Please Don't Forget About Us: On the Trials of Living with a Criminal Record

by Marena Bridges

When I entered the cell block, dragging my mattress behind me, my new cell mate offered me the bottom bunk and made space for my meager belongings. A few days later, as we chatted over a card game, she declared, “You don’t seem like a criminal.” I chuckled and gave a halfhearted shrug, but her words never left me.

How, exactly, does one "seem like a criminal?"

Black activism and resistance efforts against anti-black state-violence have received much mainstream media attention recently. We’re actively calling out and pushing back. State-sanctioned violence means not only murder at the hands of police officers, but it also takes the form of the massive amount of Black bodies funneled into the prison industrial complex. Unfortunately, Black women often wind up invisible in these discussions—except as the mothers of the Black men we’ve rallied around.

Yet, we face our own struggles with the criminal justice system. Many of us know that the United States prison population remains disproportionately Black. But it’s just not Black men and boys winding up in the system. Black women, like Black men, stand a pretty good chance of winding up in a jail cell compared to our counterparts of other races. While in lock-up, we also stand a good chance of experiencing sexual violence, reproductive violence, and other institutional mistreatment. We also face the same limited opportunities and violations of our civil and human rights as Black men do once we’re on the outside.

It’s startlingly easy to wind up inside the prison system. Take my story, which is hardly unique: After a night out, my friend and I dropped an acquaintance off as a favor to a mutual friend. That man’s girlfriend, drunk, started a fight that ended with her and two men kicking and punching me. My friend thought to call the police, but we were both too scared to do so, so we contacted our mutual friend for help and answers. He proceeded to get into his own altercation in our defense, and we were all arrested. I asked the arresting officer to take me to the hospital, but he only looked in his rearview mirror, said, “I’ve seen worse,” and continued to drive. (I would later find out he claimed I’d refused medical attention.) A few months later, I sat in a cell block with seven other women, almost all women of color.

I managed to receive a comparatively light sentence because, again, I didn’t “seem like a criminal.” Yet, I still had to undergo a strip search by a corrections officer.

During my time in jail, I watched the white man ahead of me, accused of rape, get a $500 signature bond and literally sign himself out of jail while I had to come up with cash. I watched a teenaged Black woman in jail for the first time cry and beg to be let out of her solitary cell before three white male officers in riot gear stomped into her cell, pepper sprayed her, then shoved her down and cuffed her.  I watched a guard having a bad day refuse to take our canteen orders because she “didn’t feel like it,” even though doing so meant many of us would go without basic hygiene supplies for a week.

I also listened. I listened to a Black mother speak lovingly about her son and how he was faring without her. She had been caught drinking a beer, a probation violation, and would now spend the summer behind bars away from her child. She gave me soap and showed me how to wash my underwear in the sink because we only got three pairs for the week. I listened to another teenaged Black woman talk about how she’d been arrested—far from home, scared, and alone—when her boyfriend was caught with some weed.

All of these women’s stories were so different, and none of them “seemed like a criminal.”

After being released, I ran into my former cell mate. We chatted about where we would go from here. I’m not sure what happened to her, but I know that I’ve had a difficult time. I’ve had potential landlords and employers call me and demand I explain my record. I’ve had a probation officer tell me I wasn’t allowed to have contact with my family. I’ve had people’s faces change when they learn I have a record, as they presume all sorts of things about me.

It’s not an easy intersection in which to exist—here at the overlapping of racism, sexism, misogyny/transmisogyny, state-violence, and invisibility. But Black women with criminal records exist, and our struggles matter. Black women matter. We’re here (even if people forget about us once we’re gone), and we’re putting in the work to critically look at the prison industrial complex and state violence and how they affect Black women’s lives.

Please don’t forget about us.

Photo: Shutterstock

Marena recently earned her Master’s degree in Social Justice & Human Rights & primarily explores social justice issues in the production & consumption of popular media. You can find her creating fan works, beading, flailing over fictional faves, reading everything from fanfic to theory, or watching low budget sci-fi. You may visit her on her blog.

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