I am so glad that I’m not a woman—in prison.
Women were worse off than men before coming to prison—and are worse off while they are imprisoned. This was made clear to me after recently reading Joanne Belknap’s The Invisible Woman: Gender, Crime and Justice.
To illustrate this dichotomy, allow me to contrast my journey from the free world to the penitentiary with a reimagined female version of me—a female whose life exemplifies those captured in Belknap’s treatise.
When I was a boy, I experienced supervisory and emotional neglect from my parents and witnessed domestic violence between them; I was emotionally abused by my father; I observed my brother being abused by my father and grandmother; and I suffered physical abuse at the hands of my brother as he paid it forward.
This childhood trauma heightened my risk for subsequent offending: By the age of 14, I was a promiscuous, marijuana-smoking runaway. Before turning 15, I was locked away in a juvenile detention facility.
All of that is terrible. Yet, had I been a young girl, my life would have probably been much more unpleasant.
According to a study cited by Belknap of youth confined in Pennsylvania, girls are eight times more likely than boys to have been sexually abused, and to have used heroin; six times more likely to have used cocaine; five times more likely to have had a sexually transmitted disease; and twice as likely to have lived in a group home before enduring a lengthy stay in a juvenile detention facility.
Editor’s Note: the study referenced above can be found in: Biswas, B., & Vaughn, M. G. 2011. “Really Troubled Girls: Gender Differences in Risky Sexual Behavior and its Correlates in a Sample of Juvenile Offenders.” Children & Youth Services Review 33: 2386-2391
Before the real me was actually locked away, I had run away from home at the age of 13 and survived by a combination of wits and ruthlessness. I sold crack cocaine to purchase fast food when I was hungry, and also used my crack money to pay for motel rooms (using adult drug addicts as my proxy) so, during the night and early morning, I would have a warm place to sleep.
Had I been a girl during this period, I would have likely been selling my pubescent body on the corner rather than crack cocaine and bedding down with grown men on that well-worn motel mattress. Belknap highlights that childhood sexual victimization and trauma are risk factors for later prostitution; and, all too often, this is the only viable means for a young girl to make it—on her own—on the streets.
As for the heroin, I would be eight times more likely than a boy to be using, undoubtedly as a means to self-medicate away the depression induced by my past abuse and neglect, and my present circumstances.
Back to the real me.
When I reached the penitentiary, I quickly realized that violence and the threat of it was necessary to prevent predators from using me for ill purposes. Extortion was something that I could conceive being a possibility if I was weak. However, the notion of being sexually assaulted by those who surrounded me was, quite frankly, terrifying.
Still, this fear would have been nothing new if I was a female arriving in the penitentiary. During my time in juvenile custody, as a young lady, I would have been six times more likely than a young man to be sexually assaulted by a staff member, and twice as likely to have been sexually abused by another female in custody, according to Belknap.
While the penitentiary is a terrible place to be, at least the real me has had plenty of visits over the years with those who love me. My family members have come to visit regularly throughout my confinement. More recently, I am often seen in the crowded visiting room at Stafford Creek Corrections Center enjoying my fiancé’s company.
But once again, I’m a man.
Rest assured, things would be much different if I was the opposite sex and the Washington Corrections Center for Women was my place of confinement. Reason being, women get fewer visits than men who are imprisoned because of, among other things, according to Belknap, “[t]he different values families place on the male members (husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers) as opposed to the female members (wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters).”
As for my baby’s father accepting a collect call or coming to see me on visiting day—forget about it. If he’s not in prison, getting plenty of visits, he’s probably running around with some other “bitch.” As for my daughter, she’s being raised by the same people who abused and neglected me, and who set me on my path to prostitution and the penitentiary.
Such is life for too many women in the prison system.
My point in presenting this alternate reality is to posit this: Why is there so little interest in women and girls in confinement? To me, it seems as if their voices have been drowned-out or subsumed by the screams of the men who have come to define mass incarceration in this country.
Far too many people fail to recognize that when the criminal justice net was widened, females were not simply caught and released like fish unfit to eat. They too were shackled and shunted to jails and penitentiaries.
In fact, while men’s imprisonment rates increased by 7.25 times from 1960 to 2011, Belknap notes that women’s rate of incarceration increased 14.1 times during this same period.
For this reason, I find it ironic that while women were marching across the country last month protesting things like gender inequality, nothing was said in the media about all of these women behind bars. Surely, reporters had to have seen at least one banner or sign in the hands of a marcher declaring that “at least one in three girls in the United States is sexually abused by the time they reach age 18.”
There are no #MeToo’s for imprisoned women. Just “pill-line,” pat-searches, and if they are lucky, a little commissary when the food in the chow hall is disgusting.
The truth is that in the realm of public opinion, as with the criminal justice system, once a person transforms into an “offender,” even a traumatic history of childhood victimization does not mitigate their culpability.
Having not been freed since I was locked away in that juvenile detention facility during George H.W. Bush’s presidency, I know this is the reality. But please stifle your shock at my adverse life circumstances. This isn’t about me.
Keep in mind, females all too often are the ones getting the short end of a very short stick when it comes to crime and punishment. That is just the way it is.
Hence, despite all that I have been through, I am blessed.
To be a man.
Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate in Washington State, where he has been serving a life sentence since the age of 14. He welcomes comments from readers. Those who wish to express their opinion regarding the decision to deny his release can contact the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board. Readers’ comments are welcome.
This story has been updated to include a citation from one of the referenced studies.