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Locked Up: How Latinas Became One Of The Fastest-Growing Prison Populations

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.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

“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.

Read: 5 Things To Know About Latina Girls And The Sexual Abuse-To-Prison Pipeline

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HBO’s Latest Documentary “The Sentence” Sheds Light On How Unjust Mandatory-Minimum Sentences Can Break A Family

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HBO’s Latest Documentary “The Sentence” Sheds Light On How Unjust Mandatory-Minimum Sentences Can Break A Family

On February 29, 2008, Cindy Shank’s life changed forever. That’s the day the Lansing, Michigan-based Mexican-American was sentenced to 15 years in prison on drug conspiracy charges, forcing her to be a mother, wife, daughter and sister from hundreds of miles away for nonviolent crimes she did not commit. Her story is the subject of “The Sentence,” an award-winning documentary filmed by Shank’s brother, Rudy Valdez, exploring the injustice of mandatory-minimum sentencing. 

“I don’t think anyone else could have made this film about my family. I don’t think it would have had the same effect,” Valdez, who started shooting videos of his three nieces — Autumn, Annalis and Ava — so that his older sister could watch some of the many moments she missed while away in prison when she returned home, told FIERCE. The home recordings inspired a documentary eight months into Shank’s sentence, when she cried over the phone imagining her oldest daughter dance at an upcoming recital. “I had an opportunity to tell a story you don’t get to hear about: the family, the children left behind and the residual effects of long sentences,” he continued.

That story begins in 2002, when Shank’s then-boyfriend, Alex Humphry, who started selling drugs after they began dating, was murdered.

When police officers arrived at the scene, they found 20 kilograms of cocaine, a kilogram of crack cocaine, 40 pounds of marijuana, $40,000 and guns. While mourning the death of her partner, Shank was indicted for multiple drug crimes. Maintaining her innocence — she alleges she was never a part of her late ex’s drug offenses — she declined a plea deal and, with no evidence against her, was released from jail with her case dismissed.

In the years that followed, Shank moved on with her life: she fell in love again, got married, bought a home and had three daughters. But during an early morning in March 2007, police once again knocked on her door, this time arresting Shank on federal charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

“Conspiracy is knowledge. Any knowledge you have of a crime, you could be charged for that crime,” Shank says in the nearly one hour and thirty minute-long film. “Basically, I lived in the home, so any crimes he committed while we lived together I was charged with.”

Shank, nor her parents, husband or brother, has ever denied guilt for not informing police officers of her boyfriend’s misdeeds. Throughout the documentary, her, and her worried family, take issue with the unfairness of her 15-year prison term. For the family, as well as the litigators and experts interviewed for the film, mandatory-minimum sentencing laws — controversial regulations that encourage strict sentencing rules over judicial discretion — account for one of the greatest failures of the U.S. government. The law, once considered unconstitutional, puts power into the hands of prosecutors, rather than judges, and has been abused in the drug war to punish tens of thousands of low-level, nonviolent state and federal defendants with harsh terms.

In the film, Valdez is one of the biggest opponents of mandatory-minimum sentencing, speaking with media about the wrongfulness of these laws and unceasingly fighting, through failed appeals and a clemency petition, to have her sister released early. His battle comes to a triumphant end in November 2016, eight years into Shank’s term, when then-President Barack Obama commuted his sister’s sentence. Shank was released on December 21, 2016, just in time to surprise her daughters for the holidays.

“The best is the little things: holding my daughters at night, having conversations with them, knowing them from the inside out. I know Ava doesn’t like cheese. I know how much I have to tickle Annalis to get the dimple on her cheek,” Shank, now 45, told FIERCE.

But she’s the first to acknowledge that her long-awaited release hasn’t just brought sunny days.

Shank, whose husband filed for divorce three years into her sentence, is trying to build relationships with daughters, who know her more from five-minute phone conversations and annual prison visits than caring for them at home.

“The hardest is the late-night conversations. Annalis comes to me and asks why were you gone. We are still having these talks and will throughout our lives. Who knows what’s to come? We won’t know the ramifications of all of this until the future. We’ll see it in what lies ahead and the decisions they make,” she added.

Accompanying her pain for lost time is that of the continued years, months, weeks and days of the people who, like she once was, remain behind bars because of unjust mandatory-minimum sentences. Shank was one of more than 35,000 inmates who requested consideration for a commuted or reduced sentence through the non-government affiliated organization the Clemency Project 2014, and she is one of less than 2,000 to receive it.

“When Rudy told me it was just 1,600 people, it crushed me. My heart crushed because I know what that’s like. Every time a list would come out, I would look to see if I was on it — for three years. I know what it’s like to have that hope and to feel defeated every time it lets you down. Hope is hard to have, and yet it’s the hardest to live without,” she said.

For Valdez, this documentary isn’t for his sister, his nieces or his parents. Instead, it’s for the tens of thousands whose names were not listed, for those who continue to be forgotten in the U.S.’ criminal justice system.

“This film is about the larger issue. Her story is emblematic of everyone else, of the people still there and of the children still going through this,” Valdez said. “This is for those who are going to go through this fight in the future and those who have been left behind.”

Check out the trailer below:

Watch “The Sentence” on Monday, October 15 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

Read: Locked Up: How Latinas Became One Of The Fastest-Growing Prison Populations

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5 Things To Know About Latina Girls And The Sexual Abuse-To-Prison Pipeline

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5 Things To Know About Latina Girls And The Sexual Abuse-To-Prison Pipeline

One in three young people arrested is a girl, and while girls make up just 14 percent of youth behind bars, they are the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile justice system. It’s not violent crimes that are sending them to jail in high numbers, either. Oftentimes, the real offense committed is the one that was made against them. In fact, 80 percent of girls locked away in the juvenile system are victims of sexual abuse — and most of them are girls of color, including Latinas.

According to a report by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, the Human Rights Project for Girls the Ms. Foundation for Women, sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of girls’ incarceration, and it’s largely due to their methods of coping — truancy, running away and curfew violations — being criminalized. Even more, girls with a history of sexual abuse are particularly vulnerable to sex traffickers. But many jurisdictions view even these victims as perpetrators, and arrest them on prostitution charges. Instead of receiving the help they need to healthily work through their anguish, these young people are thrown into a system that often re-traumatizes them.

The sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline, as it’s called, is cruel and it’s harming our girls. Here are five takeaways from Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality’s report.

1. One in three Latina girls in the U.S. is a victim of sexual abuse.

According to the report, one in four girls in the U.S. will experience some form of sexual violence by the age of 18. For Latinas in particular, the stat is one in three. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse found that 35 percent of Latinas experience sexual violence in their youth, most often by relatives or boyfriends, and as many as 44 percent of them did not disclose the abuse to anyone. This means they are coping with the trauma alone.

2. The behaviors of girls who have a history of sexual abuse are largely criminalized.

The most common crimes that put girls behind bars include running away, substance abuse and truancy (skipping school), and these are also the most common ways survivors of abuse subsist. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 46 percent of runaway and homeless youth say they have been physically abused, 38 percent report being emotionally abused and 17 percent note they’ve been sexually abused. Currently, four in five girls in the juvenile system has experienced some form of sexual abuse.

3. The sexual-abuse-to-prison pipeline disproportionately impacts girls of color.

The number of girls behind bars is rising, especially girls of color, who have disproportionate rates of incarceration. Native American girls are locked up at a rate of 179 per 100,000, African American girls at a rate of 123 per 100,000 and Latinas at a rate of 47 per 100,000. By comparison, 37 per 100,000 of non-Hispanic white girls are detained.

4. Incarceration only makes matters worse.

Behind bars, girls lose their already-restricted autonomy. With their movements constricted and their bodies sometimes stripped, juvenile centers often retraumatize victims of sexual abuse. Even more, many don’t provide them with necessary mental health services. One study by the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice found that 80 percent of incarcerated girls met the criteria for at least one mental health condition. But services are minimal. According to a nationwide census, only half of youth locked up are in a facility that provides evaluations to all residents, and 88 percent are in centers where counselors are not even licensed.

5. But you can help.

The report strongly calls for the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). In the U.S., there isn’t a national juvenile justice system. Instead, there are more than 56 different systems run by states and local governments. With that, policies and procedures vary significantly. The reauthorization of JJDPA would provide federal standards for care, custody and the prevention of victimization. The report also demands greater enforcement of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which ensures that people incarcerated receive immediate care for sexual abuse that occurred before or during their imprisonment, and more adoption of Safe Harbor Laws, which safeguards child victims of sex trafficking from being jailed.


READ: This Is What Abortion Laws Look Like In Latin America

Let us know your thoughts on the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline in the comments.

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