This past Saturday Congresswoman Karen Bass, of the 37th District of California, hosted an important discussion shedding light on the mass incarceration of girls and women of color and its’ social implications following exposure to sexual abuse.
Moderated by Jasmine Velasquez, the esteemed panelists included Esche Jackson and Charity Chandler of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Zaire Holmes of Virtuous Woman, Inc., Sara Kruzan of the Family Unity Network, and Maheen Kaleem of the Human Rights Project for Girls.
Senator Holly Mitchell of California’s 30th District provided the opening remarks on girls and women in prison.
“It’s important to elect progressive, courageous, visionary leaders,” to bring attention to the topic and guide reform, she said. In terms of sex trafficking, Mitchell has introduced at least three bills, all of which have been signed in to law and range from leveraging law enforcement to track down predators to including human trafficking curriculums in middle schools.
Panelist Maheen Kaleem then shared critical details from “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline” report, which speaks particularly to marginalized girls and women of color being routed into the criminal justice system after suffering from victimization and abuse.
According to the report, 31% of girls in the juvenile justice system have been sexually abused, compared to 7% of boys, and also experience a higher rate of trauma. A prime example of this can be found in girls and women who as victims of sex trafficking, are arrested and charged for prostitution.
“Young children, particularly children of color, are met with a punitive or criminal response for behaviors that are naturally those of children, Kruzan stated.
“Overarching, there is this myth that girls are fine, and we know that they’re not,” she continued. Other prevalent examples include that of truancy, substance abuse and girls who run away from home.
Charity Chandler, who at 16 stole a t-shirt and pack of underwear to support her family of six when her single mother fell ill, shared the criminalization she faced as a teenager in the juvenile justice system. As opposed to a social worker evaluating the situation or providing intervention, Chandler was immediately incarcerated and taken Lynwood jail and then transferred to juvenile hall.
“I’m here today as an advocate. Yes I have a Master’s Degree, yes I’m the director of a million dollar organization, but I’m standing here today because our juvenile justice and foster care systems have to change and I refuse to see another girl experience what I endured,” Chandler said.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Margaret Henry stepped in to provide her take on the prison pipeline report, stating that for girls, being locked up can be considered a form of protection from the wiles of the outside world.
The panelists, however, thought otherwise, and offered keen rebuttals.
“We do rely on our juvenile and foster care systems to lock us up and protect us, but I was sexually abused while in foster care. For me, my abuse started in the system,” Charity Handler stated.
Zaire Holmes, who ran away from home at an early age and subsequently fell victim to prostitution, also shared her thoughts on the issue.
“My mom was very protective, she locked me in the house 24/7, which caused me to rebel and start running away from home,” Holmes stated. “Instead of being locked in, parents just need to talk to their kids more and get more involved in their future.”
Sara Kruzan also shared her tumultuous journey of being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing her former sex-trafficker, who consistently subjected the then teen to sexual abuse.
“I did 19 years in prison, I was never supposed to come home. The judge said that my trafficker’s profession had nothing to do with the crime,” Kruzan stated. “Imagine the collateral damage that occurs when you’re incarcerated as a youth. You have to constantly be stripped out, exposed, and vulnerable, imagine that.”
All of the panelists continue to serve as advocates on the issue, bringing to the forefront a topic that’s widely overlooked, girls and women in prison, and the mental, physical and emotional implications.
“When I reflect on my story as a formerly abused, formerly fostered, formerly incarcerated young woman, it’s only a very small fraction of a broader narrative amongst women of color in the inner-city, I’m just overjoyed that the report is finally addressing some of our most unheard issues and we’re happy to see something finally being done about it,” said panelist Esche Jackson.