Today, nearly 30% of all women arrested are girls or young women, ages 16-24 years

The rates of arrest, detainment and court cases involving girls and young women has soared in recent years. Mostly of color, many of them are dealing with chronic poverty and are victims of violence and sexual abuse. While in custody, they are routinely denied there basic needs, reflecting the overall flagrant disregard for their health and well-being.

Although girls and young women are most likely to be non-violent and pose no risk to public safety, many will spend long periods incarcerated while awaiting trial

Another World is Indeed, Possible

We must first however, seriously examine the collective conscience and raise our individual awareness of the plight and grim prospects of girls and young women (our own daughters) embroiled in a byzantine and convoluted (in)justice system that is stacked against them. What does it mean to live in a society where we reserve and mete out the harshest punishment against the most vulnerable among us—the marginalized—the powerless—and those we demonize?

For Black and Brown youth, including girls and young women, guilt is a presumption at every point of contact with the criminal justice system. This premise of certain culpability, is used to justify the rampant and egregious violation of civil and human rights perpetrated against those entangled in its unforgiving snare and who expect nothing less from a merciless system

Rikers Island

Young Women Awaiting Trial at Rikers Island-Housed With Sentenced Inmates… photo cred: Clara Vennucci
Here in New York City, girls and young women, ages 15 to 29 comprise 42% of the female prisoner population. With no dedicated facilities for them, they are held at Rikers Island with sentenced adult prisoners, awaiting their day in court. Rikers is notorious, even among state prisons, for its level of violence and brutalization.
Rikers Island is New York City’s way of demonizing its own citizens, its own children … Martin Horn, former NYC Corrections commissioner
While detainment is dehumanizing in general, girls and young women face challenges while under lock and key, that are not only different from their male counterparts, but that also bear a distinctly terrible influence on their lives post-incarceration.
Lock Down – photo cred: Officer Lorenzo Steele Jr

For example: although the vast majority of incarcerated girls and young women have been sexually and physically abused, mental health and medical care does not exist. They are brutalized not only by other prisoners, but also the corrections officers who are entrusted with their care.  Most egregiously, already traumatized girls and young women are subjected to selective enforcement of draconian practices that re-traumatize like solitary confinement shown to exacerbate  mental illness, making prisoners a danger to themselves.

The Deck is Stacked

Girls and young women of color are treated more severely than their white counterparts at every point of contact with the system even when charged with the same crime.

A Certain Philosophy of Crime and Punishment and a Largely Unexamined Attitudes Toward Those We Imprison.

At the heart of the exponential rise of number of incarcerated girls and young women, is, not only a certain philosophy of crime and punishment, but also complex and largely unexamined attitudes toward those we imprison. And, because girls and young women offenders are much smaller in numbers than incarcerated males, they remain an invisible minority whose offending pathways, suffering and distinctive needs have gone largely undocumented and hence unaddressed.

Imprisoned girls and young women often have experienced violent victimization within the home and community. The trauma of the daily humiliations poor girls and young women of color endure, the unmourned losses and bereavement that is common too, compound the inevitability of family discord, dysfunction and rupture. Many report the feeling of being “let down or given up on by adults and society — like nobody cares.” Girls and young women in prison are likely to suffer from a toxic mix of fear and a profound and terrifying sense of aloneness that is unique to them. Their needs differ, not only from their male counterparts — they differ from older incarcerated women too.

Any system that allows us to turn a blind-eye to hopelessness and despair, that’s not a justice system, that’s an injustice system. Justice is not only the absence of oppression, it’s the presence of opportunity… President, Barack Obama
Barbed Wire Security Fence Surrounds inmate Housing at Rikers Island. AP photo
The range of factors needed to create meaningful change needed to improve the lives of incarcerated girls and young women who face multiple social, mental health and economic challenges requires compassion and recognizing our humanity in others.

Talking About Reform Doesn’t Address the Racist System of Criminalization and Punishment that is Deeply Embedded in our Culture

We can certainly start by reducing misdemeanor arrests, disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline and making changes to the bail system. Then we can go on to making public investment in schools, jobs, and gender specific social programs that actually help girls and young women.

But, its too easy to just talk about reforming the criminal justice system — we need to desperately, but never actually get to talk about the racist system of criminalization and punishment that is so deeply embedded in our culture, that we as a society, don’t even notice it — or for that matter, even care enough to critically examine the policies enacted in our name that have destroyed our communities and feed our children into a system, like meat into a grinder to make sausage.

#ShutRikersDown #CLOSERikers

We also need to shut down places like Rikers Island. The level of violence and corruption there is so embedded in the culture of the place, that it is beyond reform. In fact, the violence at Rikers Island is notorious even among the State’s most dangerous criminals. Prisoners from maximum security prisons like the Attica and Clinton Correctional Facilities, in upstate New York, fear their court appearances in New York City, knowing that they will spend the night at the “butcher shop”. During their brief stay at Rikers Island, State prisoners are often marked to receive a “beauty mark” (a razor slice down the cheek). The perpetrator seeks a reputation as a bad ass, knowing they will be going upstate too, and they need to muster all the “cred” for leverage used to survive in an otherwise abject and violent environment.

On Rikers Island there are hundreds of reports of staff brutality and violence each year. Girls and young women, young men (often imprisoned there at age 16) and the mentally ill are the most vulnerable to the perverse cruelty of the corrections officers. In 2013, use of excessive force by officers resulted in 1057 injuries among an adolescent population of only 791.

Please check out the following organizations like JustLeadershipUSA who are dedicated to cutting the prison population in half by 2030; and The Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice; building bold, powerful, research-based campaigns to dismantle mass incarceration, ending the war on drugs and advancing the principles of health, equity, and justice. Find out more about #ShutDownRikers and what you can do to help #CLOSERikers.


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