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Transformative Justice for Young Women:

Imagining the Path to Prison Abolition

Stephanie Damon-Moore
American Culture 302/03: Senior Project
Advisors: Professor Eileen Leonard, Sociology
Professor Mary Shanley, Political Science

I am incredibly thankful to my thesis advisors, Eileen Leonard and

Molly Shanley, for the support and guidance I received while writing
this thesis, and for their enthusiasm on this topic. I have loved the
process from start to finish.

I also need to express my gratitude for the broader community of

Vassar professors, students, and alums engaged with scholarship and
activism related to prisons, particularly Professor Larry Mamiya. I am
one of literally hundreds of people he has inspired at Vassar, at Green
Haven and Otisville Correctional Facilities, and beyond.

This thesis has been shaped and supported by the young women I
have gotten to know at Poughkeepsie High School. Many thanks to
LizaBeth Urrico and the girls – Giovanna, Vana, India, Anisah, Tyra,
Sierra, Chavonne, Amber, Schquella, Kareenia, Sherika, and many
more – for the most inspiring, frustrating, and educational experience
of my life.

I am now and always amazed by my parents’ patience, love, and

generosity. You have given me such a great foundation. Thank you.

Thank you, Michael James, for getting worked up when I was worked
up, for your genuine interest in this thesis, for proof-reading at the end
of very long days, for well-timed cups of coffee, and for the flannel
shirt that has kept me cozy and warm for much of the writing process.

And finally, thank you to the men at Otisville – Reem, Marlon, El-Sun,
Chris, and everyone else who has touched my life. You are the reason
prison abolition matters to me.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements p. 1

Introduction p. 3

Chapter 1: Violence Against Women p. 17

Chapter 2: Young Women in Prison p. 37

Chapter 3: Exploring Alternatives p. 55

Chapter 4: Alternatives at Work p. 73

Conclusion p. 90

Bibliography p. 100


I met Mariyah1 in the autumn of 2009 through a women’s

mentoring program. She was a junior at Poughkeepsie High School,

and she was a real character. She was a big talker, participating

actively and encouraging others to do so, though she wasn’t afraid to

display a negative attitude when something or someone rubbed her

the wrong way. As the semester progressed, she became a kind of

mascot for the program: her attendance was better than anyone

else’s, she answered our questions when no one else would, and she

threw herself into whatever we did with either enthusiasm or outrage

(“You want us to walk how far?!”) When we wrote affirmation posters

for all the participants for the final meeting, a celebratory potluck

dinner, both the high schoolers and the Vassar students had many

good things to say about Mariyah. But on the day of our final meeting,

Mariyah wasn’t there.

While we were putting up decorations, setting out food, and

preparing certificates of completion, Mariyah was just getting home

Not her real name.

from a night and a day in the Dutchess County Jail. She had been

arrested for shoplifting the night before, and, because she was

seventeen, was held until her father would come pick her up. Her

father, a strict disciplinarian, decided that a night in jail would be

beneficial to Mariyah; he let her “cool off” there until the following

afternoon. By that time, Mariyah was in no mood to celebrate the

completion of a yearlong program in which she had been among the

best participants. That day, instead of her affirmation poster and her

certificate, Mariyah was awarded a larceny theft conviction.

I never saw her again. The end of the year was just around the

corner, and that summer she moved to Albany to live with her mother.

But I will never forget Mariyah, or the night she spent in jail. Knowing

and liking someone who was arrested, incarcerated, and convicted of a

crime was profoundly disturbing. I knew that she didn’t need to be

arrested or jailed, and a criminal record was the last thing that this girl

needed. But why couldn’t the store manager, the police, or the judge

see what was completely obvious to me?

Most basically, I think the difference was that I approached her

as a person who could make mistakes and be frustrating sometimes,

but was doing the best she could and would do better with some

proper support. I believed that she was essentially a good person, and

that if she was shoplifting she probably had a reason. Perhaps “I

wanted the shirt and I didn’t have any money” isn’t the kind of

argument that holds up in a court room, but behind that sentence are

the sociological facts that she was trained to want that shirt by our

consumer culture, and set up to have no money by a (highly racialized)

socio-economic hierarchy that permits the rich to get richer while an

increasing number of families like Mariyah’s are frozen at the poverty

line. If the store manager, or the police, or the judge assumed that

Mariyah must have plenty of good reasons for trying to steal that shirt,

and had tried to understand and address those reasons instead of

simply trying to make her suffer enough so that she wouldn’t steal

anything in the future, her experience would have been very different.

It’s not surprising that they viewed Mariyah as the problem, and

punishment as the solution. Our criminal justice system does not have

space for a legal defense based on the consumer culture or the class

system; it views criminals as individual actors, and responses are

generally limited to prison sentences, probation, fines, or community

service. But our criminal justice system also isn’t reducing crime or

“rehabilitating” anyone. Throwing all the Mariyahs of the world in jail

won’t stop shoplifting or any other crime. A system that would be

effective for Mariyah and for crime reduction would view her shoplifting

as a mistake to be addressed, but also as an opportunity to identify

and address all the causes and effects of the crime. In this thesis, I

promote this kind of holistic approach – what I call transformative

justice – as the most effective way to reduce crime and promote public

safety. My focus is on transformative justice as a response to crime,

but transformative justice is a philosophy that can be put into practice

in many different circumstances. Many other institutions and

individuals in addition to our legal system can adopt transformative

practices to address crime or anything else that reduces public safety.

Hunger and homelessness, for example, harm many more people than

serial killers or shoplifters, and they too can be addressed with

transformative justice. Because transformative justice redefines the

idea of “crime” to extend far beyond the existing legal statures to any

act of violence or oppression, transformative justice responses must be

expanded far beyond the traditional criminal justice system as well.

But although it can be manifested in numberless ways, the basic

definition of transformative justice that I use in this thesis is that it is a

response to violence that seeks the immediate and the root causes of

the problem and constructs solutions based on what is most likely to

promote safety and well being. In this thesis, I use the term “violence”

to describe both interpersonal forms of physical, emotional, and

psychological violence, and also broader, institutional forms of violence

or oppression. I utilize this broad definition of violence because I

believe that transformative justice practices must be designed in

opposition to all forms of violence, which intersect with one another to

produce a person’s history of victimization. For instance, all women

experience sexism to some degree, but that manifests itself very

differently for women based on their race, class, sexual orientation,

and other identity characteristics, and also based on less structural

characteristics such as what they look like, who they work for, or who

they marry. Often there is not a clear line between interpersonal and

institutional oppression, particularly when institutional oppression

enables interpersonal violence. For instance, the young women in the

aforementioned mentoring program were frequent victims of sexual

harassment from their male classmates, a form of direct, interpersonal

violence. This violence was made possible, however, by sexist

disciplinary practices on the part of teachers and administrators, who

allowed the young men to make lewd comments without redress, but

punished the girls for dressing in a way that was “distracting” for the

young men. Thus these forms of violence stem from and reinforce each

other, and all forms of violence that young women experience must be

considered together in order to understand why a crime happened and

how future violence can be prevented.

Transformative justice is designed to work in opposition to

violence and oppression, and so at times I describe it as “anti-violent.”

For my purposes, transformative means anti-violent; transformative

justice practices take a violent act or phenomenon and actively combat

that violence, not only improving the immediate situation but also

putting processes in motion that will reduce violence in the future.2

Transformative Justice is a term promoted by the International Conference on Prison Abolition, and
written about in depth by Quaker scholar Ruth Morris. I will delve more deeply into Morris’ definition of
Transformative Justice in Chapter 3. The term is similar to “Transforming Power,” a concept used in

The aspects of our society that need to be transformed are too

many to count, much less to be included in this thesis, so I concentrate

on transformative alternatives to incarceration, with a focus on young

women. I selected that focus because I have a personal interest in the

experience of young, system-involved women, and because young

women are underrepresented in the scholarship on both incarcerated

women and incarcerated youth. The decision to have such a focus,

however, was a purely practical one. Transformative justice is not a

“one size fits all” way to respond to violence because transformative

justice is based first and foremost on understanding why an act of

violence (in this situation, a crime) was committed – both the

immediate reasons and the root causes. And then, the response is

designed according to the most effective way to address those causes

and the effects of the violence, in this situation a crime. Thus, through

a transformative lens, an abused woman’s murder of her batterer

would be viewed completely differently from a batterer’s murder of the

woman he’s been abusing. After gaining an understanding of why each

crime was committed, how the crimes could be prevented in the

future, and what the offenders and the victims need, the

transformative justice response to each would clearly be profoundly

different. For that reason, it is much easier to begin conceptualizing

Alternatives to Violence Program workshops to describe a person’s ability to transform a violent situation
into a productive, non-violent situation. More information on Alternatives to Violence Programs and
Transforming Power is available on the AVP International website at

transformative justice for a particular demographic than for the entire

prison population. It is also easier to begin by imagining the

transformation of a single institution – in this case, the criminal justice

and prison systems – than to imagine transforming a whole society.

But there are two caveats to my “cross-section” approach. First

of all, all young women do not commit crimes for the same reasons.

For instance, though Mariyah and I could both be considered young

women, if we both shoplifted a shirt from a store at the mall, our

shared gender and age group does not mean that our motivations

were the same or that the transformative justice response should be

identical for both of us. Mariyah is Black, I am White; her family is

working class, mine is middle class and intellectually elite; she grew up

in a relatively poor, urban area, I grew up in a solidly middle-class,

rural area. Thus while we may share experiences as women of similar

ages, we probably have widely different experiences in other areas. In

Chapter 1, I will unpack some forms of violence that many system-

involved women have experienced as a way of understanding both

why young women commit crimes and thus what a transformative

justice response would need to address. However, the experience of

violence that I describe is not universal, and should not be interpreted

as an argument that all young women become system-involved for the

same reason or reasons.

The other qualification that I need to establish is that, despite

this thesis’ focus, I do not believe that transformative alternatives to

incarceration are a necessity for only young women, or that they are a

greater imperative for young women than for anyone else. The existing

criminal justice and prison systems are not only ineffective but are by

definition violent, degrading institutions. Any offender should be

responded to with a transformative justice approach, no matter their

age, gender, criminal record, etc. The focus on young women is

practical, it allows for a deeper exploration of the transformative

justice philosophy and transformative justice in practice, but it is only

one piece of a puzzle that cannot be addressed independent of the

whole prison system. While being able to seriously imagine

transformative alternatives to the criminal justice and prison systems

necessitates a focus on a cross-section of the prison population, the

people who are willing to think about alternatives should have some

basic understanding of how significant the prison problem really is.

The United States is in the midst of an incarceration crisis. With

2.4 million people in jails, prisons, and detention centers, the U.S.

represents only 5% of the world’s total population, but 25% of the

world’s prison population.3 This is a relatively new state of affairs for

the U.S. While the arrest rate has been quite static in the last thirty

years, an increase in the likelihood that arrest will lead to

imprisonment as well as longer prison sentences have led to a 500%

“National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009: The Scope of the Problem.” Office of Senator Jim
Webb, March 2009.

increase in the national prison population since 1980.45 The impact of

these increases has fallen primarily on Black and Latin@ populations.

Black men, for example, are over seven times more likely than White

men to be incarcerated. The prison population is roughly 50% Black

and 17% Latin@, vastly disproportionate rates compared to the total

population. And Black women are the fastest growing demographic in

the incarcerated population, growing 267% between 1985 and 2000.6

These numbers could be interpreted in a variety of ways. It is

possible, for instance, that the growth in the prison population simply

reflects a growth in the crime rate. But the crime rates, in fact, tell a

different story. “Crime rates peaked in 1992 and have dropped sharply

since,” Glenn C. Loury writes in his analysis of the American prison

problem. “Even as crime rates fell, however, imprisonment rates

remained high and continued their upward march.”7 The war on drugs,

largely responsible for an 1100% increase in incarceration rates for

drug offenders, presents a particularly interesting challenge to the idea

that incarceration rates reflect criminal behavior. “A decline in drug

use across the board had begun a decade before the draconian anti-

drug efforts of the 1990s were initiated,” Loury writes.8 Thus the war

on drugs cannot be understood as a straightforward response to

Loury, Glenn, “Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?” Boston Review, July/August, 2007. p 7-10.
Mauer, Marc. Race to Incarcerate. 2006. New York: The New Press.
Loury, p. 7
Ibid, p. 8

increases in drug use.

But if we can’t explain increases in the prison population based

on criminal behavior, how can we understand America’s prison boom?

In response to this question, scholars and activists have created the

term “prison industrial complex.” As Angela Davis writes in Are Prisons

Obsolete?, the term is used to name the idea that “prison construction

and the attendant drive to fill these new structures with human bodies

have been driven by ideologies of racism and the pursuit of profit.”9

Using the name prison industrial complex to describe the U.S. prison

system “insists on understandings of the punishment process that take

into account economic and political structures and ideologies.”10 This

naming practice stands in sharp contrast to the decision of many state

governments to name the same system the “Department of

Corrections”: while the name “prison industrial complex” inspires a

macro-view of the economic and political influences that maintain the

prison system, naming it “Corrections” instead focuses public attention

on the individual problems of the prison population and depicts the

system as something of a repair shop for human beings.

Department of Corrections and Prison Industrial Complex are two

very different names for the same institution. Which, then, is the more

accurate title for the U.S. prison system? One representative

description from a state prison system comes from the New York State

Davis, Angela. Are Prisons Obsolete? 2003. New York: Seven Stories Press. p. 84
Ibid. p. 85

Department of Corrections mission statement. According to their

website, their mission is to “Enhance public safety by providing

appropriate treatment services, in safe and secure facilities, that

address the needs of all inmates so that they can return to their

communities better prepared to lead successful and crime-free lives.”11

And yet, it is far from clear that the Department of Corrections in New

York – or anywhere else – is striving to prepare incarcerated people to

“lead successful and crime-free lives.” The national recidivism rate is

over 60%, and higher incarceration rates are not reducing the crime

rate.12 “Research unequivocally demonstrates that in the absence of

effective treatment, traditional criminal sanctions such as incarceration

and intensive probation supervision do not reduce recidivism beyond

the period of the offender’s confinement, restraint, or surveillance,” a

Pew Center report states.13 Although studies conclusively demonstrate

that educational and vocational programs and drug rehabilitation

programs are the most effective way for the prison system to reduce

recidivism rates, prisons (especially women’s facilities) are notoriously

under-resourced in these areas. In New York State in 1996, for

example, 6% of the state prison budgets were allocated to educational,

vocational, and treatment programs, while 94% went toward staffing,

“The Departmental Mission.” New York State Department of Correctional Services. 1.22.11
The recidivism rate is the rate at which people who are released from prison or jail are re-incarcerated
within five years. These individuals may be incarcerated for committing a new crime, or because they
violated the terms of their probation or parole.
“Arming the Courts with Research: 10 Evidence-Based Sentencing Initiatives to Control Crime and
Reduce Costs.” Pew Center on the States, No 8, May 2008. p. 4

building, and maintaining prisons.14 Of the people re-entering society

who have a substance abuse problem, only 18% receive treatment.

In contrast to empowering incarcerated men and women to lead

crime-free lives, the experience of being incarcerated and the stigma

of a criminal record make it more difficult for formerly incarcerated

people to re-enter society successfully. The experience of living a life

of rigid schedules and rules, virtually no privacy, and separation from

family and friends creates mental, emotional, and legal obstacles for

people incarcerated and re-entering. Upon release, men and women

struggle to gain custody of their children, find housing, and get jobs.

With “technical” parole violations adding to the number of offenses

that could get them thrown back in state custody, parolees have the

added pressure of following rules such as keeping a curfew, not

consuming alcohol (even if they are of legal drinking age), and

maintaining housing that is approved by the state. With all of these

considerations in mind, the high recidivism rate becomes much easier

to understand.

The experience of being incarcerated very often hurts rather

than helps a person’s ability to live crime-free, and there is ample

evidence that the incarceration boom is not a reflection of an increase

in crime. Based on these pieces of evidence, the term “prison industrial

complex” seems to be the more accurate title for the prison system.

“Fact sheet: Prisoners Re-Entering the Community.” The Sentencing Project:, 1.23.11

Davis’s explanation that the prison system is maintained not as a way

to promote public safety but as a way to maintain racial and socio-

economic hierarchies is echoed by Jeffrey Reiman in The Rich Get

Richer and the Poor Get Prison. He suggests that in order to

understand the American prison system, in particular its persistent

failure to reduce crime while it resists proven crime reduction

strategies, we must “entertain the idea that the goal of our criminal

justice system is not to reduce crime or to achieve justice but to

project to the American public a visible image of the threat of

crime.”1516 Reiman destabilizes the generally held belief that laws are

written and crimes are defined in order to promote public safety. He

argues, instead, that the criminal justice system is designed to

“[convey] the image that the real danger to decent, law-abiding

Americans comes from below them, rather than from above them, on

the economic ladder.”17 This distracts from the economic injustices of

the wealthy, and justifies the disadvantages of the poor and working


Davis, Reiman, and many other scholars and activists have

Reiman, Jeffrey. The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice.
Second Ed, 1984. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.
The criminal justice system is very successful in this area. As Madriz finds in her study of women’s
stock images of criminals and victims, women of all races and classes associated “criminal” with young,
dark-skinned men and “victim” with young, White women.
Madriz, Esther I. “Images of Criminals and Victims: A Study on Women’s Fear and Social Control.”
Gender and Society Vol. 11 No. 3. June 1997 342-356
Ibid. p. 4.
In fact, white collar crime is more physically and financially dangerous than street crime. Women, in
particular, have far more to fear from corporations than from scary people in dark alleys.
Dodge, Mary. “Chapter 5: Corporate Crimes Against Women.” Women and White Collar Crime. Prentice
Hall. 2009. P 99-125

presented convincing arguments for the corruption of the criminal

justice and prison systems. The evidence of the system’s failures for

incarcerated people and their families and communities, the obvious

racial trends in incarceration rates, and the economic advantages to

the private corporations and investors that profit from everything from

prison food to the facilities themselves has led to the development of a

movement for prison abolition. Prison abolitionists come from a range

of backgrounds and espouse a range of alternatives and strategies for

abolition, but all abolitionists believe that reducing the number of

people in prison, or decarceration, is the highest priority for change in

the criminal justice and prison systems. As abolitionist activist group

Critical Resistance writes, “As Prison Industrial Complex abolitionists

today, we … do not believe that reforms can make the Prison Industrial

Complex just or effective. Our goal is not to fix the system; it is to

shrink the system into non-existence.”19 This statement is a succinct

summary of the prison abolitionist standpoint, and stands in sharp

contrast to the more commonly promoted movement for prison reform.

Particularly when prison reforms mean adding facilities and prison

beds, abolitionists strongly oppose such efforts.

In the following chapters, I will build the argument that prison

abolition is necessary and feasible, and that transformative justice is

the only means to that end. Ultimately, I believe that transformative

“Our Vision.” Critical Resistance. http;// Retrieved 1.20.11

justice can be used to reshape our criminal justice system and our

society as a whole, and I use the example of young, system-involved

women to offer an illustration of how transformative justice can be put

into practice, and why it needs to be. Thus I promote transformative

justice as both a means to an end (prison abolition) and as the

foundation of an alternative approach to preventing and rectifying

crime, since I believe that it can both significantly reduce and replace

the existing criminal justice system.

The process of transformative justice is first identifying the

immediate and root causes of violence, then considering the efficacy of

different ways to address the violence, and finally building a

transformative justice practice that not only responds to the particular

violent act but also works to eradicate violence more broadly. In this

thesis, I follow a similar pattern. In Chapter 1, I provide some

understanding of the immediate and root causes of crime by exploring

violence that young women experience, specifically sexual violence

and domestic violence. This is far from a complete analysis of the

reasons why young women commit crimes, but it sheds light on some

information necessary for those interested in developing

transformative justice practices for young, system-involved women. In

Chapter 2, I will demonstrate the failure of the prison system for young

women, unpacking ways in which it creates more violence rather than

functioning in an anti-violent or transformative manner. These two

chapters together present the imperative of alternatives to

incarceration, demonstrating that violence often compels women to

commit crimes, and that responding with incarceration produces more

violence. The information in Chapters 1 and 2 is useful both in

clarifying why transformative justice responses to crime are necessary,

and in helping to understand the past and present violence that young

women experience in order to design effective, anti-violent alternative


Chapters 3 and 4 are oriented around helping the reader develop

their own transformative lens, and demonstrating that transformative

alternatives to incarceration are feasible now. Chapter 3 presents four

ways to respond to crime – the traditional criminal justice response,

the mainstream “alternative sentencing” response, restorative justice

responses, and transformative justice responses – and assesses the

strengths and weaknesses of each. Ultimately, I point to the fourth

response, transformative justice, as the only effective response to

crime because it is the only one that is willing to address the root

causes of crime.

The fourth chapter is a case study analysis of the Center for

Young Women’s Development (CYWD), a non-profit organization that

works with young women who are or have been involved with the

juvenile justice system, and effectively works against the violence and

oppression that their clients have experienced inside and outside of

the prison system. The purpose of this case study is to illustrate how

an organization can work and is working in a transformative way –

understanding the root causes of women’s crimes and designing

practices that counteract that violence, reduce crime, and contribute

to decarceration in the present and the future. The work of the CYWD

is limited by the broader cultural contexts in which they operate,

including social realities such as high unemployment rates, poverty,

racism, sexism, and prejudices against people in prison and those who

have formerly been incarcerated, but they are nonetheless a valuable

example of a group operating in a transformative way right now.

Finally, I conclude by imagining how anti-violent alternatives to

incarceration could replace the prison system, and offer a vision of a

prison-free society. This kind of imagination is imperative to such a

radical project. Much of the prison system’s power stems from the

mainstream cultural narratives that prisons are permanent, necessary

functions of any society. Overcoming that assumption is a difficult but

rewarding exercise. By constructing a counter-narrative that takes

seriously the possibility of a nation – and a world – without prisons, I

hope to chip away at the strength of the myths that crime necessitates

punishment, that prisons “keep our streets safe,” and that a society

without prisons would be more dangerous than the one we have now.

1 Violence Against Women: The impact of
sexist and intersectional violence

The young women who come in contact with the criminal justice

system have experienced a wide range of social, political, and

interpersonal violence by the time they get there. Violence functions in

myriad forms in America, and works against marginalized groups and

women in particular. This violence includes sexual, physical, and

emotional abuse. It includes violence committed by strangers, family

members, boyfriends, or pimps. But it also includes forms of violence

defined by a broader understanding of the term: societal phenomena

that explicitly or implicitly limit what young women, especially young

women of color and women from low-income families and

neighborhoods, can achieve. The physical and psychological violence

carried out against women by individuals is rooted in sexism just as the

institutional barriers enforced on a broader level are. And for many of

the young women who come into contact with the criminal justice

system, these gender-based forms of violence interact with racist and

classist violence as well.

In this chapter, I will offer a brief overview of violence – rooted in

sexism, in particular – against women. 20 I will also illustrate some of the

ways in which a woman’s race and class interact with the sexist

violence she experiences. While every woman in America and in the

world is affected by sexist violence, the ways in which that violence is

committed and the effects that it has vary widely. This chapter is not

attempting to define or explain the experience of women, young

women, young women of color, or young, poor women of color.

Instead, its purpose is to support the claim that for system-involved

young women, the violence they experience is a significant factor in

I am framing this chapter primarily around violence derived from sexism, but the effects of racism and
classism are also incredibly important to consider when thinking about young, system-involved women.
This chapter therefore includes – and would not be complete without – a discussion of intersectional
concerns in addition to the effects of sexism. See: Crenshaw, Kimberle Williams. “Mapping the Margins:
Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Critical Race Theory: The Key
Writings that Formed the Movement. Ed. Kimberle Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, Kendall Thomas.
New York, NY: The New Press. 1995. Pages 357-383.

their decisions to commit crimes. For that reason, the development of

transformative justice responses to crime must explore the impact of

violence on women. Because the violence that young women

experience is one of the factors that leads them to commit crimes,

transformative solutions that reduce that violence are crucial in order

to address crime.21

The violence that women experience is very frequently a

synthesis of both deep-rooted sexist oppression and physical assaults.

Thus it is necessary to understand both the oppressive systems that

permit violence to occur, and interpersonal violence itself. In this

chapter, I focus on two examples of this pairing of structural and

interpersonal violence that stem from sexism: sexual violence and

domestic violence. I use these two overlapping but distinct forms of

sexist violence to illustrate manifestations of sexism in the lives of

women, in particular young women of color, and point to ways in which

sexist violence is a root cause of crime committed by young women.

Sexual Violence

The experience of sexual violence, used here to include sexual

assault, molestation, and rape, is an extremely relevant consideration

in a thesis that is focused on system-involved, young women. Sexual

I cannot equate being system-involved with committing crimes without adding this caveat: because
populations are targeted very differently and because the very definition of crime is problematic, it is more
accurate to say that the women who experience the most violence are also the most likely to be arrested and
charged with a crime than that the experience of violence causes more crimes to be committed. For further
articulation of this issue, see: Reiman, Jeffrey. The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison.

injury statistics indicate that between twenty-five and forty percent of

young women are sexually assaulted by age eighteen.22 For the young

women who end up in detention centers, that number is probably more

like fifty to sixty percent or higher.23 Sexual assault and abuse has

been shown to be a contributing factor to girls’ decisions to run away

from home, live on the streets, work as prostitutes, and commit violent

crimes.24 The emotional and psychological pain that results from sexual

injury is compounded by race and class disadvantages. Girls from low-

income families are less likely to have access to medical and

psychological personnel, for example, while women of color and

immigrant women are less likely to know about or trust local service

providers or law enforcement officers.25

Sexual violence and the national discourse surrounding it can be

traced to the definition of appropriate sex roles in America. John

Stoltenberg supports this argument in his essay “Rapist Ethics” by

Sexual assault statistics are notoriously difficult to determine accurately due to the likelihood that many
assaults go unreported. Thus estimates of the incidence of sexual assault vary widely. However, there is a
great degree of evidence that a large proportion of women are sexually victimized at an early age. A U.S.
Department of Justice survey on violence against women that reported that 17.1% of women had been
victims of a completed or attempted rape noted that more than half of those 17.1% were first victimized
when they were under age eighteen. Tjaden, Patricia & Nancy Thoennes. Full Report of the Prevalence,
Incidence, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence Against Women: Findings from the National
Violence Against Women Survey, at iv (2000). U.S. Dep't of Just., NCJ 183781. Retrieved on 11.28.10: .
According to fact sheets from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency as well as the Health and
Justice for Youth Campaign, 40% of young women in the Juvenile Justice System have been raped, while
as many as 92% have experienced some form(s) of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.
Statistics from Health and Justice for Youth Campaign, Unique Needs of Girls in the Juvenile Justice
System, Physicians for Human Rights,
Schaffner, Laurie. Girls in Trouble with the Law. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 2006.
Page 60.
Ibid. p 60

breaking down the generally accepted understanding of what real men

and real women are. “Sexual identity is a political idea,” Stoltenberg

argues. “Its force derives entirely from the human effort required to

sustain it.”26 The two sexual identities that America (and most of the

world) generally accepts – man and woman – are defined relative to

one another. For a man to be appropriately masculine, in other words,

he must appear in contrast to a woman who is appropriately feminine.

Stoltenberg recognizes that people often believe, consciously or

subconsciously, that men and women adopt different sex roles

because of our biological differences. “In fetuses becoming male, it is

said, allegedly male hormones called androgens ‘masculinize’ the brain

cells by, among other things, chemically connecting the brainwave

pathways for sex and aggression,” Stoltenberg writes.27 But he exposes

the illogic of biological sex differences by pointing to the efforts

required to maintain our belief in sex roles. Any truly inherent qualities

do not demand that we constantly affirm them by punishing anyone

who deviates from the norm, for example, or by engaging in scientific

studies to prove them over and over again.

These “inherent” gender differences and the constant

maintenance that they require pose serious threats to the social

agency and physical safety of women. This danger often manifests

itself on the sexual playing field. Stoltenberg’s example of the link

Stoltenberg, John. “Rapist Ethics.” Refusing to be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice. New York, NY:
Meridian. P 10.
Stoltenberg, 12

between “sex and aggression” in men (but certainly not in women)

illustrates one danger of sustaining sexual identities. “In no arena of

human activity” Stoltenberg writes, “are people more loyal to [sex

roles] than in transactions involving overt genital stimulation.”28 Sex

roles define men as entitled – even expected – to be pushy,

demanding, self-centered, and unfeeling and women as giving,

nurturing, thoughtful, and perceptive. Consequently, sexual

interactions become defined by what Stoltenberg calls “rapist ethics.”

Within rapist ethics, it is right for a man to demand sex and wrong for a

woman to withhold it, so when a woman does not consent and a man

forces himself on her anyway, she is the one betraying her sexual

identity, not him. Thus, as Stoltenberg concludes, rape is always the

fault of the (female) victim, never the fault of the (male) perpetrator.29

There are efforts in our society to combat this dangerous double

standard, but it nonetheless manifests itself on a regular basis

everywhere from courtrooms to barrooms. One explanation for male

violence, which continues to hold significant social currency, is that

female victims were flirting, teasing, asking for it, needing it, or liked it

at the time. While on the one hand taboos about incest and statutory

rape might seem to remove minors from the victim-blaming problem,

Ibid, 14
Women are not the only victims of rape and other sexual violence, and men are not the only perpetrators.
That said, women are much more likely to be victims (78% women to 22% men), while men are more
likely to be perpetrators against female or male victims. Source: The American Bar Association
Commission on Domestic Violence. Retrieved on 11.27.10: .

pervasive and well-publicized rapist ethics in fact often lead girls to

absorb even more blame and humiliation. The following testimony from

Melanie, an African American battered woman detained on a murder

charge, demonstrates her perception of how others might view her


I felt terrible about my uncle fondling me. It made me feel

like dirt. But the way he described it, it was supposed to
make me feel special. I tried to think like that, but there
was such a gap between how I felt and what he was doing
to me that I couldn’t stand it. But who could I tell? I knew
that it would completely tear my family apart, and that
their opinion of me would change.30

Though Melanie’s family may not have reacted the way she predicted,

it is significant that she perceived that she would be blamed at least in

part for the offenses or for exposing them to the family and thus

“completely [tearing] my family apart.” It is unlikely that Melanie

would have internalized similar guilt or shame if rapist ethics did not

facilitate the victim-blaming culture in which she grew up.

Melanie’s testimony also demonstrates how sexual violence can

lead a victim to question her own judgment and silence herself. Being

sexually victimized by an uncle, a man who is supposed to be someone

she can look up to and learn from, violates her understanding of

authority figures and appropriate family relationships. On top of that,

her uncle tells her that her victimization should “make [her] feel

special,” while her feelings are obviously very different. Raised in a

Richie, Beth E. Compelled to Crime: The Gender Entrapment of Battered Black Women. New York:
Routledge. 1996. Page 48.

culture that values her uncle’s adult, male voice over her young,

female voice (especially in matters relating to sex), Melanie is thus not

comfortable expressing her own feelings to her family, or even

personally viewing herself as victimized. Furthermore, for young

women who are abused by members of their households or frequent

visitors, the abuse is often repeated for years. “I just tried to avoid

him,” Melanie says, “but he didn’t stop for the seven years that he

lived in our house. I was his ‘special friend,’ which means he raped me

on a regular basis, at least once a week.”31 Thus Melanie’s experience

of sexual violence, like millions of other women, involves multiple

forms of victimization: she is physically violated, while the sexist

underpinnings of the violence permit her uncle to feel entitled to

victimize her, and undermine her agency and self-image.

Physically threatened, culturally silenced, and without access to

the resources that middle- and upper-class girls can often fall back on,

poor young women of color who experience sexual violence often run

away from home, use and deal drugs, and work as prostitutes to

support themselves. Even when sexual assault or abuse is less directly

related to crimes that young women commit, emotional and

psychological after-effects of sexual violence are often contributing

factors to the violence that young women commit down the road.

Though many of these women come to the attention of the


government because of offenses they commit and are thus addressed

as offenders rather than victims, a transformative response would

recognize the role of sexual violence in their lives and prioritize

reducing such violence above criminalizing its victims.

Domestic Violence

There are many commonalities between sexual violence and

domestic violence. One key similarity is that domestic violence is

rooted in the same sex role structure upon which sexual violence is

built. “Rape is not the only action that is congruent with the tacit ethics

of male sexual identity,” Stoltenberg writes, “wife beating . . . is

another.”32 The rapist ethics that Stoltenberg outlines, that men must

be takers in order to shore up their sexual identities while women must

be givers – and forgivers – for theirs, is consistent with domestic

violence. While the term “domestic violence” is used by different

groups to refer to varied phenomena, I use it here to describe the

systematic domination of a woman by her male intimate partner. This

domination is carried out through a recognizable pattern of emotional

and psychological abuse and often includes physical and sexual abuse

as well. And these abusive relationships are prevalent: roughly twenty-

five percent of long-term relationships are characterized by domestic

violence.33 They are also incredibly dangerous: battering is the number

Stoltenberg, 18
In this thesis I am primarily concerned with domestic violence defined as male violence against female
intimate partners within the specific, recognizable structure of a domestic violence relationship. However,

one cause of injury to women in the United States, sending more

women to hospitals than rapes, muggings, and car accidents

combined.34 And though women of all races and classes experience

domestic violence at egregiously high rates, poor, Black women

experience it at a disproportionately high level.35

While the majority of the most serious domestic violence

incidents involve women who are older than the population that is the

focus of this thesis, making it an arguably strange topic for a chapter

entitled “Violence Against Young Women,” many women are victims of

relationship abuse at a young age. Furthermore, domestic violence is a

relevant consideration for violence experienced by young women

because of its impact on children who live in households with domestic

violence and witness the abuse of their mothers and other female

figures in their lives. Thus, I explore domestic violence as a powerful

form of sexist violence that is experienced both directly and indirectly

by young women.

The most significant distinction between domestic violence and

other forms of violence is its systematic, patterned nature. Ann Jones

emphasizes this point in Next Time She’ll Be Dead: Battering and How

lesbian and gay male relationships reflect domestic violence that follows the same pattern and occurs at a
similar rate. Professor Dee DePorto, October 2009.
“Women in Prison Project: Fact Sheets,” from the Correctional Association of New York. Interrupted
Life: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States. Ed. by Rickie Solinger, Paula C. Johnson,
Martha L. Raimon, Tina Reynolds, and Ruby C. Tapia. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California
Press. 2010. p. 265
Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence
Against Women of Color.”

to Stop It. “It’s vital to understand that battering is not a series of

isolated blow-ups,” Jones writes. “It is a process of deliberate

intimidation intended to coerce the victim to do the will of the

victimizer.”36 This process consists of three phases that are repeated in

a constant cycle. First, in the honeymoon phase the abuser ingratiates

himself to his victim. Next, there is a phase of tension building, during

which time emotional and psychological abuse is used by the batterer

to break down his partner’s self-worth, promote himself as superior

and her only resource, and make her fear and obey him. Inevitably the

tension-building phase gives way to the final phase: explosion. During

this time the batterer may be verbally violent, shouting at and

threatening his partner, or physical and sexual violence may be utilized

to reinforce his dominance and her inferiority. Throughout all these

phases, men use many other tools to ensure their control and

domination: they may isolate their partners from family and friends,

cut off all financial and communication resources, prohibit independent

travel of any kind, or abuse their partners’ possessions, pets, or even


For any woman who is battered, there are many psychological,

material, and social boundaries to seeking help or leaving the batterer.

Women are explicitly and implicitly encouraged to do anything to make

their marriages work, and by the time they know they can’t they are

Jones, Ann. Next Time She’ll Be Dead: Battering and How to Stop It. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon
Press. 2000. Page 88.

often cut off from friends and family, lacking financial resources, and

incapable of focusing their energies on anything beyond “managing”

their batterer.37 Domestic violence is very often a direct or indirect

reason why women of all ages become involved with the criminal

justice system. For some, this means committing property crimes to

feed themselves or their children. Others are coerced into drug or sex

crimes by their abusive partner, a facto™r seldom given credence in

the system. Many battered women are unable to care appropriately for

their children, or unable to protect their children from child abuse that

their batterer is committing.38 Ironically, the system often persecutes

“neglectful” mothers more severely than the abusers themselves.

Carolyn, an African American battered woman detained for second-

degree homicide, describes the way that her own abuse and the abuse

of her child led to her incarceration:

It started one afternoon when I was sleeping in a very deep

sleep because he had kept me up [beating her] for two
days in a row . . . The beatings were a regular part of our
life, so when he called me, I was trained to jump up and
run to him. This day he told me that our son had fallen and
hit his head on the edge of the table. I took one look at him
and knew that he had hit him with something, and that my
son was in serious trouble.39

Battered women typically become conditioned over time to devote all of their emotional and mental
energy to attempting to prevent the “explosion” phase. Their batterers teach them that they are responsible
for his outbursts, and thus they attempt to behave in ways that will prevent future explosions. Although no
behavior is sufficiently “appropriate” to prevent violence, batterer conditioning tactics nonetheless achieve
incredible control over victims. For scientific analyses of this phenomenon see: LaViolette, Alyce D. and
Ola W. Barnett. It Could Happen to Anyone: Why Battered Women Stay. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage
Publications, Inc. 2000. Pages 124-5.
Richie, 105-127
Richie, 108

Carolyn’s son ultimately died from the injuries her batterer inflicted

that day while she was sleeping. Though he was arrested and charged

with homicide, Carolyn too was charged with second-degree homicide

for “failure to protect” her son. This criminalization of a battered

woman demonstrates the system’s incapacity or unwillingness to take

significant mitigating factors into consideration, especially in a

situation in which a woman has transgressed gender roles by not

appropriately protecting her child. While the full impact of domestic

violence on the lives of women who have committed crime must be

understood in order to develop a response that is likely to reduce

crime and promote public safety, the traditional criminal justice system

is clearly not built to factor circumstances like domestic violence into

the criminal process. Transformative justice, in contrast, would

recognize the significance of such factors and emphasize addressing

the individual and society-wide impact of domestic violence.

Many women bear even larger portions of the blame – legally

and socially – for harm that comes to their children due to domestic

violence and child abuse. This double standard not only illustrates

societal disregard for the degree to which victims of domestic violence

are dominated and controlled, it also exposes the persistent gender

stereotypes that designate women as nurturers and caregivers.

Despite the mainstream claim that modern mothers and fathers share

responsibility for their children, the criminalization of mothers when

abuse occurs, even when fathers are the clear perpetrators,

demonstrates that women continue to be considered ultimately

accountable for providing proper childcare. Furthermore, whether a

child has been victimized or not, women are often implicitly blamed for

the violence committed against them. Like the rape in which, as

Stoltenberg writes, “the one to whom the act is being done is

responsible for the act,” the first response to domestic violence is more

likely to be “Why doesn’t she leave?” than “Why does he do that?”40

This cultural response simultaneously depicts the batterer’s behavior

as natural and easily understood and the battered woman’s behavior

as inappropriate and foolish. In many ways, then, both domestic

violence itself and the social and legal response to it reflect sexism in

American culture.

In addition to the children who are directly abused or even killed

by batterers, a large number of children are secondary victims of their

mother’s abuse. “Children who grow up witnessing domestic violence

are among those seriously affected by this crime,” the U.S.

Department of Justice website says. “Frequent exposure to violence in

the home not only predisposes children to numerous social and

physical problems, but also teaches them that violence is a normal way

of life - therefore, increasing their risk of becoming society's next

generation of victims and abusers.”41 Both boys and girls who grow up
Bancroft, Lundy. Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. New York,
NY: The Berkeley Publishing Group. 2002.
U.S. Department of Justice. “Domestic Violence.” Retrieved 11.28.10:

in domestic violence households are likely to be exposed to verbal and

physical violence,42 and both suffer adverse emotional and

psychological effects as a result. “The effects of childhood exposure to

parents abuse frequently extend into adulthood.” These effects can

include “anxiety, depression, substance abuse, aggression,

promiscuity, and self-esteem [issues].”43

Although boys and girls both experience these effects, girls have

the added disadvantage of absorbing the messages of sexism and

male supremacy that are inherent in domestic violence. These

messages lead young women to internalize negative messages about

themselves. And while young men often respond to the violence that

they see and experience by “acting out” (often becoming batterers

themselves), young women’s aggression is socially regulated and their

voices disregarded enough so that, oftentimes, they “act in” instead.

“Acting in [is] defined as being depressed, having suicidal ideation, or

self-mutilating.”44 Sexist violence such as domestic violence and sexual

violence teaches young women that they are less valuable than men

and their voices are less valid than men’s voices. These messages

stifle young women’s ability to communicate their pain, and encourage

them to take their anger out on their own bodies. When a young

woman turns her violence outward rather than inward, she is viewed
Lundy, 8
LaViolette, Pages 27-30.
Schaffner, 130

as particularly deviant because her violence is making her more rather

than less visible.

And although it is more common for young women to turn their

aggression inward, they are also increasingly committing acts of

physical, outward violence, many of which can be tied to violence

they’ve witnessed in their families. Laurie Schaffner explores the effect

of witnessing violence on girls’ violent acts in her ethnographic study

of young women in juvenile detention, Girls in Trouble with the Law.

Absorbing misogyny from the culture around them and from the

violence in their homes “harms young women in two ways: it

contributes to so-called girl-on-girl violence, and . . . it prevents them

from forming the friendships that could help them thrive, or escape

other violence, in their lives.”45 One of Schaffner’s subjects illustrated

the impact of witnessing domestic violence when she told Schaffner, “I

get drunk and kick my girlfriend’s ass just like my dad gets drunk and

kicks my mom’s!”46 Thus for young women who are witnesses and

victims of violence, that violence often resurfaces in their own actions

against peers, intimate partners, or themselves.

Intersectional Aspects of Sexual and Domestic Violence

In the preceding sections, I have provided thumbnail sketches of

sexual violence and domestic violence, and I have suggested some of

Schaffner, 142
Ibid, 136

the ways in which these forms of sexist violence victimize young

women. In considering the ways that violence against women

contributes to the involvement of young women with the criminal

justice system, we must consider the complex intersections of racism

and classism with sexism. For the young women of color from low-

income households who are most likely to become system-involved,

the racism and classism they experience often exacerbate the effects

of sexism. In domestic violence relationships, for example, low-income

women and particularly women of color often experience even greater

barriers to leaving.

One of the most significant differences between battering in

White households versus battering in Black47 households is the greater

pressure to be “loyal” in Black communities. Some of this loyalty

comes from very real understandings of the hardships that Black men

experience. Joan Morgan articulates this perspective in When

Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks it


Armed with beauty shop conspiracy theories grounded in

varying degrees of truth, we attribute our pain and
loneliness to some cruel numbers game … Our frustrations
are somewhat justified. There are more of us than them …
We are more likely to get college degrees, and they are

I use the terms “Black” and “African American” variously throughout this thesis, reflecting the different
terms used by the authors that I am citing. Furthermore, while Joan Morgan takes up the issue of loyalty in
her discussion of Black communities, but the same argument is made by different authors about all
communities of color and immigrant communities. Thus while I specifically describe the issue as pertaining
to “Black households,” it extends to all communities that have been victimized by racism in economic,
legal, and social institutions. See Richie and Crenshaw for further analyses.

more likely to marry outside the race.48

Morgan’s statement articulates a reality that Black communities face

together. But she goes on to point out that although Black women

experience racism as much as Black men, the community doesn’t

seem to be urging the men to be especially kind or respectful of

women, even as it asks women to forgive and take care of their men.

These pressures come from family members and friends, as well some

community organizers, clergy people, and media figures.

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw makes a similar argument in her

essay “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and

Violence Against Women of Color.” “People of color often must weigh

their interests in avoiding issues that might reinforce distorted public

perceptions of their communities against the need to acknowledge and

address intra-community problems.” Noting the perception of service

providers that battered women of color often resist seeking resources

in order to preserve the reputation of their partners, families, and

communities, Crenshaw writes, “Unfortunately, this priority tends to be

more readily interpreted as obliging women not to scream than

obliging men not to hit.” Crenshaw points out that this double standard

is a reflection of how women of color are seldom given consideration in

antiracist movements. The movements are centered on racism

experienced by men, thus marginalizing ways that racism intersects

Morgan, Joan. When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks it Down. New
York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. 1999. Page 120.

with sexism to create unique problems for women of color. Women of

color are further marginalized in feminist movements. The battered

women’s movement, for example, “reproduced the subordination and

marginalization of women of color by adopting policies, priorities, or

strategies of empowerment that either elide or wholly disregard the

particular intersectional needs of women of color.”49 Because

antiracism is defined as primarily a male movement and feminism as

primarily White, the specific needs of women of color are often

subordinated and made invisible.

In her ethnographic study of African American battered women

incarcerated at Riker’s Island, Beth Richie found that the women’s race

and class status contributed to their psychological and material

entrapment. The African American women were less likely than their

White counterparts to have economic and family resources to rely on,

and less likely to feel comfortable calling the police making escape

from batterers logistically more difficult.50 Psychologically, their own

feelings of sympathy for their batterers (an effect of what Morgan

describes as the myth of the “endangered black man”) coupled with

aspirations for the traditional, hegemonic family structure led them to

stay with their batterers even longer and through more brutality, on

Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence
Against Women of Color.”
Schaffner makes a related assessment: “Well-off girls got molested and ran away too. But they had ATM
cards; private psychotherapy; social networks of family and friends with homes, spare bedrooms, and food;
and other opportunities to protect and heal themselves and propel themselves forward toward college,
marriage, and other middle-class goals.” p 64.

average, than the White battered women in the study. In addition to

scoring much higher on a standardized domestic violence assessment

tool, the testimonies of the African American women demonstrated the

extreme nature of their abuse: they described being forced to stand on

hot plates, eat human feces, witness the physical and sexual abuse of

their children, miscarry pregnancies, and much more. This testimony is

horrifying, but such extreme abuse is common, especially when

women are entrapped to the degree that Richie describes. Almost all of

the women whom Richie profiled escaped from their batterers only

when they killed their batterers or when they were arrested for another


In addition to the effects of racism and classism on victims of

domestic violence, intersectional forms of violence also take their toll

on victims of sexual assault or abuse. Angela Davis makes a valuable

historical connection between sexist violence and racism in Women,

Race and Class. Arguing that sexual violence against Black women is

rarely acknowledged as the violence that it is, Davis writes, “The

license to rape emanated from and facilitated the ruthless economic

domination that was the gruesome hallmark of slavery.”51 During

slavery a rhetoric was established that defined Black women as

promiscuous, immoral, and unchaste; this legacy has lived on far

beyond abolition to justify the violence of all men against Black

Davis, Angela. Women, Race and Class. 1981. New York, NY: Random House. P 175

women. The stereotype of the “loose” Black woman is paired with the

myth of the animalistic Black male rapist who is bent on victimizing

white women. Though this stereotype of Black men is obviously very

damaging for them, it also contributes to the “loyalty” bind that Black

women so often find themselves in – if they are raped by a Black man,

seeking a legal response or even just victim services may make them

feel like they are adding ammunition to this damaging stereotype.

Again, it is “unfortunate,” as Crenshaw put it, that such fear of

perpetuating a stereotype is the victim’s responsibility rather than the


While my analysis of intersectional aspects of violence against

women has thus far focused on Black women, other groups experience

sexist violence in particular ways. Immigrant women, for example,

suffer egregious forms of social and legal violence when they are

battered. Crenshaw offers an overview of ways in which immigrant

status can further victimize battered women:

Under the marriage fraud provisions of the [1986

Immigration] Act, a person who immigrated to the United
States to marry a United States citizen or permanent
resident had to remain “properly” married for two years
before applying for permanent resident status, at which
time applications for the immigrant’s permanent status
were required by both spouses. Predictably, under these
circumstances, many immigrant women were reluctant to
leave even the most abusive of partners for fear of being

Immigrant women are thus often expected to choose between being

Crenshaw, 5

battered and being deported. Even if they are protected by legal

rights, it is fairly easy for the batterer to deceive his victim regarding

her freedom, and continue to entrap her, especially if she doesn’t

speak English and doesn’t have access to transportation or

communication resources.53 Many service-providers aren’t even

equipped to offer advocates who speak Spanish, much less any other

language. And calling the police may end up bringing more violence –

in the form of the state deporting one or both partners, loss of

economic stability, and separation of the woman from her children –

than passive acceptance of the abuse does.

Women of color and immigrant women who are victims of

domestic violence are also victims of a cultural narrative surrounding

battering that tends to marginalize their experiences, despite the fact

that domestic violence is arguably an even more significant issue for

communities of color and immigrant communities. As Crenshaw points

out, a prominent message in the battered women’s movement has

been that domestic violence is “not limited to the streets of our inner

cities … it is our mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, friends, neighbors,

and coworkers who are being victimized.”54 While the explicit message

is simply that women of all kinds are victimized by domestic violence,

the implication seems to be that most people don’t care about what’s

happening to women on “the streets of our inner cities,” and domestic

Crenshaw, 15

violence is thus only a significant issue because it’s also happening to

middle-class, white women. This message serves to define the

battered woman as white and middle-class, defining the appropriate

response based on her needs rather than the inner city woman whose

victimization is a less compelling reason to take action.

The intersectional aspects of violence against women that I have

described in this chapter are only a small sample of the myriad ways in

which racism and classism further victimize women who experience

sexist violence. In the final section of this chapter, I offer a few

connections between the visible, interpersonal violence that women

experience and the more veiled forms of social and political violence

that frequently contribute to young women’s involvement with the

criminal justice system.

Conclusion: Visible and Invisible Violence Against Women

The violence that I have discussed in this chapter operates on

both concrete and intangible levels, on the bodies and minds of the

victims, and as a shock wave across their children, families,

communities, and culture. The young women who become involved

with the criminal justice system disproportionately experience sexist

violence as victims and witnesses, and are often subjected to

dangerous homes or neighborhoods as a result. Significantly, girls are

also asked by our culture to silence their pain and anger, leading to

self-inflicted harm or to exacerbated legal and social retribution of the

young women who do turn their violence outward. Marilyn Frye

discusses this cultural demand on women in her essay “Oppression”:

It is often a requirement upon oppressed people that we

smile and be cheerful. If we comply, we signal our docility
and our acquiescence in our situation … We participate in
our own erasure. On the other hand, anything but the
sunniest countenance exposes us to being perceived as
mean, bitter, angry or dangerous.55

While Frye is not specifically writing about system-involved girls, her

analysis sheds light on the disproportionate fear expressed about

violence committed by young women of color. It also demonstrates a

relatively invisible form of violence that has the power to silence and

regulate young women who might otherwise speak out about their

violence, connect with other victims, and effectively oppose their

domination. The moral of Frye’s essay is that oppression is like a

birdcage: if you focus on one aspect of it (like a single wire) it is easy

to see many ways to get around it. If, instead, you can step back and

see all the different obstacles created by intersecting forms of

oppression, all the different acts of violence and double binds and lose-

lose situations, then you begin to appreciate how difficult it is to just

survive in an oppressive society.

When women experience sexist violence, these acts of violence

limit their options like so many wires in a birdcage. They are alienated

from their familial resources, physically and emotionally scarred,

blamed by our culture for their own victimization, and asked to remain
Frye, Marilyn. “Oppression.” Priviledge: A Reader. Ed. Michael S. Kimmel, Abby L. Ferber. Boulder,
Colorado: Westview Press. 2003. Page 14

quiet and well behaved or suffer serious consequences. They also

absorb messages about women and gender relations that have been

shown to crop back up in the form of their own self-hate or abusive

relationships much later.56 Disadvantages that result from race and

class status interact with sexist violence to exacerbate the effects of

sexism, further marginalizing and silencing the young women who are

most likely to become system-involved.57 Indeed, these disadvantages

and forms of violence are some of the reasons why young women act

extra-legally and end up in detention or prison. Sex, drug, and property

crimes are often perceived to be the only way for a young woman to

meet her material needs. Other crimes are committed as a result of

anger and aggression that have been internalized as a result of abuse.

And yet, when a young woman does step outside of legal

boundaries, the consequences are often harsh and reproduce much of

the same violence that contributed to her system-involvement in the

first place. In the following chapter, I will offer an overview of the

experience of young women in the criminal justice system, from

cultural understandings of the young women who commit crimes to the

sexist violence that operates in the prison system. In developing

transformative responses to crime, it is imperative to recognize the

failures of the existing system, and to understand ways that the state

has victimized young, system-involved women.

LaViolette, 34
Schaffner, 64, 92

2 Young Women in Prison

Most of the women and girls who end up in jail or prison are

offenders in some capacity, but, as the preceding chapter illustrates,

most of them are victims as well. Unfortunately, their victimization

does not end upon entering a detention or correctional facility. Juvenile

detention facilities have historically been used to house and protect

youth, but for many women the experience of being incarcerated both

reproduces forms of violence they experienced on the outside and

adds new forms of violence to their lives. Though the increased use of

detention for girls is based in part on a rise in the emphasis on

protection through the criminal justice system, time spent in prison is

hugely detrimental to their physical and emotional health.58 While the

glaring inadequacies and defects of the prison system for girls and
Chesney-Lind, Meda and Katherine Irwin. Beyond Bad Girls: Gender, Violence, and Hype. New York,
NY: Routledge. 2008.

women have led many organizations and activists to protest human

rights violations and other injustices, some reformers are far too short-

sighted. Recognizing the insufficiencies of programs and resources for

girls and women versus boys and men, for example, many reformers

point to parity with the male system as the way to “fix” women’s

facilities.59 However, this approach completely overlooks ways in which

women’s needs are different from men’s, as well as the fact that men’s

prisons are an abysmal standard to strive toward. Furthermore,

“improving” a fundamentally violent institution implies that the system

is effective or necessary in some ways, a belief I am rejecting. Instead

of looking for ways to make the system work better, any changes must

work against the prison industrial system and toward decarceration.

In developing transformative justice responses to crime, it is

important to recognize the shortcomings of the existing responses, and

take into account ways in which the current system victimizes the

people incarcerated within it. In this chapter, I explore some of the

specific ways that the prison and juvenile detention systems violate

the physical and emotional well being of women and girls. Due to the

relative lack of sources on girls in juvenile detention, a substantial

portion of my research for this chapter relies on scholarship that

focuses on adult women. While the two populations experience

substantial differences in some areas, my source base indicates that

Davis, Angela. Are Prisons Obsolete? p. 60-83

the forms of violence and oppression that I focus on – including

inadequate healthcare, violations of women’s reproductive rights, and

sexual abuse – are comparably problematic in adult facilities and

juvenile facilities.

Incarcerating Youth, Criminalizing Young Women

In this time period in America, young women are being

criminalized at an ever-increasing rate.60 This increase in girls’ arrest,

conviction, and incarceration rates does not, however, reflect higher

crimes rates. As Jane Sprott and Anthony Dobb point out in their

statistical analysis of youth incarceration rates, following girls’

proportion of arrests and convictions in order to describe their rising

rates of incarceration can be misleading. Using a comparison between

girls and boys to imply that any shift must be on the girls’ end negates

the possibility (and, in this case, reality) that boys are actually being

criminalized at a lower rate. Though there have been some shifts in the

types of crimes that girls commit, even these shifts aren’t as scary as

they sound initially. For example, while girls today are more likely to be

convicted of an assault than of prostitution (unlike thirty years ago), all

offenses committed by girls tend to be at a much less serious level

than those committed by boys. For example, while 34% of youth

charged with minor assault were women, women constituted only 5%

Chesney-Lind and Irwin
Sprott, Jane and Anthony N. Dobb. Justice for Girls? Stability and Change in the Youth Justice Systems of
the United States and Canada. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 2009.

of those charged with murder or manslaughter.61

Yet despite the evidence that young women have been

committing crimes at relatively consistent levels for decades, a variety

of factors is leading to their increased representation in the criminal

justice system and in detention. In Beyond Bad Girls, Meda Chesney-

Lind and Katherine Irwin describe four reasons why young women are

being increasingly incarcerated: relabeling, rediscovery, and upcriming

of offenses that girls have been committing at a consistent rate, and

the conflicting increase in both protective and punitive youth justice for

girls. The first three phenomena refer to shifts in the perception of

young women’s behavior, while the fourth points to a more complex

change in criminal justice policy.

Prisons for youth are rooted in a history of protectionism. The

first juvenile delinquency law in the U.S. (and in the world) was the

result of “a long series of efforts on the part of reformers and other

‘child savers.’”62 This groundbreaking Illinois law, written in 1899, was

named “An Act for the Treatment and Control of Dependent,

Neglected, and Delinquent Children.”63 It is clear from this title that

since its inception juvenile justice has been charged with both caring

for and disciplining children. The other noteworthy characteristic of this

title is that it lists dependent, neglected, and delinquent children as its

Sprott and Dobb, pp. 22-23
Shoemaker, Donal J. Juvenile Delinquency. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
2009, p. 6.
This act is considered the first official juvenile justice law on the books in any country, though there is
evidence that children have been charged with crimes for much longer. Ibid.

subjects. The responsibility to “treat and control” delinquent children is

familiar; using arrest, conviction, and incarceration for neglected and

dependent children is telling – and distressing. This historical function

of the first juvenile justice system in the U.S. continues to be reflected

in today’s system, which often turns to incarceration when faced with

girls who have clearly been victimized by individuals and institutions.

Furthermore, the word “neglected” and the move toward investing

greater power in the system both indicate a growing understanding of

(some) parents as incapable of properly raising a child without

intervention by the state. This effort to curtail the power of parents is

traced to the influx of immigrants into America during the nineteenth

century. Some commentators consider the early “child savers”

primarily concerned with “protecting their way of life” rather than

protecting the lives of children.64

Today, there is a tension visible in the increased rate of arrests

and convictions of young women between the two historical

responsibilities of the prison system: protecting and punishing the

young people who commit crimes. While these contradictory functions

operate in the adult system as well (the system “keeps the streets

safe” by incapacitating its inmates and tearing apart families and

communities), in the juvenile system these two imperatives are in

Ibid, p. 23.
A particularly remarkable example of an early reformer is Charles Loring Brace, who spearheaded an effort
to put “vagrant and ungoverned” children on “orphan trains” from New York City to the Midwest, where
they were “placed out” onto farm families, who were considered morally upright and worthy of emulation.
p. 16

greater conflict because the government is expected to protect youth

above all. Thus, when youth are viewed as both wards of the states

and a danger to it, the state is in a contradictory position. Bizarrely,

detention centers are often defended as “safe havens” for young

women. Instead of funneling money into group homes or support

networks for young women, the criminal justice system has turned to

arrest, detainment, and commitment as a way of “protecting them

from victimization on the streets or in their own families.”65 This

practice ignores the inherently oppressive and disempowering nature

of the prisons, and the high rates of physical violence that occur inside.

And as young women are convicted at higher rates, the penalties for

parole violations and contempt of court are becoming more severe.

Thus “protecting” young women often results in trapping young

women in cycles of longer sentences, stricter parole guidelines, and

RAP66 sheets a mile long.

And just as critics have argued that early reformers were more

afraid of the poor, immigrant youth who ended up in the juvenile

justice system than afraid for them, today’s system continues to

disproportionately target the racial “other.” Chesney-Lind and Irwin

point out that “where white girls’ offenses were more likely to be

described as resulting from abandonment and low self-esteem … non-

Chesney-Lind and Irwin, p. 177
“Record of Arrests and Prosecutions.”

white girls’ offenses were attributed to life-style choices.”67 This

historical and current discrepancy in the understanding of which young

people that the state needs to “treat and control” exposes one

significant area in which racism – in this case manifested as fear of the

dangerous “other” – is both a foundation of the U.S. criminal justice

system and a product of it as well.

In the same way that girls of color and White girls are

criminalized differently, so too are girls and boys criminalized

differently. Boys constitute the overwhelming majority of the “juvenile

offender” population (in the same way that adult men are incarcerated

at much higher rates than adult women), but for certain crimes girls

are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated. The most significant

area for which this is the case is “status offenses” or offenses that are

not criminal for anyone age 18 or over, such as “running away from

home, truancy from school, and disobeying the lawful commands of

parents or legal guardians.”68 While both girls and boys are most likely

to be arrested for assault, status offenses constitute a significant

proportion of girls’ arrest and convictions (18%) and a much smaller

proportion for boys (4%).69 One of the most notable offenses for which

girls are incarcerated is running away from home, most commonly

committed by girls who are being abused by their father or their

Chesney-Lind and Irwin, p. 167
Shoemaker, p. 3
Statistics from Health and Justice for Youth Campaign

mother’s boyfriend. While on the run from these sources of danger,

young women “may become involved in the street economy: for

example, through drug use, drug sales, sex work” etc. Appropriate

state intervention for young women who run away from home, could

reduce both crimes that are committed by young women and crimes

that are committed against young women. But instead of providing a

safe residence and treatment and counseling programs, “girls who run

away are … victimized not only at home but also by a juvenile justice

system that is not prepared for the specific needs of girl delinquents.”70

The difference in arrests and convictions for status offenses like

running away from home is considered a result of the viewpoint of both

parents and the state that girls cannot take care of themselves on the

streets (as opposed to boys). Thus, parents are more likely to call the

police if they have a daughter run away than a son, and the legal

system is more likely to incarcerate a runaway “for her own


Outside Violence is Reproduced on the Inside

The greatest irony of using incarceration as a way to protect girls

from the abuse of family members or the violence of a life on the

streets is that the very violence being threatened on the outside –

sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and more – are

documented on the inside at an alarming rate. The level of violence

Ibid. p. 272

and violations in U.S. prisons is so high, in fact, that a U.N. special

investigator for violence against women chose U.S. prisons to

investigate for a 1999 report to the United Nations Human Rights

Commission. Investigator Radhika Coomaraswany visited state and

federal prisons for women in six states in the U.S. and found numerous

human rights violations through her conversations with incarcerated

women and corrections personnel. When asked why she was interested

in investigating a country “where human rights protection is more or

less ensured,” Coomaraswany replied that “some aspects of the

[United States] criminal justice system pose fundamental human rights

questions.”71 Coomaraswany’s hypothesis, that women’s prisons would

be host to a range of human rights violations, was correct.

One of the most prevalent forms of violence that

Coomaraswany’s investigation uncovered in U.S. prisons was sexual

violence, specifically in relation to sexual behavior of male correction


Rape does occur, but it is a fairly rare phenomenon. The

more common types of sexual misconduct are sex in return
for favours or consensual sex. Given the power imbalance
inherent in prison/prisoner relationships and the hierarchy
within the prison, relationships between prison guards and
prisoners corrupt the prison environment and tend to
exploit the women.72

Infantilized and disempowered by a system that controls everything

“United Nations Report on Violence against Women in U.S. Prisons.” Interrupted Life: Experiences of
Incarcerated Women in the United States. Ed. by Rickie Solinger, Paula C. Johnson, Martha L. Raimon,
Tina Reynolds, and Ruby C. Tapia. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 2010. p. 46
Ibid. p. 50

from what time their lights go on and off to how many sanitary pads

they can have while menstruating, women are obviously not in

positions to consent to relationships with the very authority figures

controlling their lives. “Consensual” sexual relationships are

inconceivable in this setting.

A Human Rights Watch report on sexual violence in women’s

correctional facilities found similar problems with sexual violence, and

emphasized dangers inherent in the power imbalance between

incarcerated women and correctional officers. In particular,

incarcerated women are seriously disenfranchised and silenced,

affording correction officers almost complete impunity to abuse and

exploit their wards. “Grievance or investigatory policies, where they

exist, are often ineffectual,” the report summary argues, “and

correctional officers continue to engage in abuse because they believe

they will rarely be held accountable.”73 Thus not only are women

coerced into behaviors through threats or promised privileges, but they

are also hard-pressed to advocate for themselves and receive the kind

of legal recognition and response that they deserve. Moreover,

correctional officers themselves are often the people women are asked

to approach with a grievance, and, as the Human Rights Watch report

notes, correctional officers almost without exception assume the victim

is lying unless presented with additional evidence. Additional evidence,

All Too Familiar: Sexual Abuse of Women in U.S. State Prisons. New York: Human Rights Watch. Dec.
1996. P. 1

especially when testimony from other incarcerated women is

discounted, is very difficult to attain. This kind of abusive power

dynamic and obstacles to a legal response is reminiscent of sexual

relationships between slaveholders and their slaves, particularly

because the majority of women in prison are women of color and the

majority of correction officers are White.

Furthermore, in addition to the extra-legal sexual violations of

women who are in prison, common legal procedures in prison can be

sexually abusive also. Stripped of privacy rights and forced to

maneuver through a space filled with male authority figures,

incarcerated women told Coomaraswany that they were “watched in

the toilet, in the showers and while they were undressing.” Women in

Connecticut, specifically, noted that sometimes “they don’t go to the

cafeteria to avoid being pat-frisked by male guards.”74 Particularly for

women who have been victims of sexual abuse intrusive – and

completely legal – behavior of correctional officers is especially

traumatic. One aspect of women’s prisons that is often referred to as

the most violent legal procedure is the strip search. “The state itself is

directly implicated in this routinization of sexual abuse,” Angela Davis

writes of the strip search.75 Incarcerated women are frequently forced

to submit to a strip search, in which a woman is asked to lift her

breasts, spread her legs and buttocks, and even remove her tampon if

“United Nations Report,” p. 51
Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? p. 79

she is menstruating.76 This experience, most commonly used before

and after family visits, is a degrading experience for both incarcerated

women and correctional officers.

Though the source-base available for violence in adult facilities is

much more comprehensive than investigations of youth facilities, what

scholarship does exist indicates that the story is very much the same

for adult and juvenile facilities. In her article on abuse in the juvenile

justice system, Leslie Acoca writes, “the abuses that a majority of girl

offenders have experienced in their homes, in their schools, or on the

streets are often mirrored and compounded by injuries they later

receive within the juvenile justice system.”77 The Health and Justice for

Youth Campaign reports that, although girls represent only 11% of the

incarcerated juvenile justice system population, they constitute 34% of

the substantiated sexual abuse cases. Thus the juvenile justice system

exposes young women to some of the same forms of violence and

exploitation that it was established to prevent.

System-Specific Violence Against Women: Parenting and

Healthcare Violations

Not all of the violence that women are exposed to in prison and

detention is reflected on the outside; some forms of violence are made

George, Amanda. “Strip Searches: Sexual Assault by the State.” 1992.
27/~/media/publications/proceedings/20/george.ashx, 15 December 2010.
Acoca, Leslie. “Outside/Inside: The Violation of American Girls at Home, on the Streets, and in the
Juvenile Justice System.” Girls, Women, and Crime, ed. Meda Chesney-Lind and Lisa Pasko. Thousand
Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc. 1999. p. 78

possible by the system’s total control of the lives of women.78 In her

U.N. report, Coomaraswany also noted a range of human rights

violations, from the disenfranchisement that silences the prison

population in America (particularly in contrast to the relatively

significant corrections officer union voting block) to the veritable

slavery of prison labor. Two forms of this system-specific violence in

particular, violations of incarcerated mothers and the abusive

healthcare system, are the focuses of this section.

One of the central initiatives of the San Francisco non-profit

organization the Center for Young Women’s Development (CYWD) is

advocacy for pregnant and parenting young women who are involved

with the juvenile justice system. Their “Incarcerated Young Mothers’

Bill of Rights” outlines some changes they promoted (and achieved) at

San Francisco Juvenile Hall. Though the bill was adopted by Juvenile

Hall, its very existence is a testament to the injustices that currently

function in many other detention centers and prisons. CYWD’s bill

included ten rights, including the right to “have somebody with us

while we’re having our babies,” and “the right to recovery in the

hospital after birth.”79 As amazing as it is to see women have to

advocate for such basic rights, other items on the bill point to even

While this is generally more extreme for women in prison, it should be noted that women in domestic
violence relationships are sometimes controlled to such a great degree that they experience violations
similar to those described in this section. However, it is generally the case that even women who are abused
on the outside experience new forms of state violence in prison.
Sanchez, Sophia. “Incarcerated Young Mothers’ Bill of Rights: From A Vision to a Policy at San
Francisco Juvenile Hall.” Interrupted Life. P. 319-320.

greater violations of pregnant and parenting women. Another right

asserts, “We have the right to not be handcuffed and shackled during

labor.”80 This right is key not only for incarcerated women, but for their

children as well. When women are improperly restrained while

pregnant – especially during labor – they are far more likely to

miscarriage or have complications when giving birth; shackling and

handcuffing pregnant women is thus clearly detrimental to the baby as

well as the mother.

CYWD’s bill also defends the right to “see, touch, and speak with

our children.”81 Physical and verbal contact with children is incredibly

important for women who are in prison or detention, and it is crucial for

their children as well. An analysis of 1997’s Adoption and Safe Families

Act (AFSA) emphasizes the mutual benefits of contact between

incarcerated parents and their children. “The importance of

maintaining family relationships while parents are incarcerated and the

difficulties of doing so have been documented in numerous articles and

studies,” the authors write. Yet in spite of the evidence of the value of

maintaining these relationships, “public policy aimed at preserving

family relationships during and after incarceration is still severely

lacking.”82 AFSA in particular is detrimental to healthy family

relationships. The Act’s primary effect on incarcerated mothers is its

Ibid, p. 320.
Lee, Arlene F., Philip M. Genty, and Mimi Laver. “The Impact of the Adoption and Safe Families Act on
Children of Incarcerated Parents.” Interrupted Life. P. 79.

requirement that termination of parental rights (TPR) proceedings be

initiated if the child has been in foster care for “fifteen of the most

recent twenty-two months.”83 This timeline greatly increases the

chances that an incarcerated woman will lose parental rights,

especially because sentence length has increased over the last three

decades. The likelihood that a woman will be incarcerated for more

than two years is quite high, and two-thirds of women in prison were

the primary care taker for at least one minor child at the time of their


This means that for the majority of women in prison, the well

being of one or more children is in the forefront of their minds during

their incarceration. AFSA and the general disregard of the prison

system makes communicating with their children, advocating for their

parental rights, and preparing to reunite with their children after

release extremely difficult. Contact with children who are far away,

living with guardians who do not approve of the mother, or who lack

the financial means to pay for transportation or the exploitatively

expensive phone calls can be virtually impossible. Thus over half of

incarcerated mothers never receive a visit from their children and one

in three never has a phone conversation with their children while


Ibid, p. 77
“Women in the Criminal Justice System: Briefing Sheets.” The Sentencing Project. May, 2007. p. 5.

Through its capacity to physically remove mothers from their

children, limit the frequency and time of visits and phone calls, make

phone calls incredibly expensive, and force women to give birth with

severely restricted rights, the prison and detention systems are

uniquely positioned to violate women’s parenting rights.86 This state

violence against incarcerated mothers is exacerbated by the

inadequacies of the healthcare system in prison. One of the many

failings of the healthcare system in prison is its insufficient prenatal

care and poor reproductive health resources in general. The CYWD bill,

for example, lists the right to “regular check-ups and proper prenatal

care and nutrition” as one of their proposed changes to the existing

system.87 This failure on the part of the criminal justice system is ironic

given the cultural criticism of and recent legal movement against

women who are negligent to fetuses they are carrying.88 Women on the

outside who fail to ensure the health of their fetus are increasingly

criminalized for it, while the failure of the system to provide necessary

healthcare to pregnant women goes unnoticed.89

“Amicus Brief Filed Against Telephone Surcharges Imposed on Families of New York State Prisoners.”
Dec. 4, 2006., 15 December
2010. Surcharges on calls from prison are estimated to make phone calls six times the price of non-prison
Sanchez, p. 319
Johnson, Kirk. “Utah Bill Would Criminalize Illegal Abortions.” New York Times, 28 February, 2010., 15 December 2010
Dorothy E. Roberts interrogates the criminalization of drug use by pregnant women in her article
“Punishing Drug Addicts Who Have Babies: Women of Color, Equality, and the Right of Privacy.” She
exposes racism in the rate of prosecution, writing that though roughly equal numbers of White and Black
women are identified as using drugs while pregnant, Black women are ten times more likely to be
prosecuted for it. Furthermore, she points out that steps that would promote the health of the baby – drug
treatment for pregnant women, appropriate prenatal care, etc. – are often withheld from poor, Black
women. “The government’s choice of a punitive response perpetuates the historical devaluation of Black

In addition to the lack of proper prenatal care, the healthcare

system in women’s prisons is generally inadequate. “Modeled after a

military structure that assumes its subjects are healthy young men,

the prison system is fundamentally ill equipped to meet the needs of

women,” Johanna Hoffman argues in her analysis of the healthcare

system in women’s facilities.90 Among the many issues that she

presents, Hoffman describes the violence of doctors during Pap-smear

exams: “Tests are provided in small, unclean rooms, without privacy,

and staff often inflict pain while administering the tests.”91 For many

women, the violent and disrespectful behavior of doctors reproduces

their previous experience with sexual violence. Despite the knowledge

that Pap-smears are crucial to their reproductive health, the abusive

conditions in which they are provided often cause incarcerated women

to avoid them.

Even when doctors are not overtly violent during medical

procedures, women in prison commonly complain that their doctors

are disrespectful of their needs and fail to listen to them when they ask

questions or offer ideas. Sheila Enders heard this complaint over and

over again in focus groups on healthcare that she conducted at a

women’s correctional facility. “Can you just stop for a moment and

look at me?” Enders reports one of her participants suggesting to a

women as mothers,” Roberts writes.
Roberts, Dorothy E. “Punishing Drug Addicts Who Have Babies: Women of Color, Equality, and the Right
of Privacy.”104 Harvard Law Review, 1419. May, 1991.
Hoffman, Johanna. “Hep C, Pap Smears, and Basic Care.” Interrupted Life. p. 227
Ibid. p. 232

doctor. “Maybe if you look in my face you will hear me better.”92 Many

of the women in the focus groups expressed similar frustrations, and

these are not in any way superficial concerns; women in prison

frequently have little information about their medical conditions,

treatment, or test results and experience a range of difficulties in

getting and understanding their healthcare:

Incarcerated women pay five dollars for every doctor visit

yet earn only eleven cents per hour of work. They are
allowed to list only one health problem or issue even if
they have several. They wait for long periods in the clinical
area and may not get in to see a doctor. They face
language barriers in seeking to communicate with health
care providers. They are given orders for laboratory tests
or medical procedures without receiving a clear
explanation of their purpose.93

Despite the fact that women in prison often have greater healthcare

needs than the general population – due to their increased likelihood to

have Hepatitis C, HIV, long-term health problems as a result of

domestic violence and sexual abuse, etc. – the healthcare offered in

correctional facilities is almost always difficult to access, pay for, and

understand.94 The failure of doctors to view their incarcerated patients

as capable of understanding their medical problems or worthy of

communicating with makes the experience of receiving medical

Enders, Sheila. “Working to Improve Health Care for Incarcerated Women.” Interrupted Life. p. 262.
Ibid, p. 260
In A Woman Doing Life, Erin George describes her own miserable experiences with medical resources in
prison. The following anecdote is representative of her experiences: “Although normally I’m pretty
squeamish when it comes to blood,” she writes,” I’ve had to learn to remove the [ingrown] toenail myself;
the first time I went to medical to have it done by a professional, the nurse struggled for a few minutes to
remove it, then gave up because it was almost count time. She handed me a wad of cotton (contraband, by
the way) and advised me to ‘just stick it under your toenail.’ Then she charged me $5.” George, Erin. A
Woman Doing Life: Notes from a Prison for Women. New York: Oxford University Press. 2010. P. 134

treatment far more painful than it is in any other circumstances, and

makes the likelihood of being accurately diagnosed and properly

treated much smaller. While inadequate healthcare is a problem for all

Americans who cannot afford top-shelf insurance, women in prison

face even greater problems than low-income Americans on the outside.

Seeking Solutions: Problems with Parity and Expansion

I have outlined a variety of ways in which women are subject to

violence in the criminal justice system, from their arrest through their

incarceration and in forms that are both reflected on the outside and

system-specific. While these various gendered problems are well

known to many scholars, policy-makers, and criminal justice personnel,

the proper response to such issues is widely contested. Two of the

most common solutions suggested are parity (with men’s prisons) and

expansion of the system as a whole.

Angela Davis takes on the parity argument in her abolitionist text

Are Prisons Obsolete?. Many “feminist” commentators have argued

that the way toward a more just prison system is achieving parity

between men’s and women’s correctional facilities. Such parity, much

like arguments for gender equality, would look much more like

women’s prisons changing to be like men’s prisons than vice versa.

“This ‘separate but equal’ approach often has been applied uncritically,

ironically resulting in demands for more repressive conditions in order

to render women’s facilities ‘equal’ to men’s,” Davis writes.95 She cites

a particularly ironic case of one self-proclaimed feminist who adhered

so closely to the parity ideal that she was outraged about the

differences between arsenals in a men’s prison versus a women’s

prison. “It does not occur to her that a more productive version of

feminism would also question the organization of state punishment for

men as well,” Davis argues, suggesting that this misled “feminist”

might do better to promote abolition of the system as a whole.96

Similarly, Marie Gottschalk warns against “equality” arguments

for prisons in her historical analysis of the carceral state, The Prison

and the Gallows. When unjust inequalities in the treatment of races,

genders, etc. have been brought to the attention of the government,

the U.S. has been historically more inclined to “level down” to make

things equally bad. “Prison reform in the United States has historically

been based on extending a brute egalitarianism, on giving all

prisoners, regardless of their social or political states, the same ‘low-

status’ treatment.”97 Basing calls for change on demanding the

“advantages” of the men’s system thus not only sets the bar for

improvements very low, it also opens the door for “leveling down” to

provide worse conditions overall.

Another troublesome suggestion for “improving” the prison

Davis, p. 74
Ibid. p. 75
Gottschalk, Marie. The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America. New
York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 2006. P. 249

system for women is prison expansion. Guided by reports of

overcrowding, non-violent offenders housed with violent offenders, and

other objectionable aspects of women’s correctional facilities, some

“reformers” have promoted adding more beds to the existing system

as a solution. This approach was suggested as recently as 2006 in

California, despite the state’s notorious budget problems and their

current massive spending on incarceration. The proposal, proposed by

Governor Schwartzenegger, would

…move 4,500 nonviolent women out of state prisons into

community correctional facilities. This reform would also
allow low-risk, nonviolent inmates, women who are near
the time of their release, to be closer to their families in
their final months of custody.98

Though Schwartzenegger’s proposal promotes “community

correctional facilities,” these institutions would only be relatively small

and located in urban areas – they would not differ significantly from

traditional prison structures. Furthermore, their construction would not

lead to the closure of any existing facilities, thus adding beds to the

system overall.

This “reform” is ironic for a variety of reasons. First, it recognizes

that many (in fact 40%) of women in prison in California do not

constitute threats to society. It further acknowledges the value of

allowing women to be close to and in contact with their families. Yet

instead of promoting decarceration efforts that would allow women to

Braz, Rose. “Kinder, Gentler, Gender Reponsive Cages: Prison Expansion is not Prison Reform.”
Women, Girls, & Criminal Justice October/November 2006. p. 87-91

be with their families (and prevent the construction of new correctional

facilities) this proposal maintains the necessity of incarceration. It also

fails to acknowledge the reasons why reform is necessary, and applies

a very limited solution instead. “Increasingly, the state’s only and

ubiquitous answer to any problem within the prison system—whether

for more and better programming, disastrous medical and mental

healthcare, or because there are too many people in prison—is bricks,

mortar, and expansion,” Rose Braz writes in her critique of the

expansion proposal.99 But, as she further points out, such construction

is far more likely to harm women than it is to help them. “History

teaches us better than anything else,” Braz writes, “If we build them,

we will fill them.”100 Instead of funneling more of California’s resources

into incarceration – particularly of a population that has been identified

as no threat to public safety – the state could release those 4,500

women and use the money to support their re-entry efforts.

Part of the problem with both parity and expansion “reforms” is

that they fail to recognize the real problems in women’s prisons and

detention centers. Acknowledging the kind of violence that women are

experiencing in every area of the prison system necessitates crafting

responses that are far more radical than simply equalizing the number

of programs between men’s and women’s facilities, or creating prison

beds so that nonviolent women can be closer to home. As both Davis

Ibid. p. 87

and Braz argue, the best “reform” is not a true reform at all – it is the

reduction and eventual abolition of the prison system.

Efforts sincerely dedicated to reducing violence would have to

look very much unlike the traditional criminal justice responses to

crime. In fact, transformative justice responses to crime would have to

take into account not only the violence that young women experience

at home and on the streets, but also the violence and failures of the

prison and detention systems. In the next chapter, I will outline four

different responses to crime; I will then promote the fourth of these,

transformative justice, as a system of justice that is coherent with

decarceration and abolition, and offers the best solution to the kinds of

injustice that are prevalent in the criminal justice and juvenile justice


3 Exploring Alternatives: Four responses to crime

and their potential to effect justice

We can see from Chapters 1 and 2 that our society and our

prison system produce and promote inequalities based on class, race,

and gender characteristics. These inequalities do not result in minor

quality of living disparities but in significant differences in life span,

mental and physical health, personal agency, and access to basic

human rights. This awareness of the social reality of violence is crucial

to shaping a movement of change. Anyone who is committed to

creating a just society must be aware of the injustices in our current

penal system and their broader social context. Bearing in mind the

manifestations of violence in the criminal justice system, this chapter

examines the possibilities and potential for alternatives to


In this chapter, I first break down the discourse on alternatives to

incarceration into two conversations – a traditional conversation and

an abolitionist conversation – and then further divide the discourse into

four distinct philosophies about responding to crime. The first of these

four philosophies is the traditional criminal justice response, which

relies heavily on prison sentences of varying lengths to accomplish

everything from deterrence of crime to rehabilitation of offenders. The

other three responses discussed in this chapter – traditional alternative

sentencing, restorative justice, and transformative justice – are what I

call “alternatives” because they are all meant to respond to crime in a

way that is different and more effective than incarceration. Some of

the alternatives described in this chapter are routinely carried out with

people who are incarcerated; others are used in lieu of a prison

sentence. The concept “alternative to incarceration” is used very

differently by different groups; thus it is useful to first understand who

is talking about them, and how the two primary conversations about

alternatives differ from one another.

While these two conversations take up the same topic, they have

more differences than similarities. Their common trait is that both

conversations – and the people who engage in them – adhere to the

belief that the traditional prison is not a successful institution, and that

the way to address its inadequacies is not by adding more guards,

more razor wire, and more thirty-foot walls. Despite the wealth of

evidence that the traditional prison system is a miserable failure,

proponents of alternative responses to crime are still in the minority.

That said, due to economic pressure and increasing awareness of the

problems and inefficiencies of prisons, more and more Americans are

willing to consider non-traditional options.

Most basically, the two conversations are divided between a

conversation about ways to reform the traditional system, and a

conversation about dramatic, fundamental changes to the system. The

first conversation is largely the only one happening in the mainstream,

and seems to be the most feasible given the prevailing mindset about

crime and punishment. The second conversation is being had by a

relatively small but increasing number of activists and scholars who

reject the idea that the prison industrial complex is acceptable or

necessary. The people engaged in the second conversation view the

dismantling of the prison industrial complex as the end-goal and are

interested in developing responses to crime that reduce the prison

system and serve the interests and needs of offenders, victims, and


The Mainstream Conversation: Alternative Sentencing

The only real resemblance between the two conversations on

alternatives is this common recognition of the inadequacy of prisons.

The dominant conversation, the one that is featured on the six o’clock

news and even in the occasional political platform, is about

alternatives to incarceration primarily as a way of getting more bang

for the American tax buck. The viable alternatives in this mainstream

discourse include mandatory drug rehabilitation programs, education

programs, community service hours, community-based housing

alternatives, etc. Philadelphia district attorney, R. Seth Williams,

represented the typical mainstream position on alternative sentencing

when he told a reporter, “I was looking for ways to help us reduce

recidivism and use our limited resources better…and that doesn’t

mean being soft on criminals.”101 Typically someone like Williams

promotes alternatives for first-time, non-violent offenders, and

mandates a prison sentence for any offender who does not carry out

his or her alternative requirements sufficiently. This perspective

toward punishment is more practical than the traditional stance –

Beale, Lewis. “Alternative Sentencing Gaining Acceptance.” Miller-McCune. Oct 4, 2010. p 1.
Available at:
23551/. Retrieved 10/24/2010.

Williams recognizes that the current system results in high recidivism

rates and is very expensive – but it is still primarily retributive.

The alternative sentences given by the policy-makers and

criminal justice personnel in this camp are in many ways

improvements on conventional prison sentences. For a young woman

who is awarded an alternative sentence, for instance, this may mean

the difference between being able to raise her children and having

them taken from her. It may mean her receiving valuable job training

or drug rehabilitation and being able to thus address a problem that

resulted in her crime – her lack of income, perhaps, or a drug addiction

– and being able to prevent those circumstances in the future. A young

woman who is awarded community service hours instead of a prison

bid will probably not have to move away from her family, leave her

high school, or spend months of her life under constant supervision,

subjected to strip searches, and devoid of any privacy or personal


All of these benefits are ways in which alternative sentencing can

prevent the dehumanizing and crippling effects of time spent in a

prison or detention center. Some alternative sentences even offer

resources that can significantly increase a young woman’s ability to

“make it” without participating in the underground street economy.

But there are shortcomings to this approach to alternatives to

incarceration. They retain an emphatically punitive outlook on crime,

for instance, thus failing to consider ways in which the offender may

also be a victim. The mainstream approach also remains very much

reactionary, applying only to specific offenses and addressing the

behavior of individuals, not institutions in our society. Finally, like the

traditional prison system, mainstream alternatives to incarceration do

not seriously consider and address the needs of the crime victims.

The Second Conversation: Alternatives That Make Change


This first conversation is the one that gets by far the most press;

any more radical disruption of the common conceptualization of

prisons (and by extension criminals, crime, and punishment) is much

more difficult to publicize. As Laureen Snider argues in her article

“Towards Safer Societies: Punishment, Masculinities and Violence

Against Women,” the more progressive standpoint is stifled by a set of

conservative standards for the public discourse:

With mass media quick to publicize any evidence of dissent

among leftist groups, the result is that hegemonic right-
wing forces, unconcerned with the arrogance of
appropriation of voice, monopolize public debate. Thus we
see gun lobbies and law and order advocates skewing the
definitions of right and left so violently that to be
“progressive” in the United States in the late twentieth
century means favoring electronic monitoring and
urinalysis instead of caning and chain gangs.102

What counts as a viable alternative to incarceration is closely tied to

Snider, Laureen. “Towards Safer Societies: Punishment, Masculinities, and Violence Against Women.”
The Case for Penal Abolition. Ed. W. Gordon West, Ruth Morris. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.
2000. p 115

what is feasible in the public consciousness. Therefore, as long as the

reform-oriented conversation is the one that gets all the airtime, any

serious challenge to the existing system will get immediately

dismissed as “soft on crime” or something equally unpopular.

The people engaged in the second conversation, in contrast,

refuse to consider a “reform” of any kind a real benefit to society.

Improving an innately flawed institution is bound to ultimately protect

and further the inequalities in America, this more radical camp argues.

Audre Lorde famously made an analogous argument about the shape

the feminist movement should take when she wrote, “The master’s

tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to

temporarily beat him at his own game,” she argued, “but they will

never allow us to bring about genuine change.”103 While this quote

refers specifically to developing a feminist movement that does not

reproduce patriarchy, it applies equally to forming responses to crime

that do not reproduce the violence of the existing penal system.

Promoting less violent alternatives is an inadequate “master’s tools”

approach; effective alternatives must subvert the social, political, and

interpersonal violence that is acted out by the current criminal justice

system. For example, sentencing a young woman who has robbed a

convenience store to community service and probation is probably an

improvement on sending her to juvenile detention. As I illustrated in

Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Feminist Postcolonial
Theory: A Reader. Ed. Reina Lewis, Sara Mills. New York, NY: Routledge. 2003. p 27

Chapter 2, prisons are violent, degrading institutions. However, this

less violent alternative sentencing reform is not based on the needs

and the interests of the offender or the victim, and it is not likely to

counteract the violence that many system-involved women

experience. If she robbed the store because she needed the money,

she is likely to continue needing the money and the alternative

sentence will probably not prepare her to get a job or find any other

means of legal financial support. Thus the second conversation about

alternatives emphasizes anti-violent alternatives, not just less violent


The speakers in this camp are abolitionists – people who are

interested in alternatives as both short- and long-term approaches to

deconstructing the penal system. Angela Davis articulates the position

of abolitionists in her comprehensive and concise book Are Prisons

Obsolete?. In her chapter “Abolitionist Alternatives,” Davis argues that

the pursuit of effective alternatives must not simply be kinder forms of


Rather, positing decarceration as our overarching strategy,

we would try to envision a continuum of alternatives to
imprisonment – demilitarization of schools, revitalization of
education at all levels, a health system that provides free
physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based
on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and

Davis’ vastly different conceptualization of alternatives from the

Davis, Angela. Are Prisons Obsolete? p 107

mainstream “alternative sentencing” mode of thinking demonstrates

her awareness of the social problems that contribute to imprisonment,

as well as the short-sighted nature of the more conventional ways to

respond to crime. Davis recognizes, for example, that poor education

and mental health care systems contribute directly to the commitment

of crimes; therefore directing resources toward those systems and

away from incarceration is more likely to prevent crime. Her belief that

improved public services and changes for greater social justice in

many areas are part of a “continuum” all related to decarceration is a

reminder that all aspects of injustice in America are currently related

to incarceration.

This broader consciousness is a crucial component of any

abolitionist approach to addressing the problems with the criminal

justice system. While individualized responses to offenders and victims

are a major element of an effective constellation of alternatives, a

system that fails to address broader social and political violence at the

same time will be unable to meet the needs of the people who will

continue to commit crimes. For instance, a system that has excellent

resources for a young woman who deals drugs for her abusive

boyfriend will stop short at the level of a band-aid unless it is also

contests patriarchal structures of gender oppression that breed

domestic violence. This does not mean that a single office or agency

must simultaneously be working against all forms of inequality, but it

does mean that these efforts should be working in concert and not in

conflict. As Davis writes, “Alternatives that fail to address racism, male

dominance, homophobia, class bias, and other structures of

domination will not, in the final analysis, lead to decarceration and will

not advance the goal of abolition.”105 It is imperative to be aware of the

forms of violence and oppression that are currently operating in

America, and to shape alternatives so that policy makers can unite

against these oppressive structures.

Reconceiving Crime Along with Response

Just as it is important to consider the injuries being inflicted all

the time by social or political structures in addition to individuals’

crimes, it is also valuable to rethink what individual actions necessitate

a criminal justice response. In developing a broad set of standards for

how to respond to crimes, the very definition of crime is necessarily

called into question. “The reality of crime as the target of our criminal

justice system as perceived by the general populace is not a simple

objective threat to which the system reacts,” Jeffrey Reiman writes in

his text The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison.106 He argues that

certain offenses – particularly drug and property crimes that are

associated with poor people of color – are considered

disproportionately dangerous to society, while white collar crimes are

Ibid, p 108
Reiman, p 39

minimized and overlooked. “We can compare the decisions [about

what to criminalize] to the real dangers and determine whether or not

they are responding to the real dangers,” Reiman writes.107 He

concludes that the way criminal laws reflect threats to public safety is

like a “carnival mirror” because it exaggerates some threats and

hardly takes others into consideration.

The way in which truly effective alternatives conceptualize crime

is thus based more on the harms produced by an action than on the

traditional criminal justice definition of a crime. This disrupts the

mainstream narrative on criminality by re-evaluating not only what is

considered a crime, but also who is considered a criminal. For instance,

setting the safety and health of the community as the highest priority

for the criminal justice system problematizes the current

criminalization of drug use, possession, and sale, as well as status

offenses and prostitution. By extension, the people who are most

commonly convicted of these crimes – young people of color living in

urban areas – fade out of the profile of the “typical criminal.” A full

examination of decriminalizing victimless crimes, such as drug

possession and prostitution, is beyond the scope of this thesis.

However, in developing an alternative lens for viewing and responding

to crime it is imperative to think critically about what constitutes a

crime and who constitutes a criminal.


This definition of crime, and a definition of an appropriate

response as one that combats violence of all kinds, is not only different

from the criminal justice definition, it actually implicates the criminal

justice system as an offender. At present, communities are torn apart

by the incarceration of their daughters and sons, fathers and mothers.

The needs and desires of victims are largely disregarded. And when an

offender finishes his or her sentence, he or she is dropped back into

society with little transitional support and no economic resources. But

what does a criminal justice system that promotes individual and

community well being, opposes systems of violence and oppression,

and works to prevent crime and injustice actually look like?

New Questions: The Restorative Response

There is no single answer to this question; in fact, one of the

most obvious failures of the present penal system is that it attempts to

respond to all people and situations in the same way. Flexible,

creative, and case-specific alternatives must be employed instead. But

while the specific actions taken must vary, there are guiding principles

that apply broadly to all abolitionist alternatives. I have already spent

time outlining what an alternative should avoid. Abolitionist authors

and activists have provided valuable tools for determining what an

alternative should include.

Howard Zehr, a pioneer in the restorative justice field, uses two

lists of questions, a traditional one and an alternative one, to approach

crime in a more effective manner. He summarizes the criminal justice

response as the following three questions:

• What laws have been broken?

• Who did it?
• What do they deserve?108

In contrast, his restorative justice questions are as follows:

• Who has been hurt?

• What are their needs?
• Whose obligations are these?109

The most obvious difference between these sets of questions is that

the restorative justice framework makes the hurt the priority, and

simultaneously severs the link between crime and punishment. There

is plenty of space in this approach for offender accountability, but the

accountability is reworked as responsibility to the victim(s) rather than

the “just desserts” retributive attitude of the criminal justice questions.

This new set of questions also opens up the possibility that the

offender is not the only one with obligations to meet the needs of the

victim – in fact, it makes it possible to imagine that the offender is a

victim, and has needs of his or her own.

Restorative justice is one set of strategies for meeting needs that

the criminal justice system is currently failing to address. The term

itself has been used since the 1970s, and continues to be used to

describe a wide range of practices in the U.S. and around the world. In
Zehr, Howard. The Little Book of Restorative Justice. Intercourse, PA: Good Books. 2002. p 21

his foundational text Changing Lenses and then again, more concisely,

in his Little Book of Restorative Justice, Zehr outlines his own definition

of restorative justice:

Restorative justice requires, at minimum, that we address

victims’ harms and needs, hold offenders accountable to
put right those harms, and involve victims, offenders, and
communities in this process.110

This position is in some ways radically different from the mainstream

criminal justice response. Yet restorative justice is being increasingly

employed in some cases in the United States and in other countries in

an effort to meets needs that courts and prisons are ill fit to address. In

New Zealand, for example, Family Group Conferences (FGCs) have

largely replaced a traditional court and prison system for juveniles.

Transformative Justice for Long-Term Change

Restorative justice is not the only – nor the best – alternative

model. In fact, within the abolitionist conversation on alternatives,

many figures have contested the basic foundation of restorative

justice. Ruth Morris articulates her theoretical points of divergence

from restorative justice in her book Stories of Transformative Justice.

Morris argues that the very word restorative “encouraged victims in

imagining that you can restore a past” which she describes as an

unhealthy mindset. She also faults it for failing to “take into account

the enormous structural injustices at the base of our justice systems,”

Ibid, p 25

especially its racism and classism. She writes that the terms seems to

imply that “we had justice, and lost it,” while she believes that our

justice system and our society have never been just, and thus cannot

be restored to a point of just equilibrium, but must instead be

transformed to promote justice.111

Morris was one of the leading proponents of transformative

justice, a response that builds on the more shortsighted restorative

justice foundation to address crimes based on their causes. Morris

describes her journey to transformative justice, writing that she “saw

the power of transformative justice in taking crime as an opportunity,

as a symptom of deeper ills, and including all directly affected by the

crime in building creative solutions.”112 As this quote communicates,

transformative justice responds to individual crimes not because they

are the most significant vehicles of social injustice but because they

are visible manifestations of more deep-seated problems. There is a

very heavy emphasis, therefore, on understanding and addressing

roots of crime. “Transformative justice sees crime as an opportunity to

build a more caring, more inclusive, more just community,” Morris

writes. This is to everyone’s advantage, she argues, because “safety

and security – real security – come from building a community where

because we have cared for and included all, that community will be

there for us, when trouble comes to us.” Transformative justice’s

Morris, Ruth. Stories of Transformative Justice. Ontario: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc. 2000. p 19

emphasis on root causes is not a “soft” approach to crime that

endangers society by failing to penalize offenders. Instead, as Morris

points out, it is oriented toward fostering communities that are safe

from street crime and from all the other forms of violence that cause

hurt to members of our society. The existing criminal justice system

fails at preventing the first type of offenses and does not even attempt

to address the other.

The Four Responses in Action

I have thus far covered quite a range of responses to crimes, and

have inserted both my own views as well as the voices of leaders in

the field of alternatives to incarceration. At this point, I believe that the

following illustrative example is the best way to clarify the distinctions

between the four approaches to crime that have been outlined. Morris

writes of a situation in her Stories of Transformative Justice in which a

group of young people breaks into a Women’s Institute and vandalizes

the space. One particularly important piece of information is that the

crime took place in an area where there was significant tension

between indigenous residents and white residents; the offenders were

indigenous while white women patronized the Women’s Institute and

were thus the primary victims of the vandalism. I will suggest three

hypothetical responses: a traditional criminal justice response, an

alternative sentencing response, and a restorative response. Then I will

outline what actually occurred, a transformative response, which

Morris describes.

Criminal justice: The young people or their parents are fined to

pay for damages. The offenders are also put on probation or even

sentenced to a juvenile detention center if the damage was severe

enough. The Institute gets their property restored and the state gets

the retribution it demands.

Alternative sentencing: The young people or their parents are

fined to pay for damages. They are required to repair the space

themselves or perform a comparable number of community service

hours. The Institute gets their property restored and the offenders are

asked to fulfill an obligation that is – at least in theory – related to their


Restorative justice: The young people and their family members

meet with representatives from the Women’s Institute along with a

mediator. Together, they discuss the offense and the needs that it

created for the victim. The young people are asked to take

responsibility for their actions, and the group determines what the

obligations of the offenders are and how they will fulfill those

obligations. Some time is spent making sure that the offenders have

the support they need to move forward in a positive way, both in

regards to the specific offense and more generally. If the community or

the government needs to provide additional resources to the offender,

this is determined at this time. The victims have the opportunity to ask

the offenders any questions they might have about the offense, the

response is based on the real needs the victims have, and the

offenders’ needs are considered by the state. The offenders must take

responsibility for their action and their obligations are clearly

meaningfully connected to their crime.

Transformative justice: The response that was actually applied to

this scenario was one of transformative justice. Morris writes,

… a family group conference was called soon, which

included the children, their extended family, and many
members of the Women’s Institute… Not only did the
children and their family participate actively, take full
responsibility, and agree to participate in a collective
cleanup; the incident enabled people to talk about some of
the underlying causes of tension in the community.113

The community in question was able to consider the ways in which

tension caused by racial and ethnic divides had motivated the

vandalism, and implications of the segregated space represented by

the Women’s Institute were articulated by the children’s indigenous

families and the white members of the Women’s Institute together.

While the transformative justice response in this case has a lot in

common with the restorative justice model, the primary difference is

that the incident is viewed as a moment for reflection and a jumping

off point for changes within the community. The community scheduled

a series of public discussions about race relations between the

Ibid. p 134

indigenous and white residents. Therefore, transformative justice

provides both short-term reactions to crime and long-term reactions to

interpersonal violence and institutional oppression within communities.

This dual consciousness has a potential for effective social change that

none of the other responses that I have discussed in this chapter

share. Though in practice some transformative responses will be more

effective than others, viewing each crime as an opportunity to open a

dialogue on structural problems within a community means that, in

general, social issues will be considered and addressed at an

exponentially higher rate than they are today.

Challenges to Transformative Justice

Transformative justice is the best response to crime, but it is

certainly not the easiest response for anyone involved in the short

term. For criminal justice personnel, transformative justice requires

greater time and energy to explore causes and results of crime, to

empower victims and offenders to guide the process, and to follow

through on meeting the needs determined in the process. Compared to

expediting cases through a court process in ten minutes apiece, this is

a very lengthy and involved process. For victims, processing the crime

and its effect as well as confronting the offender and trying to move

forward is incredibly rewarding, but understandably stressful. And for

the offender, the process necessitates that they admit guilt personally

to the victim and realize the weight of their act of violence. They are

then accountable for fulfilling an obligation that is meaningfully

connected to their crime and their victim. They are furthermore

empowered to make structural changes to their lives; this can be

liberating but demands more positive personal development than

surviving a prison sentence does.

The process, then, is time consuming, perhaps even life-long.

And it is not always going to be successful in accomplishing its goals of

individual and community engagement, understanding, and positive

development. Both offenders and victims sometimes walk away feeling

dissatisfied, or become so when obligations are not fulfilled. Offenders

do sometimes commit other crimes; this can be deeply disappointing

to victims who often want reassurance that they have helped prevent

someone else’s suffering.

And yet, it must be acknowledged that the penal system

currently has all these flaws and more. Two thirds of people released

from prison are incarcerated again within five years. Victims frequently

feel unsatisfied by the process: they seldom have the opportunity to

ask the offender questions, they have no say regarding the sentencing

process, and they may suffer the invalidating experience of seeing one

or more of the people who violated their safety walk away with no

repercussions because they turned state’s witness or due to some

other legal loophole. Despite the state’s insistence that retributive

justice is in part justice for the victim, the criminal justice system

totally disregards the possibility that the victim may have desires and

needs that can’t be met through punishing the offender. And when the

criminal justice system fails to meet its own goals, it is inflicting

additional harms as well. It throws away massive amounts of tax

money, further institutionalizes the offender (decreasing his or her

ability to live non-violently in society in the future), and continues to

disrupt low-income communities of color.

Due to the failures of the existing system, opposing

transformative justice on the basis that it is not always successful is

hypocritical. But even if it had a higher re-offending rate, it still has

much more potential for meeting victims’ needs and diagnosing

community- and society-based causes of crime, which will drive down

crime in the long term. Both of those aspects of transformative justice

are relevant to promoting public safety and community health, and yet

both are dismissed by our current justice system.

As I have argued, the crucial difference between transformative

justice and the other responses to crime is its recognition of and

reaction to root causes of crime. Davis’ broad conceptualization of

alternatives – including community recreation resources and a living

wage program, among others – points to this as well. Effective

alternatives should be “associated both directly and indirectly with the

existing system of criminal justice,” Davis writes. “As they contest

racism and other networks of social domination, their implementation

will certainly advance the abolitionist agenda of decarceration.”114

Transformative responses to crime can be some of the short-term

steps toward abolition as the long-term goal.

Conclusion: Making Changes Today

One frustration often voiced about prison abolition and

transformative justice is that it is unrealistic. This is understandable,

since in America today every other politician is elected on a “tough on

crime” platform, and a massive criminal justice apparatus consumes

government resources in every American hamlet from sea to shining

sea. Easily imagining transformative justice practices suddenly shifting

the national lens of retribution is far-fetched; seeing it inspire racist

and classist criminal justice personnel to abruptly recognize and solve

structural inequalities is even crazier. And of course despite the fact

that the scariest offenders out there – child rapists, serial killers, etc. –

constitute less than one percent of the people incarcerated in America,

these are the criminals who spring to mind and inhibit serious

consideration of prison abolition.

But these challenges cannot stand up against a step-by-step

infusion of transformative justice into the existing system. It is hard to

imagine massive, sweeping changes, but much easier to conceive of

short-term projects that contribute to a long-term goal of abolition.

Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? p 111

These transformative baby steps include starting conversations on

community well being and social justice, approaching crimes in a more

productive, practical, and humane way, and empowering victims and

offenders to take control of their own lives and address individual

crimes and broad systems of violence themselves. In the following

chapter, I will describe an exemplary program, The Center for Young

Women’s Development, to further illustrate the power and the viability

of transformative justice in America today.

4 Alternatives at Work: The Center for Young
Women’s Development and Transformative Justice

“With a mission to empower and inspire young women who have been
involved with the juvenile justice system and/or the underground street
economy to create positive change in their lives and communities, the
Center for Young Women’s Development works to promote self
sufficiency, community safety and youth organizing by providing jobs
and employment training as well as teaching life survival and
leadership skills to young women who are affected by poverty, racism,
the war on drugs, and the prison state.”
– Know Justice, a publication of the CYWD

The Center for Young Women’s Development is a non-profit

organization in San Francisco that prides itself on meeting the real

needs of young women of color, providing resources and support that

enable them to be agents in their own lives, and working in purpose

and in practice against the criminal justice system and the prison

system. The CYWD is the focus of this chapter because its values and

its programs are coherent with the fundamental qualities of

transformative justice. In the transformative justice pattern, the CYWD

understands the immediate and root causes of the violence their

clients commit. The organization shapes its practices according to what

will most effectively address those causes and reduce crime. And their

work contributes to long-term goals of reduction in violence and

decarceration. Furthermore, the existence and success of the CYWD is

evidence that transformative justice work can be done now, within

existing frameworks in the U.S.

Though in the previous chapter I discuss transformative justice

primarily as a direct response to a crime, transformative justice and

alternatives to incarceration cannot be effective if implemented only in

such a limited capacity. The transformative justice emphasis on

addressing individual and societal root causes of crime necessitate

that transformative work be done in every context. Angela Davis’s

description of effective alternatives to incarceration as a continuum

that includes everything from improved public education and

healthcare to restorative responses to crime is a valuable reminder

that recognizing the many causes of crime means mobilizing

transformative justice in many more contexts than the criminal justice

system. In this chapter, I will describe the ways in which the CYWD

operates in a transformative manner.

One of the most significant ways in which the CYWD exemplifies

transformative justice is by addressing root causes of crime on many

different levels. The population of clients that the CYWD works with

reflects this commitment to addressing causes rather than crimes

themselves. Instead of focusing all their efforts on women in Juvenile

Hall, women reentering society, or any other demographic in

particular, the CYWD offers programs to a wide range of young women.

This broad base of clients can be explained by understanding the goal-

oriented nature of the CYWD’s work. They recognize that to achieve

their goals – including reduction in crime and violence, empowerment

of poor, young women of color, and breaking intergenerational cycles

of incarceration, it is counterproductive to focus all of their energies on

one segment of the population determined by the system itself (who is

arrested, convicted, or released, for example). Thus the client base of

the CYWD ranges from young women incarcerated at Juvenile Hall or

recently released to women who are working and living on the streets,

to women who need parenting classes to get custody of their children,

etc. Though their clients are overwhelmingly young women from low-

income or no-income households and most have been involved with

the criminal justice system at some point, their paths to the Center

often look very different.

The CYWD does a variety of work that differs in purpose and in

practice from the traditional criminal justice system. They work with

young women during and after their incarceration, they pursue policy

reforms, they publish resource guides, and they help young women

recognize and unite against the structural and interpersonal violence

they have experienced. While no single organization can address all

the forms of violence and oppression that young, system-involved

women have experienced, the CYWD exhibits crucial understanding of

the many needs of their clients and their community, and they meet

those needs as much as possible through the work they do and the

way that they work.

The Center’s operation is very different from the criminal justice

system in a variety of ways. First, they design their programming

around the expressed and perceived needs of their clients.

Furthermore, their mission, expressed on their website and reinforced

through their programs, is to empower young women of color to be

experts on their own lives and the programs and policies that affect

them. These basic components of the work that the CYWD engages in

thus ensure that their clients will be taken seriously and assisted in

crucial ways that give them more freedom, unlike the restrictions and

obstacles presented by the traditional system. In these ways, then, the

CYWD works completely differently from the criminal justice and prison

systems. Yet despite their differences with the system, the CYWD

engages in programming and policy-changing work within the criminal

justice system, specifically at Juvenile Hall in San Francisco, and does

so with the facility’s blessings. The simultaneously radical and

approachable nature of the CYWD is fundamental to transformative,

abolitionist efforts that can take hold today and continue to build.

I traveled to San Francisco to visit the Center in January of 2011.

While I was there, I had the opportunity to tour their space and

interview Venus Rodriguez, Director of Programming, and Marlene

Sanchez, Executive Director. Though neither the women I spoke with

nor the organization’s website or other materials overtly described the

CYWD as a transformative justice organization, their work is clearly

transformative according to my use of the term. In this chapter, I will

use information from the interviews I conducted at the CYWD to

illustrate ways in which their practices and goals are transformative in


The CYWD is located in San Francisco, occupying about one half

of the seventh story of 832 Folsom Street. Venus Rodriguez, who

shows me around, explains that the space is divided down the middle

into the management area and the program area. As Program Director,

Rodriguez’s office is located on the program side. In the large, open

room adjacent to her office, there is plenty of evidence of the work that

goes on there. One wall is lined with computers for client use, while

pegs and cubby holes hold clients’ notebooks, health supplies in

“wellness” bags, and other materials. “This is the war room,”

Rodriguez tells me, bringing me into a small conference room filled

with a large table and many chairs. “This is where the young women

do their work.” Some of this work, including self-portraits and collages,

hangs proudly from the walls. A large window in one wall looks out, not

onto the street, but into the room next door: the children’s room.

“While the girls are working they know their kids are right there; they

can even see them,” Rodriguez says.

As she leads me to the entrance of the children’s room through

an open area with a sink, refrigerator, and microwave, she tells me this

kitchen space is one of their “hooks.” The CYWD uses free food, free

childcare, free therapy, and other incentives to attract young women

to their programs, and make it possible for young mothers to

participate while caring for their children. The computers in the

program room, for example, are there exclusively for the use of young

women, and the Center even offers money to their clients for

completing certain tasks. “The space is set up so that if a woman

comes in for one thing, say, a free meal, we can get her talking to the

right people, get her signing up for a program,” Rodriguez tells me.

Confident that their programs are helpful for these young women, she

isn’t shy about their recruiting tactics.

After showing me the children’s room, a cozy space that is also

home to their self-help literature, Rodriguez takes me to their “one-on-

one” room. This room is an intimate space with only an armchair and a

small sofa, perfect for its purposes: therapy sessions, breastfeeding, or

a brief lie-down. Then the tour is over and we return to her office for

our interview, a small space made smaller by stacks of cardboard

boxes. The boxes are donations, she tells me, of condoms and other

safe-sex supplies, part of the CYWD’s newest program: Outreach to

Women Working and Living on the Street (OWWLS). It is immediately

apparent that the CYWD’s process for this new initiative is in line with

the principles of transformative justice. Even before their work has

begun, the Center is orienting the program around identifying the real

needs of their prospective clients.

OWWLS will involve a group of trained volunteers distributing sex

supplies to female sex workers, conducting conversational surveys

regarding the needs of these young women, and then using the

information they get during these interviews to develop some kind of

program or outreach and apply to foundations for funding. One of the

most important components of this program, Rodriguez tells me, is the

effort to understand what the sex workers want before designing

outreach efforts:

I think a lot of times people try to help other young people

without really knowin’ what they need, just totally
assuming, you know? So this is really a pilot program to
figure out, what do young women need who are working
and living on the streets. Do they wanna get off the
streets? Do they just want a condom? Do they need soap?
Like, what do they need so we can start to shape a
program around that.

This emphasis on understanding the needs before designing a fully-

fledged program helps Rodriguez and her co-workers design programs

that are useful and effective for their clients.

The kind of needs assessment planned for OWWLS isn’t

restricted to new program development. As Rodriguez explains, the

CYWD uses client evaluations and focus groups to constantly modify

their existing programs.

We would never just run a curriculum and hope they like it.

We’ll constantly keep evaluating it, makin’ sure they get it,
do they understand the concepts, do we need to break
somethin’ down. Cause it’s a lot of stuff - it’s life skills, it’s
professional development, it’s political education, you
know, it’s so many different aspects.

Rodriguez can provide myriad examples of the impact that evaluations

have had on the programs of the CYWD. The organization itself, for

instance, grew out of a mobile women’s health service provider,

shifting to a stationary agency and gaining a focus on juvenile justice

based on the needs that they identified while working on the streets. In

addition to the long-term changes that have been made based on their

clients’ needs, the existing programs are also altered year to year in

order to be most effective for the young women who are engaged in

them. After figuring out that several of the interns in one group were

victims of domestic violence, for example, Rodriguez tells me that they

asked themselves, “How do we address this without going straight to

the girl and saying, ‘Get away from the boy,’ ‘cause that’s not gonna

work, right?” In this case, the staff decided to alter the programming

for that group to include lengthy workshops on domestic violence and


The willingness of Rodriguez and others to solicit and respond to

input from their clients reflects the organization’s commitment to

viewing young women of color as experts on their own lives. As the

first guiding principle on the Center’s website explains, the

organization members “believe that young women of color, poor young

women, and queer young women are best positioned to inform, guide

and manage the development of CYWD.”115 In addition to the ways in

which clients are empowered to guide the work of the Center, the

CYWD practices a commitment to young women of color in another

area: staffing. All of the Center’s management is composed of women

of color thirty-years-old or younger. Furthermore, all of the women

have personally been involved with the criminal justice system in some

way. Thus shared backgrounds between both clients and staff guide

the programming at the CYWD.

In some cases, clients and staff members aren’t just similar –

they’re one and the same. Several staff members are former clients of

the Center, including the nineteen-year-old coordinator of Sisters

Rising, the internship program at the CYWD. Rodriguez points to this

young woman as evidence of their commitment to the “peer-to-peer”


I am so proud of the young woman that runs Sisters Rising;

she’s nineteen! Nineteen years old. She went through the
program with me for two years, became the assistant to
the program, now the coordinator, and she’s only nineteen,
no degree, nothin’, and she’s leading a nine month
curriculum with seventeen women. That is my success
story, and that’s really what we’re about.

On top of the regular evaluations, then, the program directors and

managerial staff at the CYWD are able to draw on their own

experiences to inform the Center’s work. The young women who come

“Our Guiding Principles.” The Center for Young Women’s Development,
14 January, 2011.

into the Center as clients are not likely to be infantilized or demonized,

frequent phenomena in the history of juvenile justice. At the CYWD,

they are being approached by service providers who recently

experienced some of the same issues that they’re dealing with.

The work in which the Center engages is oriented around

meeting the immediate and long-term needs of young women who are

involved with the juvenile justice system or with the underground

street economy in San Francisco. Their largest program is Sisters

Rising, a nine-month internship program that employs seventeen

young women from low- or no-income families, who are predominantly

Black and Latina, and provides job skills, health education, personal

healing, political organizing experience, etc. Other programs that the

CYWD offers include criminal justice courses at Juvenile Hall in San

Francisco, parenting classes for young mothers, and a group called

Young Mothers United which promotes the rights of young women who

are pregnant or parenting. In addition, the CYWD provides court

advocacy for young women who are being released from Juvenile Hall,

guiding them through the process and defending choices the girls

make about what parole terms they can agree to, foster care

placements that are acceptable, and other aspects of release that the

young women are navigating. The Center publishes two resource

guides for San Francisco youth, in both English and Spanish, entitled

“Know Justice: your tool to fight for your rights and your freedom in the

juvenile justice system,” and “A Young Mother’s Guide to Surviving the

System.” Finally, the Center hosts a Sister Circle, which Rodriguez

describes as the “weekly resource group for young women who are not

necessarily in one of our programs.” The work that all of these groups

do – with incarcerated women, women trying to regain custody of their

children, women integrating into their communities, etc. – emphasizes

the importance of providing tools and resources so that the clients can

achieve independent success, during and after the programs. And, in

the transformative justice spirit, all these programs are shaped around

recognizing and addressing the immediate and root causes of violence

in these women’s lives.

These tools and resources range from emotional support and

therapy to business suits and childcare. For some of their programs,

the CYWD even pays the young women. Sisters Rising, for example, is

not only an opportunity to do important personal healing work, engage

with the community, and develop skills, it is also a paid internship. “We

have a lot of young women who have had to self-parent, raise

themselves, find their own housing, and find their own meals, and

places to stay,” Rodriguez tells me. When these women are raising

their own children, trying to follow parole restrictions, and stymied in

job searches by their criminal record, income from a paid internship

can be crucial to their being able to stay out of juvenile detention. The

CYWD also offers financial incentives to members of the Sister Circle,

in exchange for the completion of what Rodriguez calls “tool-kits.” The

parenting kit, for example, asks the young woman who is getting the

tool-kit to complete activities such as taking her child to the park, and

getting a library card with her child. A civic tool-kit asks women to get

their identification card and birth certificate, among other things. When

a member of the Sister Circle completes all the tasks in a tool-kit, she

is rewarded with a certificate of completion – and fifty dollars. “Do all

those things and we’ll give you fifty bucks, right?” Rodriguez explains.

“So we’re really trying to encourage you to do what you normally

should do as an adult, but with an incentive.” Fifty dollars is a

substantial amount of money for subway tickets or diapers, and all the

tool-kit tasks are geared toward enabling young women to move more

freely and utilize more of the resources in their communities.

The CYWD works in many ways that look very different from the

criminal justice system: they shape their programming around their

clients’ needs, they hire only young women of color, and they work to

provide resources that give the young women agency rather than

stripping it from them. They are willing to work with young women who

are struggling in various ways – in and out of the system, trying to hold

onto their children, striving to support themselves, etc. And they are

willing to address these young women as rational, capable people with

obstacles to overcome, not malfunctioning parts to fix. The resources

they provide address both the immediate needs of their clients as well

as the personal and structural violence that they have experienced.

This not only makes the CYWD a transformative justice organization, it

also sets them far apart from the traditional system.

Marlene Sanchez, Executive Director of the CYWD and a former

client, says the Center operates “completely differently” from the

criminal justice system. One of their differences, she tells me, is how

each institution defines the “problem” that their clients are dealing


You know, the juvenile justice system will send you to

anger management training, and I believe you gotta heal
from your pain, not learn how to handle anger. Cause you
have a right to be angry, especially if you’ve been through
half the things some of these young women have. I’d be
like, “Hell yeah I’m angry.”

While every juvenile detention facility that she is familiar with requires

anger management training for their charges, Sanchez is confident

that the anger these young women are experiencing is healthy; it’s the

source of this anger that is the problem. From domestic violence, to

sexual abuse, to state violence at the hands of police officers,

correctional officers, and other state officials, she asserts that the

young women who enter Juvenile Hall angry have every right to stay

angry. While both Sanchez and Rodriguez generally feel that their

clients have made bad choices or gotten on the wrong path, both also

describe their role as educators and support people, there to help the

young women make positive choices, not to be judgmental or

micromanage their clients’ lives. This self-description of the CYWD is

an illustration of their transformative justice mode of operation. Unlike

the traditional system, which is built to see individuals as problems to

be stopped and fixed, the Center’s staff approach their work with the

assumption that there are more systemic – and totally valid – causes

for their clients’ behavior, and those are the problems they seek to


When I ask her how the CYWD is different from the juvenile

justice system, Rodriguez tells me a story to illustrate how the criminal

justice system cripples young women’s abilities to think and act on

their own – and how the CYWD works against the damage that juvenile

detention inflicts.

A young woman recently got out of Juvenile Hall, she

immediately came here, cause she knew us from inside.
And she’s like, “Venus, I wanna be your intern, you know, I
have to do some hours, I really liked what you did,” “Great,
I got you.” But everything she did she asked me: “Can I eat
now?” “Can I go to the bathroom now?” “Can I take a
cigarette break now?” She got so institutionalized.

Rather than encouraging the deference and dependence that the

system had ingrained in this young woman, Rodriguez told her she had

to take responsibility for her own work. “Here it’s like ‘No, you’re the

leader girl - I’m not writin’ shit. You gotta write that letter.’” While the

Center’s emphasis on self-transformation is daunting for some of their

clients – four or five interns usually quit within the first three months of

Sisters Rising, for example – it means that the young women who stick

with the programs ultimately have the satisfaction and skills that come

with independent success.

In describing the transformative power of the Center, Sanchez

makes the distinction between a program that transforms, and a

program that gives young women the chance to transform themselves.

She tells me about young women who have built successful lives and

come back to give the credit to the Center:

But at the end of the day they did it, they made the choice
to do it, and so I think that once you understand that,
transformation can truly happen because you put the
power back into the people who have the power to truly

Sanchez obviously respects the power and the potential of the young

women who come to learn at the Center, a respect for which the

juvenile justice system by definition does not have space. Detention

centers are oriented around rigid rules and schedules, demand that

every inmate ask permission for “privileges” such as going to the

bathroom or checking a book out from the library, and train young

women to be obedient and “manage” their anger. In contrast, these

same young women enter (and exit) the Center by their own free will;

while there, clients are given space and support to heal, develop skills,

and build relationships. Instead of being defined by numbers and labels

like “delinquent” and “inmate,” young women at the CYWD write their

own biographies and are encouraged to explore complexities, ways in

which they transcend negative labels, and sociological forces that have

affected their lives. By providing material resources and information,

the Center empowers their clients to lead more stable lives, and to

work against violence in a variety of ways. Not only are they able to

make non-violent choices themselves, but they are better able to

recognize and work against violence that they have been victim to.

The independence cultivated at the CYWD and their rejection of

criminal justice labels are two of many ways that the CYWD differs

from the traditional system. The Center also fosters positive

relationships between women, helping women overcome the

competition, violence, and isolation that their clients often absorb from

home, school, and Juvenile Hall. “So then they come here and have to

unlearn and really understand both our commonalities and our

common struggle,” Sanchez says, “and then kind of begin to rebuild

that community.” She describes sister love as one of the Center’s

foundational principles, and tells me that they believe women are

much more powerful when they are united and working together

against their shared oppression. “If that happened inside [Juvenile Hall]

they would have revolution in there!” she says. Though new clients

come with their own attitudes about other women, the intense

personal and group healing helps women recognize the value of

connecting with one another for practical and personal ends. Their

emphasis on relationship building and uniting in struggle are key

components of the transformative justice principle of working toward

long-term decarceration and reduction of violence. Without fostering a

commitment to addressing the forces of violence in their lives – and

encouraging a united movement – the work of the CYWD would be

limited to the efforts of a handful of staff members. Instead, their work

builds in impact with every client who going into the world to work

against the violence and oppression in her own life and in her


This commitment to building anti-violent foundations is

illustrated in a final difference between the work of the traditional

criminal justice system and the CYWD: the widely disparate long-term

and intergenerational impacts of each institution. Most of the people

who become involved with the traditional system are caught in cycles

of incarceration, release, and recidivism. It is much harder to stay out

of prison when one is on parole, for example, because parolees can be

returned to jail or prison for “technical violations,” parole infractions

that are not actually illegal behaviors. Breaking curfew, losing

approved housing, or consuming alcohol at a legal age can thus result

in a person spending years going in and out of prison without ever

breaking a law. Criminal records and years with no relevant work

experience can make finding employment very difficult, which makes it

hard for formerly incarcerated people to pay for housing and avoid

stealing or drug-dealing to support themselves. Young women released

from detention are often placed in foster-care facilities against their

will, and are likely to return to detention because they run away from

their placements, and young mothers have often lost custody of their

children or been unable to support a child when they are released. All

of these forces contribute to the likelihood that young women will end

up involved with the criminal justice system over and over again,

building up RAP sheets of great length and increasing the likelihood

that their own children will grow up poor, shuffled from family member

to family member, and perhaps in detention or prison themselves. This

allows the violence within prison and its oppressive effects on the

outside to grow with every new generation.

In contrast, at the CYWD all programming is geared toward

breaking the intergenerational cycle of incarceration and thus reducing

violence. Their parenting classes help women reunite with their

children, the job training and resources enable young women to find

and keep employment, and their education and support helps all their

clients understand the sociological forces at work in their lives and

recognize the importance of connecting with one another and their

communities. In all these ways, the CYWD is committed to reducing the

number of young women going back to prison, and disempowering the

system itself. “You don’t see it just transforming you,” Sanchez says of

the CYWD programming, “but that you know that when you make

healthier choices you have an impact on your children, and your

mother.” Rodriguez also tells me that their work can be transformative

through the young women who successfully develop tools the Center

tries to arm them with. “We hope that by producing these young

women who are more critical thinking, and understanding of why

things happen, that when they do go in their community that

[community-wide transformation] will be an effect.” Thus Rodriguez

sees their work building as more and more young women participate in

the Center’s programs and leave with a new, anti-violent


Sanchez speaks even more directly to the transformative justice

principle of decarceration when she describes her own abolitionist

standpoint. She views the long-term purpose of the CYWD to be the

reduction and eventually the elimination of the prison system. When

asked about her vision for a prison-free society, she tells me about the

Youth Justice Network, a coalition of activists working against the

incarceration of youth:

One of the things that we said was if all the youth prisons
and juvenile halls were to open their doors today, where
would kids go? Where would they go, and would we want
our kids to go there? So we began to look at both
residential programs, mental health programs, programs in
the community that were actually run by community
people, who looked like the young people who were
coming out.

Ten years later, Sanchez was happy to say, the Youth Justice Network

has identified more than three hundred organizations across the nation

who are doing good work for system-involved youth. But of course

these organizations are just the beginning. The CYWD is one piece of

this network, but many more resources are needed to meet the needs

of young women like the CYWD clients.

Both Sanchez and Rodriguez tell me that the CYWD cannot

provide all the resources and opportunities that their young women

need. Sanchez reports that across the nation, the most significant lack

identified by the Youth Justice Network is residential resources. The

Network has identified only three appropriate residential organizations,

and a stable place to live is clearly a crucial aspect of a young

woman’s success. In San Francisco, she says, “a young mom comes

out, sixteen, with a baby, there’s nowhere for her to go. So we’re not

there yet.” Rodriguez, on the other hand, describes employment

opportunities as the greatest hole in the resources available to their

clients. Though they can offer some young women temporary, part-

time employment and job skills, they can’t change the job market, and

connections to employers willing to hire the CYWD interns are hard to

come by. “Here it is we give them all the tools, the resources, we

pump up their self-esteem, we give them suits, we give them resumes,

we give them [mock] interviews,” Rodriguez says, “but we can’t give

them a permanent position.” Thus the young women who come to the

CYWD often have far more needs than the Center is equipped to meet.

While the staff maintains connections to many non-profits in the Bay

Area who can supplement some of these needs, others go unmet. This

conundrum in particular is a reminder that even the best programs are

still affected by the social and economic realities that surround them.

Though the CYWD is a good example of transformative work

functioning right now, they cannot immunize their clients to the

poverty, racism, and sexism that is so powerful in the U.S. and in the


But despite the acknowledgement that their work can only

partially meet their clients’ needs, can only go so far in counteracting

the violence and the oppression that young, poor women of color

experience, the CYWD continues to work, evolve, and grow. Their

commitment to providing a space where young women “can come

together, heal from past experiences, dream, and achieve their

visions” has meant that the impact of the Center extends far beyond

832 Folsom Ave; it stretches out with every young woman who leaves

the Center better able to represent her own needs and imagine and

work toward a non-violent world.

In the following and final section of this thesis, I will conclude

with a vision of what might happen if the criminal justice system was

transformed. Bringing together the imperative to change illustrated by

Chapters 1 and 2 with the feasibility of alternative approaches

suggested in Chapters 3 and 4, the conclusion considers how prison

abolition might be achieved and what effect that would have on the



In this thesis, I have promoted the use of transformative justice

to respond to crime, and have illustrated how transformative justice

practices for young women can be developed and are currently

functioning. Transformative justice has the capacity to dramatically

alter the criminal justice and prison system, because it is built on broad

understandings of the immediate and root causes of crime, and

because it prioritizes practices that are compatible with a reduction in

the power and the size of the prison industrial complex.

Perhaps the best way to dismantle the penal system is to apply

transformative justice to the system itself: recognize its immediate and

root causes, and develop practices that address those causes while

laying a foundation for a prison-free society. Many scholars have

started this process by attempting to explain why the prison industrial

complex developed in the U.S., since the inception of the penitentiary

and especially in the last thirty-five years in which the prison

population has exploded. These scholars have made connections to the

history of racial hierarchies in the U.S., written about backlashes to the

Civil Rights Movement, and pointed to the impact of “tough on crime”

politics from Nixon onward.

But Marie Gottschalk makes a crucial point when she writes that

the “institutional and political context” in which the prison system

began to explode “not only has encouraged mass imprisonment … as a

preferred policy, but has also impeded the mobilization of

countervailing groups.”116 Her analysis is that liberal groups that didn’t

prevent the expansion of the carceral state must be considered along

with the conservative groups that pushed for it. Gottschalk’s text

Gottshalk, Marie. P. 8

includes myriad points at which, presented with multiple options, both

policy-makers and various social movements chose to address a

problem by expanding the carceral state. This indicates that the

development of mass incarceration did not spring from a single

administration or political interest, and thus is not so easy to unite

against. But it also means that the kind of “political openings” that led

to the development of the carceral state will arise again – and this

time, they could be used to dismantle the system rather than expand


What Gottschalk’s analysis tells us is that it matters what people

think of prisons and punishment. If the prevailing notion of prisons is

that they are basically effective, if not for rehabilitating people then at

least for keeping the “public” safe, then when the time comes to make

a decision about addressing some social problem incarceration will be

viewed as a viable option. Similarly, even if people understand the

inherent problems with prisons, they will persist as a major institution

as long as people retain a conviction – consciously or unconsciously –

that they are necessary and permanent features of a “civilized”

society. The argument that I have built in the preceding chapters

opposes the notion of incarceration as a viable, effective response to

crime, and promotes transformative justice as the only response that is

likely to increase public safety and well being. But unless people can

truly fathom the idea of a prison-free society, incarceration will retain a

crucial edge when those “political openings” present themselves. Thus

it is necessary to both communicate the imperative for change and to

present a transformed, prison-free society as a comprehensible


Prisons are constructed as permanent, necessary, and effective

by countless narratives in our culture. These narratives are promoted

by politicians, entertainment and news media, literature and

textbooks, etc. “The dominant group justifies its privileged position by

means of stories, stock explanations that construct reality in ways

favorable to it,” Richard Delgado writes in his article “Storytelling for

Oppositionist and Others: A Plea for Narrative.” But just as the

dominant group can utilize narratives to justify the maintenance of

violent and oppressive institutions, so can counter-narratives be used

to destabilize these constructs. Stories that depict prisons as

unfortunate necessities and people in prison as (sadly, but) necessarily

incarcerated can be comforting to those of us who are almost definitely

never going to be in prison. “Their complacency – born of comforting

stories – is a major stumbling block to … progress,” Delgado writes.

“Counterstories can attack that complacency.”117 Counter-narratives

that demonstrate the feasibility of a nation without prisons are thus

powerful tools in the process of helping policy makers and the general

public come to terms with the idea that prisons are neither effective

Delgado, Richard. “Storytelling For Oppositionists and Others: A Plea for Narrative.” Michigan Law
Review, Vol 87, Aug 1989. Page 2439

nor indispensable. The more these counter-narratives can be

promoted, the more likely it becomes that at the next “political

opening,” problems will not be responded to with prisons.

Counter-narratives that imagine a prison-free America are also

useful for the very people who are working toward the goal of prison

abolition. Developing and keeping an eye on ideals helps to ensure

that the steps toward the end-goal are crafted deliberately and

strategically, guiding activists away from compromises or short cuts

that may set them further back in the long-term. Furthermore,

visualizing the gold at the end of the transformative justice rainbow

can be motivational, inspiring frustrated activists to continue working

transformatively despite the multitude of forces working to maintain

the prison industrial complex.

Thus I conclude this thesis with a collection of visions. Each one

is a projection, an educated guess, a dream for a world in which acts of

violence, in this case crimes, are opportunities to understand and

subvert problems in our society, not opportunities to inflict more

violence and strip away the agency of certain – disproportionately

poor, Black or Latino – individuals and communities. Each scenario

differs, but throughout I have abandoned the notion that punishment

must be an aspect of any response to crime. I also rely to some degree

on the willing participation of offenders and all community members.

This is because I believe that an evolved system of justice would lead

to an evolved society, and I trust that people would generally

participate in an egalitarian system that designed rational, just

responses to crime.

The Shoplifter

A young woman named Karina is caught shoplifting at the

mall. The store’s manager realizes that this is a sign that
something else is wrong; he calls the local justice office, and lets
them know that this young woman is acting inappropriately.
Shortly after, Karina, her father, her grandmother, her school
counselor, a state employed mediator, and the store’s owner sit
down together to listen to what Karina has to say. They also want
to develop an action plan that will ensure Karina understands
why her actions were inappropriate, and construct an obligation
for Karina to fulfill that can compensate for what she did.
During this conversation, Karina has a chance to explain to
her father – with the help of a mediator – that his form of
discipline is getting in the way of her life and making her feel
smothered, and his rules don’t make sense to her. She explains
to the school counselor that she feels alienated from the school
and her classes, and increasingly feels pressure from other girls
to wear expensive, trendy clothes, and to lose weight. These
conversations open up useful dialogues, and point to issues that
both her father and her school counselor can now begin to
address. The mediator can help facilitate conversation so that
blame is not being unduly shifted onto or off of Karina, and
channels of communication remain open and healthy throughout.
In recompense for her shoplifting, Karina agrees to work part-
time for a month for the storeowner, and he in turn agrees to
write her an excellent letter of recommendation or to be a
reference if she works hard and does a good job. Through this
exchange, the storeowner receives free labor, and Karina gets
some work experience and a good reference, both of which may
help her find a job in the future.

The Wife Batterer

Lisa calls the justice office in a panic. Her husband, John, has
been beating her viciously, and is now threatening to kill her son.
Justice officers are dispatched immediately, and luckily no more
damage has been done by the time they arrive. Recognizing the

domestic violence nature of the relationship, the officers
understand that they can’t leave the two alone, but Lisa is now
hysterical again at the thought of her husband going to jail. The
officers assure her he’ll be taken good care of, and call the local
battered women’s service provider to connect her with a
caseworker who can support her through this process.
John will, in fact, be taken good care of. Jail is not a cold,
vicious, degrading place, but a relatively modest central office
and a series of small facilities that resemble highly secured
homes. While those who are incarcerated are under heavy
surveillance, they are otherwise treated with respect. Only a few
offenders – particularly batterers, like John – are considered
dangerous enough to require constant confinement, so the
population in jails stays fairly low. Though John may never stop
posing a serious security risk to Lisa and her children, support
networks and mediation processes in which John is required to
take full responsibility for his violence and to recognize the pain
that he has caused may make his release possible. And while he
is in jail, the confinement itself will be viewed as the only
punishment; his quality of life will most closely resemble that of
people with physical or developmental disabilities who live with
full-time assistance – except instead of assistance, he will have
full-time surveillance.
Lisa and her children, however, are the first priority for the
justice officers. After connecting her with battered women’s
services, the officers will work with Lisa, her caseworker, and
perhaps other family members to identify her material and
emotional needs and provides her with sufficient resources.
Housing, food, healthcare, and many other immediate needs
may be jeopardized by her husband’s incarceration, and the
justice system recognizes that she must not be further
But each new domestic violence case these officers get, and
they get a lot, is a reminder that there are forces functioning far
beyond the level of individual offenders. Thus addressing the
offender and the victim of a single case is not sufficient. Because
statistics demonstrate that the only batterers who have shown
any encouraging rates of “recovery” are teenagers, and the
absorption of misogynist conceptions of gender roles is the most
basic root cause of domestic violence, the justice offenders view
this event as one more reminder that resources must be applied
to raise awareness of domestic violence and to combat sexism.
Every time a batterer is incarcerated, $5,000 is contributed to
education initiatives that address domestic violence at its roots.

The Drug Dealer

Mark is twenty-one when a sting operation incriminates him

as a heroin dealer. The officers bring Mark in to get his
identification and fingerprints, and conduct a brief interview to
establish his living situation, his relationship with family
members, and some other background information. He is
released until a time when the justice officers can arrange a
conversation with Mark’s mother, his girlfriend, and a state
employed mediator. Also present at the conference are a
recovering crack addict, a local community leader who
coordinates an after-school program for youth, and a local
This conversation reveals that with Mark’s incomplete high
school education and the local job market, dealing drugs is one
of the best paying job opportunities available. As Mark begins to
talk about his decision to deal, it becomes clear that he also feels
a great deal of pressure to have nice, brand name clothing,
accessories, and technological devices. The last job he held, a
night janitor position, meant that he wasn’t seeing family and
friends who were working regular, daytime jobs, and despite the
many tedious hours he worked he was barely able to cover his
basic financial obligations. It didn’t look like he would be able to
move up in the company at all, and he didn’t feel like he was
gaining any skills or training that would help him do something
he preferred.
Then his girlfriend and mother speak about how much they
worried about Mark. Heroin dealing is a dangerous, dirty job that
put him in contact with many people who would sometimes do
almost anything for their next fix. It also meant that he
sometimes had large amounts of heroin or money, both of which
made him an easy target for robbery and even assault. Mark
knew that he was taking these risks, but he hadn’t realized the
full effect of his risk-taking on his loved ones.
After his family speaks, the preacher and the youth program
coordinator speak about the effect of heroin on their community.
Dealers rely on people being addicted, they explain, and the very
people that Mark was introducing to the highly addictive
substance were the same people the preacher and the program
coordinator try so hard to keep away from such a dangerous,
destructive, and expensive habit. The youth program coordinator
in particular offers several examples of struggling students who
had fallen off the map after using heroin to forget about the
problems they were dealing with.
By far the most poignant testimony, though, comes from the
recovering heroin addict. Tanya had spent two years using

heroin on a regular basis before she robbed a woman at
knifepoint and was compelled by the justice system to complete
an in-patient detox program. Tanya describes in detail the effect
her addiction had had on her children, her parents, and her own
life. A year and a half after her in-patient program was
completed, she is still struggling to rebuild her relationship with
her children, and suffering significant health problems because
of the drug’s effects.
Mark is very moved by what everyone has said, but also
knows that he still can’t get a decent job in his community.
Because situations like Mark’s dealing are used to pinpoint
structures that must be in some ways improved, the state
mediator takes this opportunity to make recommendations to the
state about the schools that Mark attended, the job market in his
community, and the welfare benefits. The mediator makes
powerful arguments to the state regarding the positive chain
reactions set off by good welfare benefits, including higher
revenue for local businesses, reduced use and dealing of drugs,
and a substantial reduction of the number of children living in
Ultimately, Mark will volunteer with the youth program
coordinator three days per week for a year, and get connected to
many families in his neighborhood that way. He gains a variety of
job skills through his volunteer position, and is proud of the work
that he does. He receives an emergency financial services grant
from the Department of Social Services to support his living
expenses and fund GED classes, but his case and many others
also put into the works dramatic changes to the welfare state,
which eventually expands to reduce greatly the marginal
benefits of dealing drugs.

The Fighter

17-year-old Miranda has a history of getting into fights.

Though justice officers have twice now broken up fights that she
has been in and released the participants with nothing more than
a warning, this time they feel compelled to execute a more
significant intervention. Miranda has broken the clavicle of the
young woman she was fighting, and it’s apparent that she was
the primary instigator in this situation. She is brought in to the
central office for a brief interview, at which point it becomes
apparent to the justice officer that Miranda’s father is physically
abusing her. For this reason, the family services division
becomes involved, and Miranda is connected with an advocate
there. Together, they decide that Miranda can and should remain

at home, but will meet twice weekly with her advocate and also
join a support group for victims of child abuse. Her father is
brought in to the justice office, and his own intervention process
is begun.
But Miranda must also take responsibility for the harm she
has inflicted. Shortly after, Miranda sits down with her mother,
the girl she was fighting, the girl’s mother, a counselor from their
high school, and a state mediator meet to discuss the fight.
Though the justice office knows that part of the reason that
Miranda struggles to work out conflict non-violently is the abuse
that her father has inflicted on her, they also know that Miranda
needs to work out the specifics of this incident, and that the
victim deserves a response.
Miranda discusses her feeling about a look the girl was
giving her, but acknowledges that she could have chosen a
different way to respond. She said she felt hot and impulsive and
unable to control herself, but she was sorry after the fact.
Her victim, Anisah, describes her physical and emotional
suffering after the fight. She talks about feeling more distrustful
of other students, and about the logistical challenges of daily life
with one arm in a sling. She says she’s been having bad dreams
about the fight, and feels vulnerable when she’s not with friends
or family. Anisah’s mother describes being scared every time the
phone rings, and worrying whenever Anisah leaves the house.
Miranda apologizes for the pain she has caused Anisah and
her mother, and admits that she had no idea the effects of her
actions could be so profound. The state mediator describes some
of the obligations that offenders in these situations have been
asked to fulfill, and together Miranda, Anisah, and the girls’
mothers decide that Miranda will write an article for the high
school newspaper about the impact of fighting on the people
involved and the school environment, and will work for Anisah’s
family for an hour a day until her arm can come out of the sling
doing the chores Anisah usually does.

The Serial Killer

After seventeen prostitutes are killed in a single urban area

during a two-year time period, investigators in the justice office
connect the crimes with a man named Robert. Robert is
immediately taken into custody and – like The Batterer –
confined in one of the state’s secure housing facilities. Because
he denies his guilt, he enters the trial process, which ultimately
ends in his conviction. It is very likely that, if released, Robert
would continue to commit murders, so he will probably be

confined for the rest of his life. He is sent to a small, secure
facility with ample mental health resources. While there, Robert
collaborates with the state to help his victims’ families come to
terms with their losses.
During the process, it becomes clear that, like many serial
killers, Robert was the victim of extreme physical and sexual
abuse as a child. Through his writing and his collaboration with
psychologists, service providers, and activists, Robert joins the
fight against child abuse. Though he lives out his life in
confinement, he is treated with respect, given comfortable
housing, and empowered to have a positive impact on the lives
of others.

Though these scenarios are clearly very different from one

another, none of them involves any specifically punitive actions. Each

response includes some kind of obligation or requirement for the

offender, but these responsibilities are never used to inflict pain; on

the contrary, in each situation state violence is as minimal as possible.

Though both The Batterer and The Serial Killer are deemed unsafe and

thus confined, their confinement is designed to prevent further

violence, not to unnecessarily hurt or humanize them. Despite the

violence that these two offenders have brought into the world, the

justice system does not seek to unproductively compound that

violence with state violence.

Offenders, in the visions I have detailed, are considered

members of our society despite their negative actions, and they are

treated with respect. Meeting their needs is considered a priority, both

because they are valued as human beings and because with their

needs met, they are much less likely to continue engaging in criminal

behavior. Victims are also valued and given voice. In these scenarios,

the victims do not receive “restoration” – most crimes are at least

partly violations of intangible property, such as a feeling of safety, that

cannot be restored – but they do have the chance to ask questions, be

a part of the decision making process, and typically get some kind of

restitution for the crime.

The role of the state in these situations is dramatically different

from the current role of the criminal justice system. One of the most

important distinctions is that the state is considered an actor in

preventing future crimes by addressing root causes of crime. Thus it is

the state’s responsibility to address the sexist roots of battering

through funding for education efforts, and the state’s responsibility to

expand the welfare state in order to allow poor people to live decent

lives without resorting to the underground street economy to pay the

bills, etc.

I have made an argument that the system should change

because it isn’t working. I’ve also proposed alternative ways to

respond to violence, particularly crime, in our society, and presented

examples of the ways in which these alternative approaches exist

today. Finally, I have offered some examples of ideals to work toward,

and suggested that specific crimes could be viewed as points of entry

for substantive, effective social change rather than problems to be

punished and then forgotten about.

But the most important piece of all of this is that right now, there

are people whose lives are being hidden away, put on hold, stunted,

and destroyed by incarceration. Good things can and do happen in

prison, but they are the exception, not the rule; they usually happen

despite the prison institution, not because of it. When I heard about

Mariyah going to jail, my first thought was what a horrible waste that

was, taking a girl who obviously needed a lot of support and instead

handing her a terrible twenty-four hours that would no doubt stick with

her forever. And that was only one day. The real imperative for change

comes from the people who are there now, the people who go to the

parole board and get “hit” with another two years, and the people who

lose contact with their children because of the expenses related to

visits and phone calls. It comes from the people who have never seen

a cell phone, and the people who haven’t slept late in decades, the

people who can’t make their own sandwiches, whose family members

pass away without saying good-bye, who no longer receive letters, who

will never have the right to vote, who are devalued and forgotten

about for the days, weeks, months, and years that they spend in

prison. And it comes from the people who, if they are released, are

feared, ignored, avoided, and disrespected. It’s for them that the

system needs to change, and for our society as well, which is stunted

by the callousness, greed, and ignorance necessary to maintain such

an abusive system of “justice.”

The American people have the capacity and the responsibility to

dream about a truly just system of justice, and to take every

opportunity, every political opening, to get there. If the prison

population can grow at such exponential rates over thirty-five years, it

is not impossible that in thirty-five years or fifty years or one hundred

years we can undo the carceral state and construct a system of justice

based on transforming violence into locations for positive social




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