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Building “Feminist Jails” Ignores a Larger Problem

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

Dr. Victoria A. Phillips, co-chair of the NYC Department of Correction Young Adult Task Force, holds a placard reading "Decarcerate Now" during a rally in solidarity with incarcerated people on hunger strike, at the entrance to the Rikers Island jail complex in Queens, New York, on January 13, 2022.

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

We can trace two philosophically different approaches to the imprisonment of women and nonbinary people throughout the history of prisons. For example, reformist thinkers and activists chose to “reform” individual women within prisons. Reformists who were white and middle-class organized to improve prison conditions within the existing prison structure. On the other hand, abolitionist thinkers and activists did not want simply to improve material conditions so that incarcerated women would have more rights, safety and access to opportunities — instead, they wanted to bring an end to a legal regime rooted in racism, economic subjugation and gender oppression.

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

While feminist-centered programming initiatives can provide much-needed services and improve material conditions for those who are currently incarcerated, the argument for building feminist-centered jails and prisons fails to account for the intersections of race, gender identity, sexuality, disability, citizenship and class, and how these social identities converge so that Black women and other women and nonbinary people of color get caught up in the dragnet of incarceration in the first place.

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

In these spaces, the explanations for the root causes of women’s pathways into the carceral state (e.g., drug and alcohol use, sex work, violence, socioeconomic status etc.) are framed as an individual failing, requiring women to turn inward and take full responsibility rather than contextualize their incarceration as manifestations of racial and economic inequality. In this way, reform is imposed as the responsibility of the individual. Jails and prisons promoting a “feminist” model are not designed to address the roots of women’s incarceration or the problems they face in these institutions within the broader context of social injustice, because this would undermine the goals of incarceration, which are to punish and maintain a permanent prison class.

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

The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, which advocates for prison abolition, is leading community efforts to pass a jail and prison construction moratorium in Massachusetts. In a Twitter statement, Andrea James, a formerly incarcerated activist and the executive director of The National Council, wrote: “Let’s invest in something proactive for a change with that $50M the state wanted to spend on a new women’s prison.” MCI-Framingham is the state’s only women’s prison, dating back to 1877. Its conditions are dilapidated beyond repair, giving the state an opportunity to build a modern prison to replace it. However, prison abolition activists advocate for decarceration and prime social investments in communities most harmed by the carceral state. While the push for a new women’s prison is not being framed as a feminist prison, the vision for a smaller, modern facility that provides opportunities for people to “heal from trauma and other modern contemporary attributes” dovetails with the goals and aims of progressive feminist reformers.

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

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

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