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© Essie Justice Group


BECAUSE SHE'S POWERFUL. In Conversation with Endria Richardson, Hedy Lee, and Megan Comfort.

by Endria Richardson, Megan Comfort, Hedy Lee
June 28, 2018

This interview with Megan Comfort, Endria Richardson, and Hedy Lee was conducted and condensed by frank news.

Megan: How are you?

Tatti: I'm doing well. I'm glad we could all connect. I think the way that this would be the most

interesting for people is just you guys in conversation as the experts amongst yourselves.

Endria: Okay, that sounds great. Go ahead Megan.

Megan: I can kick us off. I am Megan Comfort, and I'm a senior research sociologist at RTI International. I have been focusing on issues of how the criminal justice system has an impact on families and people's well-being for a while now, and I had a book published in 2008 called "Doing Time Together: Love and Family in the Shadow of Prison", that focused on women who had incarcerated partners at a California state prison.

Then more recently I've been working with my colleagues, Anupa Bir, Tasseli McKay, and Christine Lindquist at RTI, and we've just released a special issue of the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation about the multi-site family study on incarceration, parenting, and partnering. That was a longitudinal study that followed almost 1,500 families who had a father who experienced incarceration, and an outside female partner and minor children. We have really rich qualitative and quantitative data about their experiences.

Endria: I'm Endria Richardson, I'm the research coordinator at Essie Justice Group, and a lawyer who has worked on criminal policy and advocacy for the past four years. My work at Essie recently culminated in a national report we just released titled "Because She's Powerful: The Political Isolation and Resistance of Women with Incarcerated Loved Ones." Our report focuses on the specific impacts of mass incarceration on women who have incarcerated loved ones. We define “women” as cis women, trans women, gender queer people, and gender nonconforming people.

Hedy: I'm Hedy Lee, I'm a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. I would define myself as a sociologist and a demographer, because I primarily use survey data to try to understand social problems. I'm particularly interested in health disparities, especially black/white health disparities, and figuring out what structures in our society produce the persistent disparities we see, because across almost every health outcome that exists you see black/white differences that are pretty large among both men and women. That has led me to study the role of mass incarceration and the impact that it has on particularly women and their health, especially for women whose family members are incarcerated. It dovetails with the work that you two do, except I came at it from the health disparities perspective.

Over time, I came to the realization, as many scholars before me have, that we should be thinking about mass incarceration as a driver of health inequalities.

Tatti: Would you elaborate a bit about what you found in the Because She's Powerful report?

Endria: Sure. Yeah. I think one of the most important parts of the report is that it introduces data that should have existed in the field already. Essie Justice Group, as a loving and powerful community of women with incarcerated loved ones, has become a space where the mothers, and sisters, and daughters, and grandmothers of incarcerated people can share their experiences of how the incarceration of a loved one has changed their lives.

So we know, and women with incarcerated loved ones have known, and women who are or have been incarcerated know, that mass incarceration is devastating to women.

While our report is indebted to the scholarship of incredibly brilliant women, many of whom are formerly incarcerated Black women, outside of Megan's work and Hedy's work, we couldn't find very much data that really commented on how women are directly impacted by mass incarceration through the incarceration of a loved one. This lack of data really went against the stories that we were hearing again, and again, and again, that describe the similar and devastating ways that women’s lives change when a loved one is incarcerated.

So we launched a national survey that reached over 2,500 women. Once we cleaned the data set, we ended up with about 2,200 surveys. And, we found some pretty stark data points.

We confirmed that the incarceration of a loved one is psychologically and physically traumatic to women: 86% of women that we surveyed reported that the incarceration of a loved one causes depression, anxiety, anger, stress, and loneliness, and reported that the strain this causes on emotional and mental health was significant or extreme. That number jumps to 94% when women's partners are incarcerated.

Furthermore, 62% of women reported a significant physical health impact. Almost 90% of the women we surveyed who were formerly incarcerated had experienced violence or danger to their physical safety.

Another major finding is that women are taking on an extraordinary financial burdens when their loved one is incarcerated. Women are paying attorney’s fees, court fees, and bail fees at the same time that they are losing the financial support of their loved ones. So all of those costs occur pretty immediately, or within the first six months of a loved one being arrested and incarcerated. A third of the women we surveyed lost their household's primary source of income, and 70% of women with an incarcerated loved one shared that they are their family's only wage earner.

Endria: There are also longer term financial impacts. During a loved one's incarceration, women who are now single parents change their educational plans, so maybe needing not to go to college and to work instead, work more hours, need to change jobs, or take on additional jobs in order to pay for the cost of supporting themselves and their family, and for the financial costs of just dealing with incarceration. The cost of phone calls, and visits, and commissary bills.

And women lose housing stability. 35% of women we surveyed experienced either houselessness, or had been unable to pay rent, or unable to pay a mortgage, or have been evicted, or have faced eviction, because of their loved one's incarceration. That number increases to more than half, so 56% of women, when their loved one was the primary income earner.

And then finally, women with incarcerated loved ones are extremely isolated. We included a scale in our survey that was constructed of six questions that measure social and emotional loneliness, and we used that scale as a proxy for isolation.

What we found is that women who have incarcerated loved ones are very isolated.

The isolation of women with incarcerated loved ones has both social and political implications. It also has health implications. The former U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, declared that there is an epidemic of loneliness in the U.S., and that loneliness can be correlated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that of smoking.

When we looked at how incarceration is impacting millions of women in the U.S., we concluded that women are facing an epidemic of isolation, and it is political. We introduce a new theory of political isolation in the report.

Political isolation occurs when a system of control socially isolates a significant number of historically and currently oppressed people, and their social isolation reinforces a hierarchy that is based on race, gender, or class. For women with incarcerated loved ones, who are disproportionately Black and Brown women, and are disproportionately low-income, two agents of political isolation are blame and shame. Political isolation limits collective action, punishes deviance, protects those in power, and ultimately maintains the status quo.

Tatti: I have a question about the term, "epidemic of loneliness." When the Surgeon General said it, was he referring to incarceration? Was he referring to this epidemic happening because the rates of incarceration in the United States are so high?

Endria: Yeah, that's a really great question. Dr. Murthy focuses a lot on the loneliness of people who are maybe working high stress jobs, who are spending a lot of time at their computers or isolated from their co-workers, isolated from their family members. He does talk about the health impacts of not being socially connected to people, which is certainly applicable to incarcerated people. Some of his work shows that even when that social disconnect occurs as a result of choices that people are making to work long hours, to be away from community, the effects on people’s physical and mental health may be quite destructive. But still, those choices are different from the isolation that occurs when someone is forcibly separated from their loved ones, forcibly taken from their families through incarceration or through immigration detention.

We were actually able to speak with Dr. Murthy on the phone while we were writing our report, and share some of our findings. He was incredibly thoughtful in sharing some of his work and his thoughts on loneliness, as a really universal problem that has disastrous health impacts. It would be great to see more work on how incarceration specifically is linked to isolation and what the health impacts are there.

Tatti: When you find these things, and you say these things out loud and you put them into the world and people digest this information, what are we supposed to do with it? What is the active response to this, really data driven, information?

Endria: Yeah. That's a great question. One thing that we were seeking to do with this report and with our work is to highlight that mass incarceration is a barrier to gender justice.

First of all, we aren't listening closely enough to women when we are talking about mass incarceration. That means that we aren’t listening to formerly and currently incarcerated women. And women are the fastest growing population of incarcerated people in the United States. The United States incarcerates more women than any other country.

Endria: We also aren’t listening enough to women whose loved ones are being incarcerated. Women whose mothers or fathers or partners or children are incarcerated. One of our asks with this report is really of the women's rights field and criminal justice fields to start to or continue to center women in work that considers mass incarceration. And to the women’s rights field to start looking at mass incarceration as a gender justice issue.

Also, when we are talking about families, to not use the impact on families as a way to mask the impact on women specifically, or to mask the really core role that women are often playing in holding families and holding communities together.

Endria: Another ask we have is to women who have incarcerated loved ones, to either reach out to us, to Essie Justice Group, to nominate yourselves to our Healing to Advocacy program in California. Or to organize, if you're not based in California, to not wait for us to come to you, but to continue to organize with other women with incarcerated loved ones to help break isolation and end mass incarceration’s harm to women. We know that women are already organizing and advocating for their loved ones in their communities and for themselves.

Tatti: We have had other people who contributed this month say the same thing, which is, not only is this a barrier to gender equality, but this is also one of the largest disparities between black/white health in a lot of situations. Would you elaborate on some of your findings? What are the exact health problems that you're finding in these specific demographics particularly pertaining to women?

Hedy: In prior work that I and others have done, we’ve also found patterns that mirror what has been found in the report, even though the report, I think, provides much more nuance. Prior work has found relationships between family member incarceration and increased anxiety and depression, and increased risk of poor physical health outcomes, related to heart disease, such as obesity.

Tatti: Do you think that these are emotional responses or socioeconomic responses? If you're living in South Los Angeles and your partner gets incarcerated and it cuts your budget in half, or your family income in half, the access to the food that you might be eating is different. Is this a socioeconomic thing, or is this the emotional impact that then leads to depression, that then leads to a lack of self care?

Hedy: I think that there are probably multiple pathways that could link the experience of incarceration to health outcomes. If we take obesity as an example, yes, socioeconomic changes would definitely impact people's food budget, and for some people could compound already existing problems with lack of access to grocery stores that provide affordable, healthy food.

But, there's also a lot of compelling research in the stress literature that demonstrates eating fatty foods is actually a way to deal with and cope with stress. There is also work to show direct biological links between experiencing chronic stress and fat accumulation.

Endria: We were actually very intentional about not asking about obesity in measuring physical health impact, because we didn’t want to pathologize weight, and because we know that there is this tendency--especially when we're talking about women, and talking about women's pain, or women’s bodies, or the ways in which women are taught to process pain, or process grief, or process trauma--there can be a tendency to assign blame to women. Whether through fat-shaming in the case of obesity, or through dismissing women’s specific experiences of pain and isolation in the case of having an incarcerated loved one. And that is part of the complicated ways in which mass incarceration really does function as a tool of gendered oppression.

When we  ask "well how are women responding to stress? Are they overeating? Are they not making enough friends?” we are, maybe unconsciously, placing some blame on women. Why aren’t we asking, instead, “Why are women being forced to survive under severely constrained circumstances?”

We also used a participatory action research model in designing our survey, so we had a team of 25 women with incarcerated loved ones designing the relevant questions. Asking about obesity was not a question that people wanted to ask, or thought was necessarily relevant to their experiences. Similarly, we did not ask about “loneliness,” because that is not a word that women used to describe the experience of having an incarcerated loved one. Women, over and over again, use the word “isolation.”

Rather than picking apart women's responses to grief and trauma, we want to focus on, "Well, how do we end this kind of trauma in the first place?"

Listen, let's end the trauma. Let's bring our loved ones home. Let's end the practice of incarcerating people, of decimating entire communities by taking people away from their families, and their homes, and forcing people--who are usually women--to really hold their entire lives together without enough money, without enough support, without enough mental or emotional resources. It's important for us to focus on ending that trauma.

Tatti: Right, right.

Hedy: And I support that point. I just want to quickly add that, and I think you're right, Endria, this isn't just about socioeconomic status  and access to food. There is a unique association between incarceration and health that goes beyond socioeconomic status or poor health behaviors. This is about chronic stress. The problem is that of incarcerating individuals and removing them from families and causing trauma.

Endria: Right.

Hedy: And a lot of other social problems that we talk about, that are often in the news, are amplified for women who have incarcerated family members.

For example, there's a growing body of work indicating women with children experience discrimination in the workplace. Think about how that's amplified if you have a family member who is incarcerated. We think about the second shift. Well, think about the “third shift” for women who have family members who are incarcerated. My colleague Angela Bruns is doing work on this issue. And those are the kind of things that we should be focusing on. I agree with that point.

Tatti: Absolutely. Let's just stop traumatizing people rather than trying to figure out how to work with trauma. In terms of emotionally dealing with trauma, what have you found is most helpful, especially to women who unfortunately have already been exposed to this?

Endria: Women with incarcerated loved ones at Essie Justice Group are demanding  an immediate end to incarceration of all people in the country including people incarcerated in detention centers. So that's not something that can be ignored. That is necessary.

To end the trauma of incarceration. You need to end incarceration.

Also, women demand and need access to healing and care regardless of ability to pay or immigration status. Access to healthcare in order to address the physical, very real physical impact of incarceration.

Women also are asking for community support. We can break isolation by acknowledging that women are directly impacted by mass incarnation, by asking women about their experiences. By challenging the narratives around mass incarceration that lead to blame and shame and stigma, that are applied to women who have incarcerated loved ones.

Hedy: I know that you're not phrasing the question this way, but it almost seems as though people might see incarceration as this one-time traumatic event, but Megan's work really shows that there are multiple traumas that happen and reoccur. And there are ways in which the carceral institution perpetuates trauma to happen over and over again.

Megan: I appreciate that. It is a really important point to raise, because most records show that when somebody is involved with the criminal justice system, they have a high likelihood of becoming re-involved, and really are often never disengaged if they come out and are placed under community supervision.

People are constantly managing some sort of criminal justice status involvement, and their loved ones are trying to support and help them around that. As you were saying, Hedy, people will be coming and going. They will be re-arrested, re-incarcerated, and each shift in that can really cause an incredible amount of turmoil for people as they're trying to pave the path forward.

Something that I did want to bring up too along these lines, and I think it's a thread that ties into a lot of what Endria and Hedy are already saying, the research really clearly shows – and the MFS-IP study that I mentioned before that my RTI colleagues and I just completed backs this up as well – staying in touch with loving, caring family members is definitely a positive for people who are coming home from incarceration and going on to lead successful lives.

That's kind of a community good, right? Everybody wants that, everyone wants people to be able to stay out of prison and jail. However, many of the systems and many of the institutions are not actually investing in that in any meaningful way, and especially not compared to the investment in putting people in jail and prison.

When we are talking here about women’s engagement with their incarcerated loved ones,and when their financial resources are being diverted to staying in touch with their loved ones, we are actually talking about women contributing their own financial resources, in addition to their time and their energy, to doing something that is for the community good.

Getting back to why it's important to even focus on women in the first place, we often talk about mass incarceration without remembering that's just policy decisions.

Megan: When Endria keeps bringing up the demands from the Essie Justice Group around ending incarceration, that's because it is a decision that we can make. Our society has set in place all these policies around policing, prosecution, bail, other criminal justice processes that have resulted in what we now term mass incarceration, but it's not like we didn't make a lot of decisions around that.

Bringing women back into the equation, particularly women on the outside who are again, investing time, resources, energy, and then bearing an impact on their health. We have to look at that piece in order to fully understand the impact of the decisions that we made that have resulted in mass incarceration, because if we cut women out from that, and we're only seeing this tiny sliver, which are the actual people behind bars, which is not tiny, considering the historically large number, but compared to the number of people who are actually impacted by this, it is definitely a partial picture.

Megan: No sound policy decision can be made if we're not thinking about this repercussive effect, this impact on the outside.The system that does traumatize people is a system that drains resources away from people who already have scarce resources. This does have an impact on people's health. It  is the stress, it is the grief, it is the trauma, and it is also that women are spending six hours in a car driving to a prison on the weekends instead of being able to be out in a park, or making other decisions about how to spend their time.

If we want to look at this as a public health issue, as a gender justice issue, at the financial soundness of policies that we're making, all of those bring us back to the importance of foregrounding women's experiences.

Tatti: Do you feel optimistic that this all changes?

Endria: I don't know if optimistic is the right word. I do feel that women are extremely powerful, and that we've seen the impact of women mobilizing together recently through the #MeToo movement, through Black Lives Matter, to force discussions about women, especially Black trans women, and sexual violence, and racial violence to the national stage in a way that we've not seen before.

And it's still a fight. Right? Because it is not easy to uproot hundreds of years of white supremacy and patriarchy. So I think that I feel very certain of the power of women, especially the power of Black women, to mobilize and fight for freedom and liberation. I know that it is a very difficult fight to win.

Hedy: I feel as though, I don't know if optimistic is the right word too, but I feel more and more now that people are thinking about connections across different social problems that affect our country, and seeing how they're connected. If we care about women and childcare, and women who are working, and ensuring that they have adequate childcare for their children, we should also be thinking about how childcare is compromised when women are faced with the struggles of having a family member that's incarcerated.

If we care about gendered labor and the ways in which women do more work in the home compared to their male partners, and those kinds of policy conversations, then we should be thinking about gendered labor in terms of how the carceral system works. That women, like Megan says, are pretty much ensuring that their family members are being well fed, that they're getting the psychological and social care they need.

That's being done by women, and not by institutions that should be doing that kind of work. I think that people are starting to see those connections, and that part makes me optimistic. People are starting to see that, thinking about gender inequality and racial inequality as being different but also connected. I am excited that more and more leaders are emerging that are trying to tackle those issues.

Megan: I would echo what Endria and Hedy said in terms of not necessarily using the work optimistic globally, but seeing these pockets of change and strong movements. I think the connections that Hedy was just talking about are really important.

We were talking earlier about the epidemic of loneliness and thinking about that as a public health crisis, which then would tie in with the health crisis that we're talking about for women with incarcerated loved ones, to the isolation that is being imposed on them, and the labor that is being asked of them to support family members who will have better outcomes when they're released from jail or prison. But at their own expense and without support.

There are so many dots to be connected here, amongst things that are going on. It does seem, we're in a moment too, when people are understanding more of the policy piece, that society doesn't just roll along. There are decisions being made every day that have an impact on people, and they have different impacts on different groups of people, and that we really need to hear from those people who are being affected, and think very carefully about the ways things are being put in place. It does seem like there are a lot more people who are wanting to have those conversations now that can be good for the future.

Megan: I think too, the swell of research feels empowering, you know, seeing the work that's coming out from Essie right now. Definitely a really important contribution. It's a good thing too.

Hedy: Yeah. We're armored with lots of facts. And you can't ignore facts. There is so much strength through truth.

Endria: None of our work would have been possible without Hedy's work, among other work her research finding that one in four women has a family member in prison, or Megan's research on women specifically who have loved ones in prison. It is really incredible to be in conversation with both of you.

Hedy: I agree. I think Essie's so amazing. I'm so excited to see what the future holds.

Megan: Right. It's very exciting to see what you all are doing.

Tatti: I'm flattered you guys took the time to talk to me at all, or answered any of my emails. Thank you so much for all of the work and the continued work that you guys are doing.

You can find the full Essie Justice Group Because She's Powerful Report here.