The future looked bright for Maria Medina in 2010. She was 27 years old and had just received her Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Arts from DePaul University, bringing the Mexican-American graduate one step closer to her goal of attending law school and becoming an immigration attorney. Then she received a text from an old friend that completely changed the trajectory of her life. The man, Ricardo, wanted to get in touch with Medina’s cousin, a well-known drug dealer in their Chicago neighborhood, to purchase an ounce of cocaine. He was persistent, calling and messaging her. Finally, she told him that she’d let her relative know that Ricardo was trying to reach him.
Two years later, Medina was arrested.
Ricardo was an informant, helping police take down Medina’s cousin. For agreeing to help him — which Medina, now 35, insists she never actually did, though she had offered to — she was ultimately found guilty of a Class 1 felony, “delivery of a controlled substance,” and sentenced to five years imprisonment at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Ill.
Medina is one of a growing number of Latinas who have been incarcerated. Currently, women are the fastest-growing jail and prison population. According to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice, the number of women in jail has increased 14-fold in recent decades — from less than 8,000 in 1970 to nearly 110,000 in 2014 — and most are women of color.
Despite making up just 9.7 percent of the total U.S. population, Latinas constitute 15 percent of those incarcerated at the state level and 32 percent of those detained at the federal level. They now experience an incarceration rate nearly twice that of white women and are almost three times as likely as them to go to prison at some point in their life.
Experts consider tough-on-drugs policies, known as the “war on drugs,” as the single greatest force behind the growth of the prison population. Like Medina, 25 percent of women in state prisons, and 29 percent of those in jail, are there for non-violent offenses related to narcotics. Even more, nearly a third of all women in jail live with a serious mental illness, like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression, and a stunning 86 percent have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime.
Many, including Medina, believe that the mandatory minimum sentences applied to drug-related crimes are excessive.
“I never made a dime out of the whole deal, and I ended up losing four years of my life and $20,000 in fees,” she says.
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Medina served two years of her five-year sentence and completed two years of parole. Her cousin, however, was never indicted, and another man implicated in the crime received a two-year sentence. Both men had priors; Medina did not. Such are the inexplicable ways of the criminal justice system.
Elizabeth Swavola, co-author of the Vera Institute report, says this isn’t unusual. According to her, many women are incarcerated because of crimes committed by the men in their lives, and sometimes are even punished more severely.
“Let’s say it has to do with drug sales. If a woman keeps a suitcase in her apartment, or takes a phone call, or rents a car for her partner, even if she’s unaware of any criminal activity, she’s subject to the same potential punishment that he is,” Swavola says. “What’s particularly unfair is that oftentimes, because the woman is not as involved, she doesn’t have the information to trade with prosecutors and doesn’t know the specifics of the crime that the men, who are more involved, know, allowing them to get better deals than the women who weren’t nearly as involved.”
Eight years after receiving her degree, Medina’s life is not as she had envisioned it. A new mom, she has filed for bankruptcy and is currently out of work, with her felony making it difficult to obtain a job.
“You know how many times I’ve gotten hired and fired? Three times I’ve been told, ‘Yes, you got the job,’ and then I come in and fill out papers, letting them know I have a felony, and they look into it and say, ‘I’m sorry. We went with somebody else,’” she says.
While Medina finds herself struggling financially after her release from prison, being impoverished is what landed Cassandra Spellman behind county jail bars in San Diego, Calif. In 2007, she was homeless, alternating nights on her friends’ sofas and her green Ford Escort wagon. Her vehicle registration had expired, and she received some tickets that brought her renewal fee to about $300. Once she saved up enough to pay it off, she thought she might start to get back on track. Her timing was minutes too late.
“I had just gotten the tags and was going out to put it on the car when I saw it on a tow hitch. I freaked out, hopped in the car, locked the doors and demanded that he take off the hitch because I had my registration,” said Spellman, 32, who is part-Puerto Rican.
The tow-truck operator eventually called the cops, and Spellman was forced to get out of the vehicle. Her car was sent to an impound, where she had to bike and bus to retrieve it two days later. When she arrived, she learned it was up for auction, and with only a few dollars in her pocket, she was quickly outbid.
Months later, a carless Spellman was stopped by an officer for sitting on the rooftop of a parking lot. When the cop ran her license, he found an outstanding warrant for her arrest, related to the vehicle registration. Without an address, however, she had never received a notification of the warrant. Still, she was taken to county jail for one week.
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“I couldn’t believe it was real. How can you just put somebody in jail for nothing, for being poor,” said Spellman, who ended up paying about $3,000 in impound and court fees.
Like Spellman, many Latinas are snared in the justice system as a result of their efforts to cope with poverty and unemployment. Thirty-two percent of all women locked up have been found guilty of property offenses, including crimes like shoplifting, burglary and vehicle theft. And 21 percent for public order offenses, such as sex work.
For transgender Latinas, just existing in a public setting can be cause for arrest. A study by nonprofit social service organization BIENESTAR of trans Latinas’ interactions with law enforcement in Los Angeles County found that almost 60 percent of those stopped by an officer in 2011 believed they hadn’t broken any law. Many of the women reported that they were stopped while engaging in everyday activities, like “waiting for the bus,” “coming back from the grocery store,” “walking home” and “shopping.” Several were presumed to be sex workers, simply for strolling while brown and trans.
Isa Noyola, director of programs at the Transgender Law Center, believes that anti-transgender policies and legislation, such as bathroom bills, discrimination carve-outs, health care legislation and ID bills, have allowed law enforcement to discriminate against trans individuals, especially those of color.
“Anti-trans bills that aim to profile, criminalize and penalize trans bodies for existing in public spaces signal to the community that they should be fearful and hostile toward us,” Noyola says. “This creates a culture of fear and adds to the stigma that we are less than human. But it also signals to other institutions, like the police force, courts, legal professionals and shelters, that trans people don’t deserve safety or dignity.”
Although men far outnumber women behind bars, male arrests have decreased while female apprehension is on the rise. Since 2010, the number of women in jails has grown about 3.4 percent each year. A crackdown on lower-level offenses, like those committed by Medina and Spellman, as well as those perceived to be carried out by trans Latinas, is behind the soaring incarceration rates.
Locked away, these Latinas, most of them survivors of sexual violence, are re-traumatized in facilities that were never even made to house women.