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Patriarchy In Prison: Exploring The Challenges Facing Incarcerated Women

A woman in a prison cell
Officer Bimblebury
Creative Commons

The number of incarcerated women in North Carolina is growing faster than the number of incarcerated men. According to statistics from Prison Policy Initiative, the number of women in the state prison population increased 19% from 2009 to 2015. In that same time period the number of men in the state prison population increased only one percent.

This trend matches what is happening at the national level. What is behind this gender gap? Host Frank Stasio talks with a range of experts about the research, policy and potential solutions.

Rebecca Epstein shares her research into how the perception that black girls are more adult-like and less innocent than their white counterparts could increase their chances of ending up in the criminal justice system. National statistics show black girls are suspended more than five times as often as white girls and are 2.7 times more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system.

Adultification bias is a way of describing adult attitudes towards black girls and seeing them as less innocent than white girls of the same age. And our first study back in 2017 showed that adults indicate this bias as early as the age of 5 years old in black girls. - Rebecca Epstein

Epstein is the executive director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and shares her research into adultification bias, including two recent studies: “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood” and “Listening to Black Women and Girls: Lived Experiences of Adultification Bias."

William Lassiter and Wanda Bertram continue the conversation through a deeper dive into the relationship between the juvenile justice system and women’s incarceration. Lassiter is deputy secretary of juvenile justice at the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and contextualizes the experience of young women in North Carolina’s juvenile justice system.

For girls that came into our [juvenile justice] system last year, 89% of them screened in as having trauma as the reason that has driven them towards the system. - William Lassiter

Bertram is the communications strategist for Prison Policy Initiative and details the nonprofit organization’s research into the gender divide in mass incarceration. Their analysis showcases the unique challenges faced by women in the penal system, including that nearly half of incarcerated women are held in local jails and many of them have not yet been convicted of a crime.

The men's prison population in North Carolina is about three times larger than it was in the late 1970s. And that's already shocking. But then you look at the women's prison population, which is about five times larger than it was in the late 1970s. - Wanda Bertram

Scholar Jessica Smith closes out the conversation with a look into one possible solution to decrease the number of women in jails: bail reform. Smith is the W. R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor in the UNC School of Government and has spent time looking into bail alternatives being used in North Carolina, including pre-trial supervision and services.

There's research that shows when you detain low level defendants pre-trial, you're actually creating more crime ... Sometimes people think: Tough on crime, let's lock everyone up, without realizing that sometimes when you lock up these low level defendants, you're actually undermining your fundamental public safety goals. - Jessica Smith

Activist Kyla Hartsfield provides examples of on-the-ground bail reform in the state. She is the North Carolina State Organizer for Southerners on New Ground, a regional queer liberation organization. She is also involved in the #FreeBlackMamas campaign which works with groups across the country to post bail for African-American mothers and caregivers before Mother’s Day each year.

We believe that black women hold up their communities, and that the communities are hurting when they don't have black women. And we decided to just basically return them back to [the] community. - Kyla Hartsfield

Amanda Magnus is the executive producer of Embodied, a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She has also worked on other WUNC shows including Tested and CREEP.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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