I hope to develop new language so we can approach people who believe they already understand this work and help them rethink it.
On any given day, black women in the United States are three times more likely than white women to be behind bars. They’re also far more likely to be survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, a prevalence that’s particularly notable among incarcerated women. It’s because of statistics like these that the Center for Court Innovation is helping to create Project SAFE. The project provides training and other assistance to groups funded by the Office on Violence against Women who are working with justice-involved black and African-American women who are survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual assault.
In this episode of our New Thinking podcast, Matthew Watkins speaks with Afua Addo, the Center’s coordinator of Gender and Justice Initiatives.
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
MATTHEW WATKINS: Hi, I'm Matt Watkins, and you're listening to the New Thinking podcast from the Center for Court Innovation. On any given day black women in this country are three times more likely than white women to be behind bars. They're also far more likely to be survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. A prevalence that's particularly notable among incarcerated women.
It's because of statistics like these that the center is helping to create Project SAFE. The project will provide training and other assistance to groups funded by the Office on Violence Against Women, who are working with criminalized black women who are survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual assault.
Afua Addo is our coordinator of gender and justice initiatives, and she will be overseeing the project. Afua, thanks so much for joining me.
ADDO: Thank you for having me today.
WATKINS: Project SAFE, which stands for Services and Fundamental Enhancements for justice involved women. Perhaps it's already pretty clear from the grim statistics that I was just citing in the intro why we need something like this, but what kinds of services are people in this population receiving right now, and how well are those services tailored to their specific needs? A big question I realize.
ADDO: Great question actually, and the impetus for why we actually do this work, because there are very limited services available to women who are both within the system behind bars, and then upon re-entry. Project SAFE will provide an opportunity for us to collect information, and find out what programming is available. How individuals who are providing direct services, engaging individuals at the legal stakeholder level, what they have been trained on, and how they perceive the experiences of black women that have been criminalized, and are also victims of a sequence of traumatic experiences.
WATKINS: Are there specific impediments to this population accessing the services they need?
ADDO: Oh many, we're talking about a population for which there is very little context, very little frame. Kimberly Crenshaw, a civil rights activist out of UCLA often talks about the intersections of black women's experiences, race, gender, class, sexuality, and then other isms that they may be inappropriately perceived by. The experiences however of people who are black who happen to be women, and women who happen to be black, often times is separated out.
It can be quite difficult to navigate the experiences of these individuals, and what is important to their reentry, to even their experiences upon direct initial engagement with law enforcement, or their direct initial engagement with an intimate partner who observes their positioning as less than, of less value than that of a man, or that of a woman who is not black, or who is of a lighter complexion for instance.
WATKINS: What concretely is Projects SAFE going to do to help some of the programs that are working with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault?
ADDO: Right now we are in the process of collecting data via our needs assessment, trying to get an idea of what current grantee partners have been doing, what kind of training they've had access to, and then how they've been able to gauge the experiences of criminalized black women. We'll then work with the Black Women's Blueprint, the National Black Women's Justice Institute, and we have a consultant from the American Baptist churches, Rev. Dr. Cheryl Dudley.
Not that all of these grantee partners will be able to comprehensively approach every single issue impacting criminalized black women, but will provide a lens onto some of the more pressing factors. Black Women's Blueprint has done extensive work over the last 15, 20 years in meshing themselves in the experiences of recovering from sexual assault and domestic violence.
They provide group counseling and individual counseling, but also healing practices and approaches that hearken back to African and Caribbean heritage and culture, so that women have an opportunity to utilize their own cultural relevance in recovering from traumatic experiences. The National Black Women's Justice Institute takes a different approach and actually works directly with minors, young girls, charting the sequence of experiences, the pipelines to sex abuse, the pipelines to hyper criminalization in school systems.
The pipelines to disproportionate healthcare practices and health disparities. Then not to assume, never to assume onto the experiences of any population that there is one dynamic religious perspective, but also acknowledging the importance of religious and spiritual practices within communities of color. We've reached out to American Baptist churches and their executive minister Rev. Cheryl Dudley to help gauge the dynamics of faith-based organizations, religious sanctuaries, and really help provide language and context to driving this conversation in that arena, so that we can acknowledge the experiences, the intersections of black women's experiences that have engagement with law enforcement, and with the criminal legal system, excuse me.
Also, creating context for the necessity for addressing their concerns.
WATKINS: Right, because you're talking about a population with intersecting reasons to be suffering unequal treatment, a population that is black, that is female, that is justice involved or criminalized. Then you add to those challenges the history's of trauma affecting a lot of these women. Trauma is a term that comes up a lot in justice reform circles, do you want to talk a little bit about how you understand this term trauma, and how it's informing what Project SAFE is trying to do, and how you're trying to assist programs working with this population?
ADDO: Absolutely, trauma is first and foremost a perceived life threat. We all, all humans experience trauma throughout the sequences of our lives, and the ways in which trauma impacts us is relative to our experiences, both in the home, and then within society. It's important that we peel back the layers of traumatic experiences in acknowledging how individuals are criminalized.
Why? Because of this one particular factor, there are only three real responses the human body has to traumatic experiences. Fight, flight, or freeze, right? You're either going to run, you're going to freeze, or you're going to fight back and retaliate. Then it's also being researched right now that at times the human body will submit, that's being researched relative to the experiences of sexual assault and domestic violence.
In so doing, how people respond to trauma is relative to their own resilience, their own personal soft places to land, who they go home to, who is there to lick those wounds and support us as we're recovering from these threatening or damaging or debilitating experiences. People will do whatever they have to do to survive, and resilience really relies on the historical context and the cultural context and the placement of individuals in certain populaces.
Often times however, as we know in this country, if an agitation occurs. An explosion occurs, we all take off running, well I don't know what my trauma reaction is going to be, but I'm going to keep running as long as I need to until I feel safe. What then happens when law enforcement sees me running, right? Then so my running from fear is very different from my white male counterpart, or my white female counterpart, or even just someone who is perceived as less threatening running from fear.
How society then responds to our trauma reactions dictates where we end up. These trauma reactions have been hyper criminalized based on who that body is that has experienced traumatic experiences. At the same time that the body is trying to heal from a traumatic experience, interpersonal trauma, be it childhood assault, sexual abuse, neglect, witnessing or hearing domestic violence.
Then the systemic, right? The exposures to disproportionate education practices, healthcare practices, hyper policing in certain neighborhoods. Then the structural dynamics, right? Gender and race and class, the racial wealth gap, or the racial health disparities. Dealing with all of those on top of that one dynamic stimulus, that chronic acute moment of trauma, I now then am judged based on what I am perceived as.
Project SAFE is really working to gather up all of these moving pieces, and help impact individual perceptions that are hyper criminalized. How then do we look at individuals who walk into court rooms, into station houses that are cuffed? We see them on YouTube videos, people filming individuals on the side of the road being pulled over by law enforcement. How are those experiences going to be shaped by an understanding of people's experiences and understanding that you have been indoctrinated to see a darker complexioned individual as a threat, versus a lighter complexion?
You've been indoctrinated to believe someone of a certain size is a certain type of threat, versus someone else, or people in certain communities, certain ZIP Codes, and area codes perceived as a significant threat over another. That's what we hope the collaboration of these different agencies will impact stakeholders and direct service providers.
WATKINS: It's really working with the programs that traditionally work with survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and working on their perceptions in a sense of the populations ...
WATKINS: ... That they are working with?
ADDO: Absolutely, it starts there.
WATKINS: We like to think that, that's a more enlightened population in some ways, people working with survivors.
ADDO: All the time, every time I walk into a situation with colleagues I will say, I am assuming that they are observing traumatic experiences, or engaging law enforcement, or even understanding the gender binary in this country, right? Patriarchy and sexism the same, but we know from current events, everyone has a very different understanding of the value of people's lives.
The value of women's lives, the value of people of color, the value of immigrants and first generations very differently. Coming together with these three organizations, I hope to comprehensively develop new language, so that we can approach stakeholders to help them rethink it through. You can't get lazy in the criminal legal system work, because it's ever evolving, and it's always moving, resting on historical practices.
Historical practices of gender discrimination and racial discrimination, so it's important that we keep this conversation going, because we as human beings, as US citizens, as US allies, are continually changing. The conversation around intimate partner relationships has changed drastically in the last five years.
We're looking at ...
WATKINS: The last five weeks.
ADDO: The last five weeks, exactly, maybe the last five minutes, I've got to check the news and see what's going on. We're looking at a shift in how families are formed, and how communities are formed and thrive, and so it's important that we not continue to criminalize individuals based on poor practices, or historical practices that are not relevant.
WATKINS: Then what about the population that needs these services themselves? That seems to me female, black, criminalized, that's a population with very well-founded reasons for being suspicious of authority, and being reluctant to report what is going on in their lives.
ADDO: Absolutely, we're talking ... Statistics tell us for instance that one in three women will be sexually assaulted, or have experienced sexual violence in intimate partner violence, and that one in six men. We say one in six, because they assume that the men will underreport. Well generally yes, but women are also underreporting, women of color are underreporting, black women are underreporting, because to turn on an intimate partner that shares your culture, that shares your heritage, is debasing to the entire community, and can potentially endanger the family and endanger the community financially, economically, spiritually.
It's important that we acknowledge that there are women who are fighting both to keep their families together, and at times fighting to stay alive, right? That they can be victims of intimate partner violence, and then also be perceived as criminals when law enforcement shows up to the home. That leaving children at home to take care of the family economically threatens the safety and sanctity of that home.
They definitely would be skeptical, which is why it's even more important to align ourselves with agencies and organizations that represent and resemble the very women that we're trying to support. This is not to say that everyone can't jump in and provide support and ongoing help, but it is important that we galvanize the expertise and the presence, right?
The importance of presence to directly impact women who need this support.
WATKINS: Given that a major focus of this project it sounds like is on challenging perceptions and stereotypes, what do you see as some of the principal myths about women of color in the justice system?
ADDO: Well I think you and I have been going back and forth and shifting the term justice, right?
We've been talking about the criminal legal system, and the criminal justice system. I think that's the first myth is that there is justice. Justice has yet to be served, there are so many women of color and white women too, our allies and colleagues and counterparts that have fallen victim to domestic violence, intimate partner violence, sexual assault, but have also fallen victim to violence at the hands of law enforcement, violence at the hands of correctional enforcement behind bars.
I think the myth is that individuals who are behind bars are behind bars either because they deserve to be there without context of their trauma, without context of their histories, without context of the hyper criminalization of certain communities. That there are individuals behind bars that have been profiled, that have fought for their lives and may have lost the battle, essentially being separated from their families and their communities and being incarcerated.
I think it's also important to acknowledge that while black Americans are 13% of the US population, we make up about what a quarter? Not even a quarter, half of the incarceration population, and that while the numbers of women being incarcerated in prison for black women might have dropped, it's increased for women in local jails.
That the bail bond system has indirectly impacted the ability for women to return home in a timely manner, or for cases to be dropped, or for proper review and trial to be conducted. We also are looking at a great deal of women who are being arrested while under the control and exploitation of male patriarchy. To that I'm talking about human trafficking.
Quite often I have to explain that I'm talking about the charge of prostitution. Individuals arrested on charges of prostitution, but we are looking at ... I'm talking about young women, young girls, and even in some instances boys and men that are being sexually exploited. The myth then that young girls are hyper sexualized, that they then entice men, minors cannot consent to sex with an adult.
I think that's another myth that we're breaking down, in addition to breaking down the myth that all women behind bars, or all women that have been criminalized are traumatized going back to hyper policing and profiling and women fighting again to keep their lives together. That women who have substance issues and mental health issues and disparities themselves belong behind bars.
That their criminal behavior is a result of their moral ineptitude, when in fact it's probably a rollover of the trauma impacted on certain communities. The trauma impacted and witnessed by certain areas and again populaces throughout the country and our territories. I think that there are many myths, and Project SAFE will no doubt break them down, but more so work towards re-aligning where those myths have been created.
Hopefully through Projects SAFE, we'll be able to impact policies that are harsh, policies that punish, that are not relative to the crime that has been committed. Policies that don't take into consideration the intersections of the experiences of these women and their families.
WATKINS: Well, it's incredibly important work, and I really appreciate you coming to talk to me about it today.
ADDO: Thank you so much, thanks for listening.
WATKINS: I've been speaking with Afua Addo, she is our coordinator of Gender and Justice Initiatives. You have been listening to another edition of the New Thinking podcast from the Center for Court Innovation. You can find out more information about Project SAFE, and all of our other work at our website, courtinnovation.org.
Please consider giving us a review in Apple Podcasts as well. It helps new people discover the show. I'm Matt Watkins, thanks for listening.
This project was supported by Grant No. 2016-TA-AX-K022 awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this podcast are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Justice.