Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Berkeley Carroll School, Brooklyn, NY
Educator: Erika Drezner
Category: Critical Essay
Reproducing Slavery; How Reproductive Injustice in Modern Day Prisons Mimics Slavery
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction – (13th Amendment, Bill of Rights Institute)
In February of 2018, in a New York City hospital, 27-year-old Jane Doe was forced to give birth while handcuffed and shackled to her delivery bed. The woman, who remained anonymous during the lawsuit, was in a police holding cell in the Bronx when she went into labor. Police officers insisted she remained shackled even after doctors warned them that it is illegal in New York to restrain a woman during labor as it is considered a humiliating, dehumanizing, and dangerous practice (Southall and Weiser). Stories like these are frequent amongst incarcerated women and “being in prison often means being denied the right to make choices—even choices about life-altering matters like [. . .] pregnancy” (Roth, 69). Moreover, in the U.S., African American women are incarcerated at twice the rate of white women (NAACP) meaning that the reproductive injustices faced by incarcerated women disproportionately impact African American women. In her novel Pregnancy and Power, Rickie Solinger argues that such disparities prove that “women of color and white women have sometimes shared little more, reproductively, than a biological capacity” (Solinger, 22). The different experiences in terms of reproductive politics for black and white women within the U.S. can be traced back to the systematic oppression of black women’s bodies, and especially reproduction, under slavery. The complete lack of reproductive choice granted to enslaved women set a legal precedent in the United States for the oppression and commodification of black women’s bodies. Such a precedent was not abolished along with slavery in 1865 as there remained a looming constitutional loophole which was, and continues to be, exploited: slavery was prohibited within the United States except as a punishment for crime. After 1865, prisons automatically became sites for legal slavery and, today, mimic the reproductive injustices that took place under slavery.
The Right to Choose
During slavery, enslaved women had very little power over reproduction, including the conditions of conception, continuation, and termination of pregnancy. Reproductive injustice against enslaved black women in the U.S. can be traced back to one pivotal moment in history: the defining of “enslaved” and “freed” status in the colonies. In 1662 it was determined by the General Assembly of the Virginia Colony that the slavery status of a child was dependent on the status of its mother. As a result, “the law permitted and encouraged the sexual violence of black women as a means of increasing plantation wealth” (Battalora, 10). Slave owners were suddenly incentivized to sexually assault their female slaves, and what this meant for enslaved women was a complete loss over when, and with whom, they could have a child. Lack of control over when they had sex, especially in a time when birth control did not exist, meant they had no control over their reproduction which was instead placed in the hands of their slave owners. Moreover, the birth of children by rape had negative impacts on the mother’s psychological well-being because “the interracial enslaved child she gave birth to could represent the essential mark of sexual and reproductive powerlessness, and could be a symbol of the terrorism on which slavery depended” (Solinger, 33). Black women’s bodies and the seizure of their reproductive rights is what allowed slavery to continue long after 1807 when the importation of slaves into the country was prohibited. As such, not only were enslaved women violated by sexual assault but they were forced to provide for the system that permitted such violence in the first place. Enslaved women weren’t just forced into pregnancies but, in many instances, they were forced out of them as well.
The extreme working conditions and lack of proper medical care on plantations limited enslaved women’s reproductive options by inducing higher rates of miscarriages and stillbirths that otherwise could have been prevented. Rickie Solinger explains that “‘on average, a pregnant slave was removed from fieldwork only about twenty days throughout her entire pregnancy.’ [. . .] It was this exact kind of overwork that induced miscarriages (Solinger, 36). The lack of reproductive health care for enslaved women was a reproductive injustice in its own right by depriving them of necessary leave. Moreover, if they wanted to continue a pregnancy, it prevented them from doing so, further reducing their reproductive choices. This kind of reproductive injustice is emphasized when you consider that “‘southern doctors recommended that affluent pregnant women limit their physical exertion to activities no more strenuous than those conducted ‘in carriage’ and elite women took regular afternoon naps.’” (Solinger, 36). The disparity between how the pregnancies of black and white women were treated shows that even though the entire economic system depended on the reproductive capacities of black women, they were intentionally deprived of reproductive medical care. The reproductive conditions endured by enslaved women violated their fundamental human rights to life, liberty, and the freedom to choose. Since then, the U.S. has attempted to abide by these pillars and provide these rights to all those living within its borders, today the lives of incarcerated women are notably lacking them.
Incarcerated women in present-day America lack proper prenatal care making them more prone to miscarriage and health complications. In May 2019, a young black woman, Tammy Jackson, gave birth alone in a jail cell in Florida. She informed the attending guards she was in labor, but instead of being taken to a hospital she was forced to wait almost 7 hours for a doctor to come to her during which time she gave birth alone without medical assistance (Paul). In her journal article “Prisons as Sites Of Reproductive Injustice” Rachel Roth reveals that “Cellblock births, miscarriages and newborn deaths are standard stuff in prison exposes. Many who work with women inside suspect that the rates of miscarriage and stillbirth are higher than average. But government agencies don’t routinely collect or publish statistics on pregnancy outcomes among women in prison” (Roth, 70). Similar to how enslaved women lacked the proper health care that was offered to white women, the fact that many suspect higher-than-normal rates of miscarriage among incarcerated women indicate that they are denied the full and proper prenatal care that other American women do receive. This disparity makes it harder for incarcerated women to carry their pregnancies to term and have healthy babies and in the process puts their own lives in danger. Moreover, the lack of collection and publication of statistics by the government, especially when the personal narratives of miscarriage are so high in number, suggests that government agencies do not care enough about these reproductive injustices to change the current policy.
The reproductive rights of incarcerated women are further infringed on by the many prisons which prevent them from accessing abortion services. In the U.S., “federal courts and state courts of appeal have been very clear that women in prison do not lose the basic right to make decisions about pregnancy and abortion. The constitutional right to an abortion has been recognized since the 1973 decision Roe v. Wade [. . .] and applies to women inside prison as much as to women outside of prison” (Roth, 6). It appears that incarcerated women have the same reproductive rights as other women in the country. However, as we’ve seen regarding the lack of statistics on pregnancy in prisons, government agencies and prisons are not always transparent about the unique reproductive injustices faced by incarcerated women. While on the surface Roe v Wade protects all women equally, “in New York, a systematic review of county jail policies found that almost half of the fifty-two counties with female prisoners had an abortion policy, but only thirteen of these unambiguously guaranteed women’s rights – even though public policy in New York supports women’s access to abortion” (Roth, 6). It’s not only New York though, as “one-quarter of state prison systems have no official written policy on abortion” and the rest “do not release their policies to the public” (Roth, 6). The lack of access to abortion in prisons violates a woman’s right to choose as laid out in Roe v Wade as well as an incarcerated person’s right to health care as determined by Estelle v Gamble which protects against cruel and unusual punishment. The reproductive injustices faced by incarcerated women are clearly unconstitutional, but they don’t just stop at pregnancy. Incarceration serves as a means of taking away the experience of motherhood from black women, who are disproportionately imprisoned within the U.S., an act which bears strong historical resemblance to slavery.
Motherhood Under Oppression
Under slavery, black women were consistently portrayed as incapable of mothering and stripped of their motherhood by both the government and their slave owners. The process of stripping motherhood from black women was initiated by the aforementioned decision by the early colonies to determine someone’s slave status by the status of their mother. This law “worked to render the children of women of African descent human capital. Black women were transformed into machinery capitalist production [. . .] The law dramatically impacted [white] women as well. They became the only possible production site of “pure” [white] children.” (Battalora, 10). Because black women’s bodies became the primary means of producing more slaves, their status as mothers was reduced to “machinery” and motherhood was granted only to white women.
As a part of their status as “machinery [for] capitalist production,” enslaved women were actively prevented from taking care and mothering their children. In her autobiography “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” Harriet Ann Jacobs recounts the vivid sexual abuse she faced at the hands of her owner, Dr. Norcom. Despite being banned from marrying, Jacobs began a relationship with a white lawyer, Samuel Sawyer, whom she had 2 kids with, Joseph and Louisa Jacobs. Because Jacobs herself was enslaved, both of her children were as well and when she refused to have sex with Dr. Norcom, he sold both of them. Jacobs was only later able to reunite with her children when Sawyer purchased them back (Harriet Ann Jacobs). These kinds of narratives were abundant during slavery, but unlike Harriet Jacobs, most enslaved women could not get their children back. William Johnson, an Appalachian Farmer, described family separation like this: “White folks in my part of the country didn’t think anything of breaking up a family and selling the children in one section of the South and the parents in some other section” (William Johnson qtd. Dunaway, 68). White slave owners didn’t view enslaved women as anything more than a means of gaining wealth. Their cattle-like status meant enslaved women had no rights as a mother and as such, they could be separated from their children at any moment for the sole benefit of the slave owner.
Even when enslaved women weren’t separated from their children they were still prevented from mothering by being forced to return to the fields soon after giving birth. Because of this, “women were also forced to perform the reproductive labor of wet-nursing, that is, nursing a baby born to another woman. Ellen Betts, an enslaved woman, reported, ‘I don’t do nothing all my days, but nuss, nuss, nuss, nuss. I nuss so many chillen it done went and stunted my growth and dat’s why I ain’t nothin’ but bones to dis day.’” (Solinger. 37). Under these conditions, there were two victims of reproductive injustice. The first being the woman who was forced to use her body to perform wet-nursing and the other being the mother who had to leave her children straight after birth and had little to no ability to parent them. To this day, women, especially black women, have continued to be forcefully prevented from mothering.
Black women in the U.S. today have been, and continue to be, separated from their children through incarceration mainly as a result of their portrayal as “incapable mothers” in the media and by politicians. This is most noticeably demonstrated by Ronald Reagan who utilized the image of a “Welfare Queen”— a term which is most commonly associated with single, black mothers—in his campaign for the Republican Presidential primary: “She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year” (Ronald Reagan qtd. by Black and Sprague). Reagan depicted black mothers as a drain on national resources who stole the white taxpayers’ hard-earned money so that she did not have to work. A New York Times article from 1976, the same time as Reagan’s campaign, explains that while this story was grossly sensationalized—Linda Taylor, the woman Reagan was referring to, only had 4 aliases and made $3,000. This trope of Reagan’s “startled people in Dublin and Jaffrey and Peterborough and Salem and in all the other little towns where he appeared. They were angry at ‘welfare chiselers.’ Mr. Reagan had hit a nerve” (The New York Times). While Reagan ultimately lost the Republican Primary that year, the vilification of black women, especially black mothers, became a sticking point of his presidential term. After declaring the War on Drugs on October 14th, 1982, black women were especially targeted as being the “welfare queens [who] were held responsible for the crack trade and crack babies” and it was believed that “she was the agent of destruction, the creator of the pathological, black urban, poor family from which all ills flow; a monster creating crack dealers, addicts, muggers, and rapists— men who become those things because of being immersed in her culture of poverty” (Lubiano qtd. Rolison, 134). At the time, the public view of black women was that their mothering was corruptive and corrosive to civilized society because politicians painted them as the creators of the drug epidemic.
Thus, if it was black mothers who were spurring the problems that plagued white, American society, naturally motherhood had to be stripped from black mothers. From 1985, shortly after the beginning of the War on Drugs, to 1997 the black female imprisonment rate increased from 183 per 100,000 to 491 per 100,000 while in the very same time span the white female imprisonment rate only increased from 27 to 76 per 100,000 (Rolison, 135). At the end of 2016, the number of women in prisons was a 742% increase from the number of women in prisons in 1980 (Suffin, 799). Moreover, for women, incarceration often means separation from one’s family and the termination of parental rights. As Rachel Roth explains it: “The median sentence for women in state prisons is 60 months, but most states have a policy to begin terminating parental rights after a child has been in foster care for 15 months in a 22-month period. The policies do not make exceptions for women in prison, even if they have never been accused of neglecting or abusing their children” (Roth, 70). These types of laws concerning the parental rights of incarcerated women disproportionately affect black women since they have been incarcerated at higher rates than white women. Therefore, incarceration has served as a way to legally strip black women of their motherhood by not only cutting them off from their children while they are in prison but if they exceeded this 22-month period, permanently. Thus the sudden spike in the incarceration of black women since 1980, which was sparked by the War on Drugs and the trope of black mothers as “Welfare Queens,” has served as a modern-day version of the family separation that took place under slavery—it prevents black mothers from seeing, being with, and mothering their children.
The Public’s Resistance To Change
For the most part, the general public has been complicit in the reproductive injustices faced by incarcerated women and the alarming similarities between the modern-day American prison system and slavery. Much of the public’s complicity is due to their strong belief in the “Prison Industrial Complex” or the “abstract concept that defines imprisonment as the cure for most societal ails” (Simmons, 720). The PIC resonates strongly with many Americans who view imprisonment as a way to keep society safe and civilized. The public and political backing of the PIC has “increased the disenfranchisement of marginalized Black and Latino/a communities and is responsible, in large part, for the circumstances facing Black women when involved with the prison system today” (Natalie Sokoloff qtd. By Simmons, 720). The portrayal of single black mothers as “welfare queens,” or a “societal ail,” during the 80s and the subsequent rising rates of black female imprisonment is one such example of the American public’s complicity and involvement in the systematic oppression of black women due to a belief in the PIC.
This is not the first time the American public has ignored the reproductive oppression of black women. The treatment of enslaved women as less than human, as machines for “capitalist production,” was upheld by all passive or anti-abolitionist members of Southern and Northern society. Even if those individuals did not own slaves themselves, their participation in a system that dehumanized and oppressed black men and women sent a message that continues to be reflected today in the Prison Industrial Complex: society is more civilized when black men and women are prevented from enacting their full citizenship. Perhaps the often overlooked loophole in Amendment 13, except as a punishment for crime, isn’t ignored but seen as a necessary evil. Therefore, the responsibility of demanding change falls on the public. The United States of America is meant to be a reactive government that heeds the desires of the public to determine national change, but it has silenced the voices of those hidden within the prisons of our legal justice system. The burden then falls upon us to proclaim that injustice has occurred, and to tell the lost stories of those for whom justice has been continually denied.