Audre Lorde in her “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” details her reaction to a conference supposed to be about feminism that did not discuss issues of race, gender, and homophobia which are all inseparable in the context of America. Lorde discusses the necessity of community organization because though women are taught to ignore differences, coming together is the way people are able to make changes in the world. Yet, unfortunately, those who do not fit the identities of being a white feminine woman “know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Lorde). Lorde argues that studies cannot be labeled feminist unless they are intersectional, because, in our multi-issued America, people’s identities must be considered not categorically but understood holistically.
Perhaps the best example of this kind of politics is the one coined by the Combahee River Collective which recognized that “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression” (Taylor). Black women often endure the worst forms of oppression in the world because of the racism, classism, and sexism that plagues America. But knowing the reality of Black women and trying to make changes in the world is difficult. Even narrowing in on the issue of mass incarceration and women is overwhelming because so many people are affected by the cruel system. We are often confronted with the jarring statistics; Georgia incarcerates 968 people per 100,000 people, (including prisons, jails, immigration detention, and juvenile justice facilities) meaning Georgia incarcerates the highest percentage of people in any democracy in the world. And, when discussing the issue of mass incarceration, people are often polarized, with some favoring prison abolition, and others promoting prison reform. Though intersectionality, identity politics, and mass incarceration are all important areas of study, in addition to trying to conceptualize how to change the systems in place, I often wonder what individuals can do to solve issues of incarceration, when it often seems that the problem is too large to solve.
Historically, Black women have been disadvantaged in America. According to Virginia Slave Laws, children would be considered slaves or free based on the status of their mother (Gross 37). Since the early years of American history, women were sexually exploited based on the language of the laws which were created. The rape of the Black woman was unprotected by the law, proving that Black women were often objectified for the White male, but often not dignified as human being. In addition, the Virginia legislature categorized Black women with men, labeling them “as field laborers with a productive capacity equivalent to that of men” (Gross 27). So, in terms of using Black women’s bodies for the male’s sexual pleasure, they were seen as female, but in terms of increasing the wealth of the White plantation owner, Black women were viewed as machines who could produce the same amount as men. This dichotomy describes the inconsistency of stereotyping Black women as sexual objects at some times, but masculine machines at others. And, by law, women were vulnerable. Celia, an enslaved woman, was executed when she killed her rapist-owner in 1885 Missouri, proving that “black women would be denied protection under the law, only to be fatally condemned by it” (Gross 27). When women tried to retaliate to preserve their dignity, the White man was protected by the law, despite their sins. In allegedly Christian America, Black women were often treated as non-human, even though God creates all humans and believes they are good (DeNeen).
With the undeniable prevalence of oppression on Black bodies in America, it is important considering this history in the context of mass incarceration today. When discussing the carceral state, scholars often like to align themselves with either prison abolition, or prison reform. On the side of prison abolition, people believe prisons should not exist at all. Organizations such as No New Jails believe in reinvesting money spent on incarcerating people into Black and Brown communities who have been disproportionately affected by incarceration and over-policing. They believe that “A cage is a cage” and therefore a “better jail” cannot exist, for they inherently are inhumane and restrict people from living freely. But, what is often contrasted from abolition is prison reform. At times, this can be religiously motivated, such as Christians trying to use their religion to lead people to not sin against God or others in order to decrease recidivism and restoration after a person is incarcerated. Prison could be seen as a form of penitence, but at the same time, prison reform doesn’t have to be this religious. Generally speaking, prison reform understands that prisons can help some people and therefore aims to make the carceral state more humane and dignifying.
Considering that Black women have to endure atrocious treatment historically and presently in conjunction with the debate of abolition or reform, the issue of mass incarceration is often overwhelming. It is often difficult for individuals to consider how they can make a difference in the world when the systems of oppression seem so unfixable on the individual scale. Still, one example of someone who is doing great community work is Pamela Winn. In her younger years, she obtained a degree in biology from Spelman College, three post-secondary degrees in nursing, and worked for 10 years as a Registered Nurse before she served a 78-month federal sentence for a white-collar crime while pregnant. In her time incarcerated, she fell while shackled which eventually led her to miscarry. Afterward, she was put into solitary confinement. Still, she didn’t allow her circumstances to shape her future; she dreamed of a better future for other women.
Pamela Winn is the founder of Restore HER US. America, a policy advocacy reentry organization that is dedicated to improving the lives of women who are directly impacted by mass incarceration. RestoreHER also partners with other organizations that hope to end the system altogether. In the past, Ms. Winn has used her personal story and experience to shape her work; she was able to pass anti-shackling legislation in 15 states, focusing on Southern America. In addition, she worked with women who endured shackling while incarcerated to develop a Bill of Rights for Incarcerated Pregnant People.
Currently, Ms. Winn is working on the Women’s CARE act (Georgia’s HB377), which seeks to give women more humane treatment while incarcerated. The CARE act stands for “Childcare Alternatives, Resources, and Education,” and desires to fulfill 3 primary objectives:
- Administer pregnancy tests to arrested women after 72 hours to confirm their pregnancies and allow them to be released on bond.
- Defer serving prison time until 12 weeks postpartum.
- Collect thorough and accurate data on pregnant women behind bars to better serve them in the future.
Working with Chairwoman Sharon Cooper (R-43) and Kim Schofield (D-60), the HB 377 seeks to give pregnant women a chance to have a dignifying life by providing them a way to nurture their children, with countless studies proving the value of this experience and connection between a mother and child. In addition, this early nurturance of children can assist them with developing into healthy people, as studies prove that oftentimes separation from mothers has led to children possessing aggressive tendencies.
Essentially, for the sake of mothers and children, it is advantageous for the Women’s CARE Act to pass. With inadequate medical care in prisons, it is clear that more miscarriages can occur similar to the way Ms. Winn had to endure. For this reason, it was one step for her to pass anti-shackling legislation, but this cannot be the end. Women need adequate care during their pregnancies so that they can raise healthy children. And, in order to maintain good health for the mothers postpartum, and for the development of children, the CARE Act is necessary for helping people who did no wrong mature into healthy kids in their first three months of life.
Pamela Winn is just one example of the kinds of things individuals can achieve to make strides towards better futures. She is able to use her intersectional identities as a Black woman and her experience while incarcerated in order to advocate for other women who are affected by the carceral system. This is how people are able to dismantle the master’s house; they use their experiences to find injustices in the world in order to prevent it from repeating in the lives of others. Though mass incarceration is a weighty topic and can constitute a lot of things, the story of Ms. Winn can help people understand that anyone can make a difference. Ms. Winn has no formal political training, and formerly was a registered nurse but was still able to advocate for herself and others in order to pass important legislation.
Undeniably, Black women have endured much suffering in the United States and will continue to do so unless we make changes. We can study the issues that are important to us, such as freedom, incarceration, intersectionality, and more, but our work cannot stop there. It is not enough to simply reflect on these issues, but try to work to dismantle the systems that oppress people, using our identities, like Ms. Winn, to solve the issues of mass incarceration. As individuals, we can only do our best to make a better future if we are intentional with our actions. In order to see changes in the world, we as individuals can overturn systems that have been oppressing too many for too long, so long as we lean into discomfort in order to see meaningful progress for the future.
DeNeen L. Brown, “Missouri v. Celia, a Slave: She killed the white master raping her, then claimed self-defense,” Washington Post, October 19, 2017. “https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/10/19/missouri-v-celia-a-slave-she-killed-the-white-master-raping-her-then-claimed-self-defense/
Georgia Profile,” Prison Policy Initiative, accessed November 29, 2021, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/profiles/GA.html.
Goldberg, Noah. “Who is No New Jails?” Brooklyn Eagle, May 14, 2019, https://brooklyneagle.com/articles/2019/05/14/no-new-jails-nyc/.
Gross, Kali Nicole. “African American Women, Mass Incarceration, and the Politics of Protection.” The Journal of American History 102, no. 1 (2015): 25–33. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44286133.
Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110- 114. 2007. Print.
McGrath, Maggie. “The Age of Impact: Meet the Women over 50 Creating Social Change at Scale,” Forbes, Jul. 7, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/maggiemcgrath/2021/07/07/the-age-of-impact-meet-the-women-over-50-creating-social-change-at-scale/?sh=7f5e2b104619.
Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. How We Get Free, Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2017.
Winn, Pamela and Cook, Abigail. “How Georgia’s Women’s CARE Act Addresses Incarcerated Pregnant People.” Ms. Magazine, March 3, 2021.