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The Fight To Vote Part 4: The Disenfranchisement Of Women

1024px-Female_prisoner_shackled_in_her_small_cell.jpg
Officer Bimblebury
/
wikimedia commons
A woman in an orange jumpsuit sits in a prison cell on her bed, her hands shackled on her lap

A hundred years after women earned the right to vote, they’re now the fastest-growing group of people losing it. Part 4 of this series examining felon disenfranchisement looks at how and why women are being incarcerated in record numbers, and how the issue affects Black women in particular.

At a Leon County polling booth during the March presidential primary, new voter Gena Grant was elated to cast a ballot for the first time in 20 years.

“I’m just grateful that society gave me another opportunity to be able to say that I made a mistake and I am not a bad person,” Grant said.

She was one of the thousands of felons who could cast ballots thanks to 2018’s state constitutional amendment, Amendment 4.

“Don’t take away my rights fully allowing me to be an American and voting and having a part in how I want my country to be ran just because I made a mistake 20 years ago,” Grant said.

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Prison Policy Institute
This graph illustrates the growth in the prison population between men and women over the years

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 93% of inmates in Florida are men. Women make up 7% and that number hasn’t changed much. Though the percentages don’t seem like a lot, since 1980 the number of women in state prison has increased by 733%. A hundred years after the passage of the 19th amendment, when women earned the right to vote, they’re losing that right in record numbers.

“Specifically, women of color and black women who enter the system and exit the system at an economic disadvantage," says the Southern Poverty Law Center 's Nancy Abudu.

Nearly 2,000 women inmates are Black, making up 29% of the population in prison while Blacks in total are only 17% of the state population. Abudu believes laws are biased against Black women. During the trial over a state law requiring felons to repay fines, fees, and restitution before they can register to vote, Abudu argued Black women aren’t treated equally compared to white men.

“If you equate everything between a white man and a black woman: education, professional experience we find that Black women at the same level are still making about 62 cents on the dollar to a white man,” Abudu said.

She says that adds to the difficulty a Black woman who is also a felon will have.

“When they're coming out of prison or probation, they often are the sole breadwinners and caretakers of their children,” Abudu said. “And so to ask them to choose between paying restitution or a fine as opposed to putting food on their table, I think that the answer speaks for itself, in terms for what their focus is.”

Certain laws also disproportionally affect Black women. Take laws against domestic violence:

“The idea was to encourage women who are being brutalized in their home to call police. But then the police in some places would adopt a policy where if they show up for a domestic violence dispute or call, they [are] arresting everybody,” Abudu said. “That’s not only intimidating women from seeking help. But then it also results in them getting arrested and getting caught up in the system.”

Then, there are the drug laws.

“You have a lot of situations where women are the girlfriends or they hold the drugs or they might carry the drugs,” Abudu said. “But they’re not the mastermind behind the drug operation and yet they’re getting sentenced at rates that are just as high as the mastermind of that drug operation.”

Andrea James is a lawyer and former federal inmate who founded the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, about her experience. She talked to PBS’s Newshour in a 2018 interview.

“But the fact of the matter is that, for many of the reasons that women are incarcerated for, we need to find other solutions, because they are directly in relation to women being victims themselves,” James said.

In 2018 the U.S. Department of Justice conducted a review of how the Federal Bureau of Prisons handles female inmates. Among its recommendations: prisons need better training for staff on the needs of women and trauma victims. It also called for better access to feminine hygiene products.

Florida took that step in 2019 through a state law that makes those products free.