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Retroactivism: Helping Women Recover From Incarceration

    In 2012, the United States (US) accounted for roughly 5% of the world’s population, but it was responsible for 25% of the world’s prison population. Over the past thirty years, the US prison population has increased from about 350,000 to over 2 million, and more than half of those incarcerated were Blacks and Latinos. The sheer number of those incarcerated in the US and the fact that people of color are disproportionately represented speak to the social and racial injustice of mass incarceration in this country.

    Another unjust aspect of mass incarceration in the US is that its impact on women is often overlooked, especially women of color. During the past 30 years, the number of women incarcerated increased by over 800%, and racial and ethnic disparities resulted in women of color being over represented in this increase. African American women are three times more likely to be incarcerated than white women while Latino women are 69% more likely to be incarcerated than white women, and these disparities are an example of racial and gender injustice.

    Supporting women of color who’ve been impacted by incarceration will be an arduous task because historically, research, programming, and treatment for those incarcerated have focused on the male experience. The experiences and needs of incarcerated women are usually neglected, and when it is acknowledged that women are impacted by incarceration, the services and programs used to support them are usually the same ones used to support their male counterparts. Woman of color need unique services to address their experience of incarceration, but what would those services look like? Those services should be more recovery-focused and the therapeutic component of them more culturally relevant.

    This problem of mass incarceration in the United States has had activists advocating for prison reform recently. An example of this is the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act of 2017, a bill developed by Senators Cory Booker and Richard Blumenthal that worked to decrease their prison populations by at least 7 percent over three years. This is a laudable attempt at criminal justice reform, but at its core, the bill is an example of reactionary activism.

    Reactive activism is when an injustice occurs, people get angry, and they work toward stopping the injustice. A more sophisticated example of activism is when it’s proactive, as this type of activism works toward preventing future injustice. A type of activism that’s rarely utilized, but is very much needed, is the type that supports people after their experience of injustice. Retroactivism is a concept that’s similar to reparations, but instead of making amends, paying money, or helping those who were treated unjustly, it works to help those heal and recover from the injustice they’ve encountered. So instead of criminal justice reform that relies solely on activism that works toward stopping or preventing mass incarceration, we need to focus more on retroactivim that works toward helping people heal or recover from mass incarceration (police brutality, poor schools, and other forms of racism).

    Recovery is the process of being restored to a former or better condition before sickness, injury, or addiction. Recovery instills hope and empowers people to make choices that help them fulfill their potential by using community resources (i.e. family, peers, educational and vocational programming, and faith based supports). Resilience is the ability to quickly recover from difficulties, a toughness that allows people to grow, in spite of personal and environmental risk factors.

    Recovery from incarceration is based in the principles of recovery and resilience, and it’s the process of a person that’s released from incarceration healing the wounds inflicted by incarceration, working to avoid re-incarceration, and becoming a productive, law abiding citizen. Recovering from incarceration is a term used to identify those who used to be referred to as convicts, ex-offenders or other dehumanizing labels. Changing how people are identified can motivate people to treat them with dignity and respect, and this was part of the thinking that resulted in the City of Philadelphia now referring to this population as returning citizens.

    If women of color are to recover from incarceration and avoid recidivism, they would have to utilize behavioral health services to address mental health challenges that predate or were exacerbated by their incarcerations. This may be a difficult task due to many in Black and Latino cultures being resistant to therapy due to the stigma associated with mental illness and needing therapy, distrust of “the system,” and bias in the field of psychiatry. However, making therapy more culturally relevant to returning citizens who are woman of color may increase their willing to participate in it.

    Many returning citizens who are women of color are poor, and many of them live in urban areas. Many people in urban areas between the ages of 15 and 50 are members of the hip hop culture due to their values, language, and taste in clothes and music being influenced by hip hop culture. Since many returning citizens who are women of color express their identities through hip hop culture, utilizing a clinical intervention that integrates their home culture (hip hop culture) may make them more willing to engage in therapy.

    Hip hop Therapy is a therapeutic intervention that uses an analysis of hip hop culture and evidenced based therapy practices to engage those who are resistant to traditional forms of therapy. This culturally relevant intervention may make therapy more interesting for returning citizens who are women of color. This may improve their treatment experiences, improve their treatment outcomes, and help them recover from incarceration.

    Ronald Crawford is a therapist, an activist, an instructor, and the author of Who’s the Best Rapper? Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas a book that uses an analysis of rap lyrics to teach social skills. Connect with him on facebook or at [email protected] Books are available at