Reclaiming the silenced voices of black women in the criminal justice system

The statistics around the disproportionality of black people in the criminal justice system (CJS) is nothing new and is well documented. Black women are 29% more likely to be remanded to custody than white women and 25% more likely to receive a custodial sentence than white women (MOJ, 2017; Prison Reform Trust 2017; Cox and Sacks-Jones, 2017). As a criminal justice professional (Probation Officer) for well over two decades, I have seen this persistent disproportionality firsthand and not seen any real progress on the trajectory of change.

Black women of Black African/Black Caribbean (BABC) have been particularly over-represented at every stage of the CJS and attract more punitive punishment and treatment that any other minority group of women. Women make up 5% of the prison population in the UK; of the 18.4% of minority women in prison in 2016, 8.9% were of BABC descent despite only making up 3% of the female population in England and Wales.

This glaring disparity is not addressed in academic literature or government policies and thus, the issues pertaining to how they become ensnared in the CJS in the first place is routinely ignored. Intersectional factors such as race, gender, class and sexuality and the fact that the existence of these factors creates experiences unique to women of colour is again, routinely ignored.

Due to my positionality both as a criminal justice professional and a black woman and seeing the neglect of these women, I wanted to do research that would give these women a voice and allow them to be heard rather than pathologised. The omission of their voices is conspicuous by its absence and being witness to the impact of this, called me to action.

Black feminists argue that whilst black men also suffer racism, discrimination and are also over-represented in the CJS, more attention to paid to them and thus, their issues receive more publicity. This is certainly the case in the CJS; policies and academic literature generally talk about black men when raising race issues and white women in regard to gender; leaving black women to fall through the cracks.

Critical Race Feminism, (CRF), the theoretical framework for my research highlights this and therefore seeks to address this discrepancy.

I have found this theoretical perspective resonated with the women I interviewed for my PhD research. CRF promotes a collaborative approach with racial matching (between researcher and participant), empowering black women to be agents of change deconstructing narratives about them rooted in white supremacy. Narrative interviewing was an enabling tool for this.

One of the things that all the women I interviewed said was that I was the first person that was interested in what they have to say and believed what they said. This is a travesty but not a surprise. Even as a professional, I have felt at times that I was not heard, so how much more would this be for a black female defendant/prisoner/victim? They also used descriptors such as feeling “broken” by their experiences and their treatment at the hands of state agencies as “horrific”. This narrative is not unique nor new, which made listening to these women’s stories all the more painful at times. Familiarity does not lessen impact!

I am hoping that through this research that the voices of these women who have been traumatised by their criminal justice experiences will be heard and their words acted upon. Maya Angelou wrote a book called the “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” which is synonymous with overcoming racism, trauma and oppression and emerging as a survivor. I would say this phrase epitomises these women I was privileged to interview regardless of who chooses to hear them.