The abusive arrest and subsequent suspicious death of Sandra Bland is far — tragically far — from an isolated incident. In fact, on the same day that the facts started to emerge about Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman, an 18-year-old African American girl reportedly took her own life in an Alabama prison cell, after being arrested for allegedly stealing a cellphone.
But that’s just one day in the chain of disproportionate harsh punishment of black girls and women in the criminal justice system. I’m particularly concerned about the criminalization of girls — particularly girls of color — who are victims of sexual abuse and trauma. This is an epidemic that requires the collective response of all of us — women of color and white allies (like me) alike.
A good place to start is with a new report by a coalition of human rights and anti-poverty attorneys called “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story,”
The report maps out key points in the pipeline — the detention of girls who are victims of sex trafficking; the criminalization of girls who run away from home or become truant; and those who cross from the child welfare system into juvenile justice — to create an understanding of how girls are unfairly punished after their experiences of sexual and physical abuse.
The authors’ findings are devastating:
In a perverse twist of justice, many girls who experience sexual abuse are routed into the juvenile justice system because of their victimization. Indeed, sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of girls’ entry into the juvenile justice system.
A particularly glaring example is when girls who are victims of sex trafficking are arrested on prostitution charges — punished as perpetrators rather than served and supported as victims and survivors.
Once inside, girls encounter a system that is often ill-equipped to identify and treat the violence and trauma that lie at the root of victimized girls’ arrests. More harmful still is the significant risk that the punitive environ- ment will re-trigger girls’ trauma and even subject them to new incidents of sexual victimization, which can exponentially compound the profound harms inflicted by the original abuse.
This is the girls’ sexual abuse to prison pipeline.
I do not choose to live in a society that so appallingly fails girls who are victims of sexual violence. The pattern is all too familiar:
- girls (disproportionately girls of color) are sexually abused
- her grades go down and she acts out
- she is punished for acting out and not treated for trauma
- this increases the trauma
- this results in more acting out
- she is pushed out of school
- maybe she is drawn into prostitution or drugs
- she gets arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned
- still no treatment for trauma!
I urge you to read the full report — it’s full of compelling statistics, research findings and thoughtful, practical policy solutions. As one of the co-authors says,
“When we say ‘black lives matter,’ that means girls too,” said Malika Saada Saar, executive director of the Human Rights Project for Girls. “Girls, and disproportionately black and brown girls are, incredibly, being locked up when they’ve run away from an abusive parent or when they have been trafficked for sex as children. But their stories of unjust arrest and incarceration have been marginalized.”
As the most recent examples of Kindra Chapman and Sandra Bland remind us, the mass incarceration of women of color follows multiple pathways, from sexual violence to petty theft and even traffic violations.
Changing the paradigm from harsh punishment to social services for trauma would require a cultural shift in our society — or maybe it would produce a cultural shift? — where we stop dehumanizing and fearing black girls and women, and instead appreciate their full, complex humanity.
A good place to start is to read and sign on to a declaration from the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) called The Charleston Imperative: Why Feminism & Antiracism Must Be Linked.
As we conclude in the declaration:
..we commit to a vibrant, inclusive, and intersectional social justice movement that condemns racist patriarchy and works to end its daily brutality and injustice. Anything less is unacceptable.
Sign on to the declaration, and leave a comment below. Let’s talk about how we can prevent more tragedies like the ones exemplified by Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman — and all the young girls and women whose names we may never know.
Originally published on Terry O’Neill’s Huffington Post blog on 07/24/2015.