Mass Incarceration's Invisible Casualties: Women and The Criminal Justice System

When Americans think about the war on drugs, often images of violent men behind bars shape their understandings. This persistent picture obscures the true realities and costs of both mass incarceration and the U.S. drug war. Consider this, in 2010, the U.S. federal government planned to expend $15 billion dollars in its War on Drugs, at a rate of $30,000 per minute and $1,800,000 per hour. By 2012 the White House revised its drug budget structure, increasing its National Drug Control Budget to $26.2 billion--a dramatic increase from two years prior. Expenditures to fight the drug war dramatically increases each year, with very poor results: high recidivism rates, intensified surveillance, school to prison pipelines, children moved into foster care, unsettling racial disparities, and disenfranchisement in voting, housing, and employment.

The metaphor of poor African American communities at war and under siege comes to vivid life in Alice Goffman's On The Run: Fugitive Life In An American City an ethnography of her time embedded in field research in a low-income, predominantly African American, Philadelphia neighborhood between 2002 and 2007. Professor Goffman dramatically illustrates harrowing daily experiences of young men (and herself) habitually "on the run" from law enforcement. In elucidating a compelling story about mass incarceration, she exposes the fears and anxieties of African American men constantly caught in the powerful gaze and grip of law enforcement. She details incessant policing of African American males on streets, in their cars, homes, and even hospitals. Such stark realities may explain why the war on drugs and mass incarceration is almost exclusively framed as an attack on African American men; women are invisible--or in the research of Goffman--they are reduced to "snitches." (p 37, 55)

Yet, the book is also disconcerting for a number of reasons. As imbedded as Goffman was, one comes away without a sense of why the boys and men she followed had shattered lives--other than law enforcement's persistent surveillance. Did any of them have dreams of moving out of their neighborhood? Had they ever liked school? If not, why? Were there teachers that ever inspired them? If they could be free of jail, warrants, poverty, drug selling, and the omnipresence of the police, what would they want their lives to be? In all of Goffman's time with them, including three moving in to her apartment, these African American boys and men are still flat one dimensional caricatures.

However, On The Run leaves out more than that. Goffman's account of policing and mass incarceration fails to notice, account for, or discuss the dramatic rise in the incarceration rate of African American women, particularly during the time of her embedded ethnographic fieldwork. Her study falls within a common, historically incomplete analysis of the vast nature in which Black women are policed in the criminal justice system and the collateral consequences to families and neighborhoods.
In fact, according to Forbes, the U.S. incarcerates more women than any other country in the world, exceeding that of Russia, China, India, and Brazil combined. According to the Institute for Women and Criminal Justice, "[o]ver 2.5 million women were arrested in 2008." This accounted for nearly a quarter of arrests that year and nearly a 12% increase from the decade prior. To compare the increase in women's incarceration, consider that female prison population grew by "832% from 1977 to 2007," however male prison incarceration grew by half of that "416% during the same period."

For Goffman, African American women occupy stereotypes: church women, crack heads, snitches, and "baby mom[s]." After spending half a decade on Miss Linda's porch, in her home, and with her three sons (who make up about half of Goffman's 6th Street Boys) we never learn about her life, other than she "rides" hard (she's no snitch), keeps a home overrun with roaches, littered with cat feces and the smell of urine, and steals from her sons. Not so much as a full page describes where Miss Linda's life veered wrongly, how she was harmed, or what she wanted out of life. In six years of being on Miss Linda's porch, that's it? Surprisingly, reviewers seem satisfied with that.

When explaining why she passed aside observing the lives of women living in the trenches of poverty, domestic violence, and police violence, Goffman referenced that their lives were covered by three books on welfare.(p223) Goffman tells readers that she "learned a lot about...women struggling on welfare," and doubted that she "could add to what these books had already said." That betrays an understanding about the complexity of African American women's lives in criminal and civil justice systems. That three books could sum up the lives of African American women in a low-income Philadelphia community is profound. That reviewers agreed is perhaps even more unsettling. The profound invisibility of women, and African American women particularly, to the national narrative on mass incarceration is magnified not only by what Goffman ignores, but also by what reviewers of the work miss. The rate of women's mass incarceration for drugs now exceeds that of men. Moreover, women are giving birth and raising children behind bars.

However, as a bioethicist, I am also concerned about human research ethics. In a forthcoming Texas Law Review article, I write about Black lives mattering to human research and Goffman's book ignoring that. On The Run fits within a troubling historical paradigm that suggests Black lives only benefit or certainly can't be harmed from the types of research conducted by the sociologist. In recent weeks, Goffman has come under attack for this, based on passages in the book detailing her desire to avenge the death of one of the 6th Street boys, by killing his murderer. That is, she volunteered to drive a getaway car "with Mike in the passenger seat, his hand on his Glock as he directed me around the area. We peered into dark houses and looked at license plates and car models" as Mike checked on the killer's whereabouts. (p 260-61) At one point, it looked like they spotted the killer, and she waits, ready to drive off as soon as the murder is done. She tells readers, "I got into the car because, like Mike and Reggie, I wanted Chuck's killer to die....I didn't care whether this man had believed his life was threatened when he came upon Chuck outside the Chinese takeout store...I simply wanted him to pay for what he'd done, for what he'd taken away from us." Fortunately, for all involved (and their families), Goffman and Mike spotted the wrong guy. In Goffman's desire to kill a rival 4th Street Boy, she exposed not only herself and Mike to harm, but also the children and women back on 6th Street, whose lives also mattered. It's not clear whether Goffman appreciated that.

In June 2015 Goffman issued a statement explaining that she never intended to kill anyone. She has also destroyed her field notes.