Building Feminist Jails Ignores a Larger Problem

Recently, mainstream white feminists have called on politicians to fund construction of the Women’s Center for Justice, a “feminist jail” in Harlem, New York. The goal is to build something new. progressive alternative that would provide “better” treatment for women and nonbinary people. But across the U.S., anti-carceral activists and communities in favor of total liberation and abolition are expressing outrage — and rightfully so. Proponents of this “feminist jail” are allying themselves with the existing prison and law-and-order system, which continues to inflict extraordinary harm on criminalized Black, poor,communities of the migrant, queer and gender-oppressed as well as those with disabilities. This is a crucial moment to call out feminist politics, and take action that strengthens and expands the legitimacy of the prison systems.

Two philosophically distinct approaches have been taken to the imprisonments of women and nonbinary persons throughout the history of prisons. For example: reformist thinkers and activists chose to “reform” individual women within prisons. White middle-class reformers aimed to improve prison conditions within the existing prison system. On the other side, abolitionist thinkers and activists did not want simply to improve material conditions so that incarcerated women would have more rights, safety and access to opportunities — instead, they wanted to bring an end to a legal regime rooted in racism, economic subjugation and gender oppression.

The trend for building alternative women’s centers can be traced back to as early as 1910 in Greenwich Village, New York — the epicenter of radicalism and nonconformity, but also civil unrest and rising crime caused by economic constraints. In the mid 2000s, there was a growing need for alternative women’s centres. resurgence of interest in Californiato finance the construction of alternative prisons. women’s pathwaysinto crime and prison Then, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, progressive reform advocates, pushed for alternative prisons that were gender-responsive and specialized programming to address the unique needs and challenges faced by women in prison. Advocates claimed that a gender responsive model would provide a therapeutic and healing environment with opportunities for building essential skills — all designed to address personal issues such as abuse, violence, family relationships, drug use and mental illness, and socioeconomic conditions.

While feminist-centered programming initiatives are able to provide much-needed services for those currently in prison and improve material conditions, the argument for feminist-centered jails or prisons fails not to account for the intersections between race, gender identity, disability, citizenship, and class. These social identities combine so that Black women and all other women as well as nonbinary persons of color get caught in the net of incarceration.

A reformist approach to women’s incarceration places the responsibility of reform on the individual, not the institution.

In these spaces, the explanations for the root causes of women’s pathways into the carceral state (e.g., drug and alcohol use, sex work, violence, socioeconomic status etc.) These are seen as individual failings, which requires women to look inward and accept full responsibility for their incarceration. This makes reform the responsibility of the individual. Jails and prisons promoting a “feminist” model are not designed to address the roots of women’s incarceration or the problems they face in these institutions within the broader context of social injustice, because this would undermine the goals of incarceration, which are to punishKeep it up permanent prison class.

Frontline activists against imprisonment have mobilized to denounce the prison system in all forms. Survived and Punished, a group which advocates for incarcerated survivors of domestic abuse, has campaigned against the movement to build the Women’s Center for Justice in Harlem. In a social media campaign underThe hashtag #NoNewWomensJailNYC the group stated, “We vehemently oppose efforts to brand the expansion of the PIC [prison-industrial complex] as ‘feminist’ or ‘humanitarian.’”

The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated women and girls, which advocates for prison reform, is leading community efforts in Massachusetts to pass a prison and prison construction moratorium. In a Twitter statement Andrea James, a formerly incarcerated activist and the executive director of The National Council, wrote: “Let’s invest in something proactive for a change with that $50M the state wanted to spend on a new women’s prison.” MCI-Framingham is the state’s only women’s prisonIt dates back to 1877. It is in disrepair and the state can build a new prison to replace it. However, prison abolition activists advocate for decarcerationand to make social investments in communities most affected by the carceral system. While the push for a new women’s prison is not being framed as a feminist prison, the vision for a smaller, modern facility that provides opportunities for people to “heal from trauma and other modern contemporary attributes” dovetails with the goals and aims of progressive feminist reformers.

Organisers of the west coast event are the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, a grassroots statewide abolitionist organization, are currently mobilizing to kick off its Close CA Women’s Prison campaign.

We must not fall into the trap of endorsing “alternatives” that reproduce violence. Nonprofits and feminist organizations like the nonprofit Women’s Community Justice and its “progressive” advocates have merely repackaged the mobilizing efforts of grassroots movements to create political urgency for their campaign: #BeyondRosies. This campaign aims to garner sympathy and shock over the violence and abuse that people incarcerated in New York City’s women’s prison experience at the hands of male prison guards. But its proposed solution — building a separate institution for women run by carceral feminists — is no better. Building more carceral institutions can’t be the real solution.

While mainstream, privileged white feminists try to advance their cause within a existing political structure of a Carceral system, activists who work towards abolition and justice and equity seek total liberation. Violence cannot be separated from women’s incarceration, because carceral institutions, regardless of their model, are inherently harmful.