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The United States incarcerates more women than any other nation in the world (Hartney 2006). A primary catalyst behind America's imprisonment binge is the war on drugs, the government's initiative to stop drug production and use. This domestic war has expanded across the globe and its primary victims have been poor women of color. (1) U.S.-led neoliberal economic policies fueled by globalization have pushed many of these women into criminalized behaviors, such as drug trafficking, as a means of survival. At the same time, the United States has played the leading international role in pressuring other countries to criminalize drugs, strengthen drug enforcement efforts, and to build prisons to warehouse convicted drug offenders. The result has been dramatic growth in the female prison population in the United States, Canada, Latin America, countries in Western Europe, and other locations where the United States is able to exert its influence (da Cunha 2005; Diaz-Cotto 2005; Joseph 2006; Kampfner 2005; Sudbury 2005b).
Toward a Global Feminist Perspective
Several writers have commented on the social consequences of the war on drugs on the lives of women of color, their children, and their communities in the United States (Allard 2002; Bush-Baskette 1998, 2000; Hagen and Coleman 2001; Hirsch 1999, 2001, 2002; Jensen, Gerber, and Mosher 2004; Mauer 2007; Richie 2002; Rubinstein and Mumakal 2002). More recently, a body of literature has appeared that links the global increase in women's imprisonment to the global expansion of the war on drugs, the prison-industrial complex, and neo-liberal globalization (da Cunha 2005; Diaz-Cotto 2005; Joseph 2006; Kampfner 2005; Sudbury 2000, 2004a, 2004b, 2005a, 2005b, 2005c). This article is a literature review of this vital and emerging field of scholarship. More specifically, the article conveys the empirical findings of scholars who have examined the relationship between the global increase in women's imprisonment and the transfer of U.S.-led neoliberal economic and crime control policies across national borders. The article concludes with a brief discussion of the experiences of women in global prisons and recommends strategies to curtail women's imprisonment.
Transnational feminism has emerged as a practical theoretical framework for studying women in global prisons. Julia Sudbury, activist and prison abolitionist, has been a leading voice in promoting transnational feminist prison studies. Sudbury (2005a) notes that:
Transnational feminist practices parallel antiracist feminism in theorizing the intersections of gender with race, class, and sexuality. However, they differ from many feminisms of color because of a central concern with how these processes articulate with cross-border flows of goods, people, capital, and cultures associated with globalization.... Transnational feminist practices assist us in unpacking the global prison by drawing our attention to the ways in which punishment regimes are shaped by global capitalism, dominant and subordinate patriarchies, and neocolonial racialized ideologies. (xiii)
A transnational feminist analysis, then, connects the multiple and intersecting identities of individual women--race, class, gender, culture, and nation--with the processes of globalization, militarism, patriarchy, and neocolonialism, and places the experiences of women of color at the center of the analysis. Essentially, a transnational feminist analysis of women's imprisonment requires a macro-level examination of the social, political, and economic forces operating in the current global environment that intersect with the individual life histories and experiences of women in specific sociocultural contexts.
Globalization is an important feature of late modern society and refers to the "worldwide economic, social, cultural and political expansion and integration which have enabled capital, production, finance, trade, ideas, images, people and organizations to flow transnationally across the boundaries of regions, nation-states and cultures" (Chow 2003, 444). The United States has embraced globalization as a mechanism to transfer its neoliberal economic, political, and penal policies across national borders. Neoliberalism is a revival of the economic liberalism of the nineteenth century, founded on free-market capitalism (Cavadino and Dignan 2006). Socioeconomic and penal characteristics that exemplify neoliberal political economies include a belief in free-market capitalism; an emphasis on individualism; social relationships that are formally egalitarian, yet extreme income differentials exist; a welfare state that is minimalist; a right-wing political orientation; the social exclusion of economically marginalized and "deviant" members of society; a high receptivity to prison privatization; a high imprisonment rate; and a central penal ideology of "law and order" (Cavadino and Dignan 2006). Nations with neoliberal political economies, like the United States, tend to have high incarceration rates (Cavadino and Dignan 2006).
Chow (2003) notes that in discussions of "neoliberal and universalistic globalization" little attention is paid to gender, underrepresenting "the experiences of diverse women in specific societal contexts, especially those in the developing world" (444). Chow (2003) further comments that:
Much of the theorizing about globalization is either gender-neutral or gender-blind, ignoring how globalization shapes gender relationships and people's lives materially, politically, socially, and culturally at all levels and treating its differential effects on women and men as similar.... How the gender dimension shapes the globalization process is ignored as either unimportant or irrelevant. How gender relations are products of various global-local systems of patriarchy and hegemonic masculinities seldom enters debate and discussion. (443-44)
Essentially, women's voices and experiences are left out of much of the theoretical discussion on globalization. As a result, women become invisible when policies and practices of globalization are initiated. Moreover, if the gendered consequences of globalization remain hidden, then effective social change to reduce inequalities and injustices resulting from globalization will not occur (Chow 2003).
While globalization provides legitimate economic opportunities for a small sector of the women's population, these opportunities are generally not available to poor women of color. For such women, globalization opens up greater opportunities for transnational criminal activities, steering women into drug-related crimes, sex work, or low-paid work. The scholarship discussed in this article champions poor women of color who have become invisible victims of structural marginalization due to the gendered effects of neoliberal globalization. These women often resort to economic survival strategies that bring them into contact with social control agents of the state. Subsequently, as a result of "penal globalization" (Cavadino and Dignan 2006)--an expression that refers to the transfer of penal ideas and crime control policies across national borders--many of these women are arrested, detained, prosecuted, and imprisoned.
The Explosion in Women's Imprisonment
The substantial growth in female imprisonment in the United States is evident by examining the percentage of women prisoners in 1980, prior to the current war on drugs, and in 2006, approximately twenty years after the current war on drugs was launched in the mid-1980s. In 1980, women accounted for 4.1 percent of all prisoners nationwide; in 2006, this number climbed to 7.2 percent (Gilliard and Beck 1998; Sabol, Couture, and Paige 2007). Mauer (2003, 7) notes that the past two decades witnessed the most significant change in the composition of the U.S. prison population, with a more than tenfold increase in the number of persons incarcerated for drug offenses. Forty thousand inmates were incarcerated for drug offenses in 1980, and by 2003 that number reached 450,000 (Mauer 2003). Aggregate numbers mask that women of color are disproportionately overrepresented as persons incarcerated for drug offenses (Allard 2002; Bush-Baskette 1998; Mauer, Potler, and Wolf 1999).
Allard (2002, 26) notes that in 1997 black and Hispanic women were "disproportionately incarcerated for drug offenses compared to their white, and male, counterparts." Among women in state prisons in 1997, forty-four percent of Hispanic women, thirty-nine percent of black women, and twenty-three percent of white women were there for drug convictions. In contrast, twenty-four percent of black males and twenty-six percent of Hispanic men were being held for drug offenses (Allard 2002).
According to Bush-Baskette (1998), in 1994 in the state of Florida, thirty-four percent of incarcerated black females had a drug offense as their primary charge, in contrast to about twenty-seven percent of the white females. Mauer, Potler, and Wolf (1999), in their analysis of the racial and ethnic impact of drug policies in sentencing patterns of women drug offenders in the states of New York, California, and Minnesota, found that women of color represented a disproportionate share of the women sentenced to prison for a drug offense. Mauer, Potler, and Wolf (1999) state, "Minority women are nearly one and a half times as likely to be sentenced as their share of the population in California, three times as likely in New York, and more than five times as likely in Minnesota" (22). In the …