From the 1970s onwards, the American government conducted a war on drugs that they
exported internationally. Reports, ran by the press, started targeting Hispanic and African-
Caribbean communities as the importers of crack in the US and the UK.
«In the US, Latinas and African-American women make up 60% of the female prison
population» (Sudbury 2002, p:60). This is what Julia Sudbury wrote, in 2002, in her article
about women of colour in the prison industrial complex. Through interviews of imprisoned
women, Sudbury set the landscape of black women in the prison system by presenting
different stories of women who became drug mules by necessity (economic needs), force
(threats and coercion) or deception and were sentenced to prison for as long as 25 years
even though they only played a secondary role in the drug trade.
As accurate as Sudbury is in her analysis of the imprisonment of women of colour, this
critical review will highlight the fact that she only focuses on one aspect of the problem.
Although it is true that women of colour often face drug-related charges, it is not the only
kind of charges that can lead them, more than white women, to prison. This critical review
will, consequently, also focus on prostitution charges that women of colour face, especially
in the US where prostitution is, to this date, still illegal.
Analysis of Julia Sudbury’s article
The aim of Sudbury’s article is to highlight the overrepresentation of women and especially
women of colour in the prison industrial complex. And with the testimonies and statistics
she gathered, we can clearly see a pattern appear based on racism and sexism. Drug
traffickers use women as drug mules because they believe that police and customs
authorities will less likely control women and even if it is the case, they believe that judges
will be more lenient towards them ; leaving out the fact that they also are ‘of colour’, which,
in our society, means ‘non-white’. As such, discrimination and racism prevents them from
receiving the lenient sentences usually given to white women in similar situations. As a
consequence, more women of colour end up in prison and for longer periods of time than
white women (Institute of Race Relations, 2017). Statistics show that the imprisonment
rate of African American women was twice that of white women in 2014 (The Sentencing
Project, 2015). Around the same year, in the UK, for every 100 white women imprisoned
for a drug offense, 227 black women were imprisoned for a similar offense (Brinkhurst-Cuff
et al., 2017).
In her article, Sudbury focuses a lot on the US and the UK, but leaves out the rest of the
world. She couldn’t, obviously, have tackled this subject without mentioning the US
because the war on drugs from the American government has «always been a deeply
racialized project» (Ritchie, 2017) dating back to 1875, when San Fransisco passed the
first drug law forbidding ‘opium dens’ (establishments where one could consume opium)
which were deeply associated with Chinese immigrants although opium was widely
consumed by white Americans (Ritchie, 2017). Moreover, the US holds 21% of the
prisoners worldwide although it represents only 5% of the world’s population (NAACP,
What would have been a great addition is a comparison between her foundings, in the US
and the UK, and other countries such as Spain, for example. While the female prison
population of the US and the UK represent respectively 9% and 5%, Spain’s female prison
population represents 7.7% according to the last edition of the World Female
Imprisonment List. In 2014, a journalist, Alex Dunham, wrote that drug-related charges are
the predominant cause for women’s imprisonment in Spain and that many of them are
foreigners who were arrested at airports while working as mules. But Spain, the UK and
the US are not the only countries to have witnessed a rise in the number of incarcerated
women in the past decade ; still according to the World Female Imprisonment List,
Germany and Portugal represent 5.9%, Austria 6% and Canada 10,6%, just to name a
few. Only statistics from western countries (North America and Europe) are relevant here
because Julia Sudbury focuses her article on the overrepresentation of women of colour in
prisons as a consequence of racism and the term ‘of colour’ refers to everybody who isn’t
white, as such only countries with a predominantly white population are relevant here.
Another factor that was missing in this article is prostitution. Drug offenses are not the only
offenses for which black women are more often incarcerated than white women. In a paper
written in 2014 regarding disparities in the enforcement of prostitution laws, Mariah Wood
stated that prostitution was still considered a crime in almost every state in the US. As
such, it can still lead women to prison. And black women are more easily trapped in the
sex industry because racism limits their educational and professional opportunities. But it
goes further than that, it is also more difficult for a black woman to get out of prostitution
than for a white woman. A report written by Vednita Nelson in 1993 stated that black
women had to pay higher fines and did more jail time than white women. In a more recent
study conducted in three cities of North Carolina, data showed that, in 2010, the
percentage of black prostitutes arrested was two to three times higher than both the
percentage of ads for black escorts and the percentage of black women in the cities’
population themselves (Wood, 2014).
The United Kingdom based its prison system on the American model which means that the
British government privatized its prisons and applied a neo-liberal politic where every effort
is put towards achieving the target and proving to be more efficient rather than more
effective. In my opinion, governments and prisons’ owners forgot to consider that we are
dealing with human beings and not christmas toys.
Moreover, we, as a nation, forgot that prison was invented to punish, yes, but also and
more importantly, to rehabilitate. And since its creation it has only done one thing and that
is to seperate the offenders from the rest of the population. Those prisoners are then
forever seen as criminals. And as effective as it may be for some aweful crimes, it prevents
small-time offenders from ever rehabilitating into society. Furthermore, as people of colour
are more likely to be arrested than white people, it creates a gap in society that keeps it
from moving past the racist history of North America and Europe.
To sum up, in her article, Julia Sudbury presented stories of women who had to survive in
a white-supremacist culture while being black and in a male-supremacist culture while
being a woman. It is a two-dimensional problem where the principal factors are racism and
sexism, both family heirloom (Francisco R., 2013) that we have passed down for
generations. But when will it end ?