled domestic servants and enable the cheap reproduction of the labor force.
In line with this logic, since the first women’s prison opened in the U.S. in 1873, incarcerated women—and particularly Black women—have experienced a multitude of sexual and reproductive abuses. This has included non-consensual sterilization, gynecological experimentations, and sexual assault, often at the hands of doctors who were allowed to use and dehumanize incarcerated women.
Today, more and more Black women are being caught up in this coercive and abusive system. Between 1980 and 2017, the number of women incarcerated in jails in prisons rose by 750%; in 2017, the imprisonment rate for Black women was twice that of white women. Black women also have the lowest annual incomes prior to incarceration, which makes them more vulnerable to manipulation by prosecutors, unable to pay bail, and less able to supplement their healthcare needs through commissary on the inside. Every year, 80% of the women who are jailed are mothers and about 150,000 are pregnant.
This treatment of incarcerated Black women across the country, especially in the South and in Tennessee, is yet another way to continue to neglect Black women and strip them of their human rights and agency.
Incarcerated pregnant people are routinely denied the reproductive care that they deserve. Whether women desire to terminate a pregnancy or to carry a healthy pregnancy to term while incarcerated, the state applies the same violence of mistreatment and denial of care. In 2016, the sheriff in Maury County, Tennessee, denied Kei’Choura Cathey access to an abortion while she was detained and by the time that she was released, it was too late for the procedure. In 2010, Countess Clemons, a young Black woman incarcerated in Chattanooga, Tennessee, had her pregnancy complications ignored and dismissed leading to the preterm birth of her baby who ultimately died. Charity Flerl was shackled for three days in Hamilton County, including postpartum, and suffered unnecessary injuries and pain. Shackling is a dehumanizing practice that can have horrific consequences for the birthing person and the child. Yet, over 20 states do not have laws that prohibit the practice.
The reproductive justice framework calls us to center the most marginalized people in our analysis and on-the-ground work. Incarcerated women and people, especially those who are pregnant, are at the margins of multiple intersecting oppressions. This framework is grounded in Black feminism and my passion for it is both personal and strategic. I believe as an intersectional practice and orientation, reproductive justice outlines a path for approaching social justice work that will get us all to liberation.
As co-director of Healthy and Free Tennessee, a reproductive freedom organization, I continue to ground our work in the intersections of incarceration and pregnancy and the ways that gender oppressed people are criminalized for their pregnancy outcomes. Tennessee became the first state in 2014 to enact a law that criminalized people who struggled with substance use during pregnancy, and Healthy and Free Tennessee was part of the effort to defeat it. Though the law was defeated, the state’s push to criminalize pregnancy outcomes continues and the end result is always more Black and poor women being punished.
Tennessee is among the states that still shackle incarcerated pregnant people, and for the past two years we have championed a package of bills that would ban the practice, among other protections for pregnant incarcerated people. As Tennessee follows national trends with Black women being impacted by maternal mortality at a rate two to four times higher than white women, it is essential that we fight for these protections for incarcerated Black people. This year we had a victory with the passage of a prenatal care bill, which has proven to be critical as people have not been released in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. But we still have a long way to go to ensure that pregnant people can give birth with dignity and will continue to advocate to see this through.
As a community organizer with the official Black Lives Matter Memphis Chapter, I have also seen the impact of incarceration on Black women through the Black Mama’s Bailout. In 2017, our chapter began bailing out Black mothers and caregivers and providing them with supportive services such as housing, job support, legal support, and transportation when they return to the community. With the bailouts, I have witnessed how Black women and caregivers continue to be victims of the criminal legal system even after release. While in jail, they often lack comprehensive, gender-affirming health care, access to medications, and are forced to sleep in overcrowded cells.
Through all of these experiences, I have become clear on how jails and prisons perpetuate reproductive oppression and inherently deny human dignity and bodily autonomy. The carceral system’s logic is rooted in oppression and coercion. At the heart of reproductive justice is the right to bodily autonomy, including the right to make decisions about one’s body free from judgment and discrimination and the right to live in communities free from violence—police violence, incarceration, reproductive coercion, and racism. I stand against policing bodies and policing communities, and for that reason, I am ultimately fighting for a world without cages.
Along the road to abolition, we must strive to improve conditions for those who live at the margins. Black gender oppressed people deserve to live in their full humanity within healthy and sustainable communities where policing and imprisonment no longer exist. I am committed to building the world where that vision is actualized.