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Chicana Lives and Criminal Justice

Chicana Lives and Criminal Justice
Voices from El Barrio

Oral histories of that recount Chicanas' experiences with the U.S. criminal justice system and the impact that the war on drugs is having on their lives.

April 2006
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360 pages | 6 x 9 |

This first comprehensive study of Chicanas encountering the U.S. criminal justice system is set within the context of the international war on drugs as witnessed at street level in Chicana/o barrios. Chicana Lives and Criminal Justice uses oral history to chronicle the lives of twenty-four Chicana pintas (prisoners/former prisoners) repeatedly arrested and incarcerated for non-violent, low-level economic and drug-related crimes. It also provides the first documentation of the thirty-four-year history of Sybil Brand Institute, Los Angeles' former women's jail.

In a time and place where drug war policies target people of color and their communities, drug-addicted Chicanas are caught up in an endless cycle of police abuse, arrest, and incarceration. They feel the impact of mandatory sentencing laws, failing social services and endemic poverty, violence, racism, and gender discrimination. The women in this book frankly discuss not only their jail experiences, but also their family histories, involvement with gangs, addiction to drugs, encounters with the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems, and their successful and unsuccessful attempts to recover from addiction and reconstitute fractured families. The Chicanas' stories underscore the amazing resilience and determination that have allowed many of the women to break the cycle of abuse. Díaz-Cotto also makes policy recommendations for those who come in contact with Chicanas/Latinas caught in the criminal justice system.


Book of the Year Awards, Foreword MagazineWomen’s Issues – Silver Award Latino Book AwardsBest History Book

  • List of Abbreviations
  • Glossary
  • Acknowledgments
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Part I: Pre-incarceration Experiences
    • 1. Latinas/os and the War on Drugs
    • 2. Families and Early Experiences of Abuse
    • 3. Youth Arrests and Placements
    • 4. Barrios and Gangs
    • 5. Addiction
    • 6. Staying Alive: Hustling and Other Jobs
    • 7. Adult Arrests
    • 8. Police Harassment and Brutality
    • 9. Courts and Consequences
  • Part II: Sybil Brand Institute for Women and Beyond
    • 10. Sybil Brand Institute for Women: The Institutional Setting
    • 11. The Keepers: Regime and Rule Enforcement
    • 12. Programs and Services
    • 13. Jailhouse Economy
    • 14. Living Together: Prisoner Alliances and Hostilities
    • 15. Gender, Sexuality, and Family Kinship Networks
    • 16. Outside Looking In: Third Parties
    • 17. Prisoner Complaints and Resistance
    • 18. Picking Up the Pieces
    • 19. Concluding Remarks and Reflections
  • Appendix A: Sociodemographic Characteristics of Chicana Pintas Interviewed
  • Appendix B: Most Frequent Offenses Leading to Arrest
  • Notes
  • Reference List
  • About the Author

Juanita Díaz-Cotto is Associate Professor of Sociology, Women's Studies, and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the State University of New York at Binghamton.


Most social science, government, and private studies of women's criminality attribute the causes of women's crimes to either individual pathology or the collective pathologies said to characterize the social classes and/or racial/ethnic groups from which women "criminals" come. These explanations ignore or undermine women's interpretations of their own motivations and actions.


Such studies are overwhelmingly based on women who have been arrested and incarcerated. As a result, although most women in the United States are Anglo/European, social scientists, government personnel, and laypeople generally take it for granted that women of color are more likely to be "criminals" because they compose the majority of imprisoned women.


Most researchers ignore how discrimination based on social class, race/ethnicity, age, and gender help determine why and how certain groups are disproportionately labeled criminal, arrested, and incarcerated.


Radical and progressive social scientists and community activists have increasingly come to challenge mainstream interpretations of the causes of women's crimes and the political motivations and models on which such interpretations are based. Likewise, they seek to change not only criminal justice policies but the social, political, and economic structures on which such policies are based.


It is important for policy implementation, advocacy, and progressive organizing to debate the weight that race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, and age play in the implementation of criminal justice and other policies. Nonetheless, the impact of the war on drugs on Latinas/os in the United States, discussed in Chapter 1, and the experiences of pintas discussed throughout this book clearly demonstrate that social inequalities interact simultaneously at the personal and societal levels to produce a situation wherein people of color, primarily men but increasingly women, are disproportionately arrested and imprisoned in the United States. Moreover, the life histories on which this book is based show that the actions of pintas were not just the result of individual or collective pathology but were the outcome of the interplay of a complex set of personal and structural influences.


Researching Women of Color and the U.S. Criminal Justice System


Within this context, a few texts have begun to address the oversights within the social science literature by offering multilevel analysis of the experiences of women of color and the criminal justice system.


Moreover, during the past decade, women of color researchers, active in various progressive social movements, have examined the interrelationships among class, race, ethnicity, gender, and, although not always explicitly, sexual orientation and how they frame women's experiences with the criminal justice system (Díaz-Cotto 1996, 2004, 2005a; Johnson 2003; Richie 1996; Ross 1998; Sudbury 2002, 2004a, 2004b). These researchers show how discriminatory policies lead to the criminalization and disproportionate imprisonment of women of color and influence how they are treated while incarcerated. They also analyze both the systemic causes behind the persecution of women of color by criminal justice and other state agencies and the ways these hinder women's ability to exert their agency, that is, their ability to act on their own behalf.


Most importantly, through the use of life-history interviews, or testimonios, conducted with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women of color, these researchers have prioritized women's own explanations of the motivations behind their actions as well as validated women's accounts of their experiences with the criminal justice system. The testimonios illustrate how women exert their agency to free themselves from violent relationships, personally destructive behavior, economic difficulties, multiple forms of discrimination, and socially prescribed gender role expectations.


These works complement the autobiographical accounts of former prisoners such as Assata Shakur (1987) and Angela Davis (1988, 1992). Such accounts have provided significant insights into the inner workings of criminal justice and other state policies as they pertain to women of color and their communities (James 1998). Like Gilmore (1998) and Sudbury (2004a, 2004b), they expose how U.S. criminal justice policies serve to maintain the subordination of people of color within capitalist societies. Combined, these works extend to the field of criminal justice the types of multilevel analysis provided in other fields by feminists of color.


Researching Latinas and the War on Drugs


Chicana Lives and Criminal Justice extends a multilevel analysis and, at the same time, expands our current knowledge of the impact of criminal justice policies on Latinas and their communities. At a time when many Latinas are being arrested and incarcerated for low-level, nonviolent, drug-related, and economic crimes (some also drug-related), it is imperative that we understand the various personal and societal factors that have contributed to this trend, particularly if we want to reverse it.


A number of studies describe the overall experience of Latinas/os with law enforcement, the courts, and incarceration. A few focus on or make references to the prison experiences of Latinas. Some have explored related topics such as Latinas' experience with illegal drug use and participation in gangs.


Much of the information available on the impact of the war on drugs on people of color tends to focus on men. Some governmental and private reports provide a general description of the women who are arrested and imprisoned for drug crimes and the types of offenses in question (BJS 1994a, 1999, 2001a; CANY 1985; HRW 1997a, 2000). A few studies make passing reference to the increasing arrests of women for drug crimes as part of their discussion of women's experiences with the U.S. criminal justice system (Bloom 1996; Mann 1993, 1995b; Turk, Owen, and Bloom 1995). Others explore the individual experiences of women impacted by drug-related and mandatory sentencing laws (CANY 1992, 1999; Johnson 2003). Díaz-Cotto (2004, 2005a) and Sudbury (2004a, 2004b) draw parallels between the impact of the war on drugs on women of color in the United States and on those abroad.


As valuable as all these sources are, few make more than a passing reference to the fact that Latinas constitute a significant proportion of those arrested and, most importantly, those imprisoned for drug-related crimes in the United States. Chicana Lives thus seeks to complement these studies by exploring the ways Chicanas and, consequently, their communities have been affected by the war on drugs in California.


Until now few people have been interested in listening to what pintas, particularly addicts--among those most affected by the war on drugs--have to say about the effects such policies have on their lives. This book seeks to break with previous social science research both by providing an analysis of the diverse personal and systemic forces that affect the lives of pintas and by allowing them to provide the bulk of the analysis concerning their own lives and their experiences with the criminal justice system. The book also breaks with earlier social science tradition in that its targeted audience is not only social scientists, criminal justice personnel, and/or community activists, but also pintas/os and their barrios.


The life histories, in which pintas recount the stories of their lives from childhood through release from penal institutions, are based on a series of open-ended questions. They form the crux of the book because they are currently the major source of information on Chicanas' experience with the criminal justice system. The voices of pintas must be heard because their lives are seldom portrayed in the mass media or considered where criminal justice policies are framed or even in male-oriented prisoners' rights advocacy groups. At the same time, law enforcement and prison guards' unions, pro-incarceration victims' rights lobbies, and other conservative groups have ample exposure in the mass media and within governmental circles.


Chicana Lives is part of my larger political commitment to allow the voices of previously unheard Latinas/os to be heard. The ultimate goal is to encourage those who tell their stories and those who listen to them to change oppressive social structures. As with my earlier work Compañeras: Latina Lesbians (under Ramos 1987, 2004) and Gender, Ethnicity, and the State (1996), the gathering of testimonios on which Chicana Lives is based is itself a development of Latinas' own agency. Unlike Gender, Ethnicity, and the State, however, in which I focus my attention on the prison experiences of Latinas and Latinos, Chicana Lives follows Chicanas' experiences inside and outside the walls, drawing the parallels between them.


The Study


Chicana Lives primarily focuses on the experiences of Chicanas with the California criminal justice system. The criminal justice system as here understood includes those "organizations responsible for passing criminal laws, preventing crime, and apprehending, processing, and supervising offenders" (Kratcoski and Walker 1984: 563). It includes the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. When speaking about the national and/or international enforcement of drug laws, such agencies also include the CIA, the U.S. Armed Forces, the U.S. Customs Service, and the U.S. Department of Housing.


The book is based on 24 life histories with pintas, all but one of them heroin addicts. While only their jail experiences are discussed in this book, all but four also served time in la pinta, the penitentiary. Additional interviews were done with non-Chicana former prisoners and male former prisoners, and prisoners' rights advocates such as attorneys, family members, health care professionals, academics, and members of community organizations (some of them also former prisoners). Former employees of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (LASD) and the California Department of Corrections (CDC) were also interviewed.


The information provided by non-Chicana prisoners and others interviewed was used to complement data concerning the experiences of pintas at Sybil Brand Institute for Women (SBI), the Los Angeles women's jail, between November 1963, when it opened, and 1997, when it was closed.


The interviews were further complemented by extensive research of court cases, government and private documents and reports, and California newspapers. The latter included the Fresno Bee, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Santa Ana Register, the Orange County Register, the Sacramento Bee, the Los Angeles Times, the Madera Tribune, the Chowchilla News, and La Opinión. The years covered by the newspaper research ranged from January 1964 to March 1999. The information found in these sources about women's experience, particularly that of Chicanas, with the criminal justice system was minimal. Nonetheless, a few sources did support pintas' overall description of their experiences with law enforcement and SBI.


The attention given to SBI, which covers almost a third of the book, was motivated by the fact that incarceration is perhaps the most significant way in which criminal justice agencies seek to punish those arrested under war-on-drugs policies. Also, it was to SBI that many drug-addicted pintas returned as they lived out lives of repeated arrests and incarceration. In total, 16 of the 24 pintas whose life histories are here documented were held at SBI, all more than once.


It was at SBI that many experimented with same-sex relationships. Moreover, it was at SBI that for the first time most pintas came into close proximity with African Americans and whites. There, they learned to put aside their barrio gang rivalries in order to provide a "united front" before the overwhelmingly white female guard force and the significant African-American prisoner population. Conversely, pintas learned to set aside interracial, interethnic rivalries and joined with non-Chicana prisoners to demand changes in treatment and living conditions.


Another motivation for the attention given to SBI is that although most women imprisoned in the United States are held in jails as opposed to prisons, few researchers have concerned themselves with documenting the personal and institutional experiences of women in such facilities (Richie 1996; Watterson 1996). In fact, I found only a few references to SBI in mainstream newspapers, grassroots feminist newsletters, government publications, and social science literature (Watterson 1996) despite the fact that SBI was the Los Angeles County women's jail for 34 years.


In view of the above, the testimonios provided by pintas for this book are a means of helping to break the silence about the experiences of women imprisoned at SBI and the changes that took place in women's jails all over the country as a result of the war on drugs.


A look at Chicanas' experiences of incarceration at SBI also demonstrates that the patterns of abuse Chicanas encountered on the outside continued on the inside at the hands of penal staff. Once institutionalized, Chicanas were further stigmatized, now as convicts. Such stigmatization contributed further to their alienation from and rejection by society at large.


While this book focuses on experiences of pintas in the California criminal justice system, it is important to place these experiences in an international context wherein Latinas/os everywhere are targeted for arrest and incarceration under the auspices of the U.S.-led international war on drugs.


While elsewhere I compare the impact of the war on drugs on women in the United States, Latin America, and Europe (Díaz-Cotto 2004, 2005a), Chapter 1 briefly discusses the motivations and objectives behind the drug war and its overall impact on Latinas in the United States, particularly New York and California. It is within this setting that we can best understand the motivations and conditions under which Chicanas in California are repeatedly arrested and imprisoned primarily for low-level, nonviolent economic and drug-related crimes.


Other chapters illustrate how the drug war is played out in Chicana/o communities in California and in the lives of Chicanas in particular. For although drug policies were only one factor pintas contended with, these perpetuated the cycle of personal and systemic violence to which the women were exposed throughout their lives. Likewise, the drug war exacerbated discriminatory criminal justice policies based primarily on race/ethnicity, gender, and social class. Yet, the war on drugs did little to reduce pintas' addictions; rather, it increased their isolation and alienation from society at large, thus reinforcing their inclination to use drugs.


Having said this, however, the fact remains that the war on drugs was only one of the many obstacles pintas faced. As a result, Chapters 2-18 examine, in chronological order, several major themes discussed in the life histories of the 24 pintas at the center of this book. By tracing simultaneously their individual and collective experiences with the Family, the Barrio, and the State, we arrive at a preliminary composite "biography" of the life of a pinta. (Some individual narratives are printed in extended form because they amplify particular points, demonstrate the progression of some point being made, or illustrate issues of agency that were not covered earlier.)


In order to differentiate between the experiences of pintas prior to their first adult incarceration and their experiences during and after incarceration, the book is divided into two parts. Part I (Chapters 1-9) opens with a discussion of the war on drugs and the overall impact it has had on Latinas/os and women in the United States, primarily New York and California (Chapter 1).


In Chapter 2, pintas begin to relive their most salient life experiences, particularly as they pertained to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse they experienced as youths and adults, and how these influenced decisions they made in their lives. Chapter 3 follows those pintas who came in contact with the juvenile justice system and explores the conditions under which those first encounters took place and their experiences in youth placements. Pintas' motivation for joining barrio gangs, the benefits of such membership, and the types of activities they engaged in as gang members are the subject of Chapter 4. Chapter 5 explores pintas' initiation into alcohol and other drug abuse and the circumstances under which this took place.


While Chapter 6 provides information on the legal and illegal economic activities pintas engaged in to support themselves, their children, and their drug habits, Chapter 7 reveals various types of offenses for which they were arrested as adults and the circumstances surrounding the arrests. Pintas' experiences of harassment and/or brutality at the hands of law enforcement officers are explored in Chapter 8; an underlying question guiding the chapter was whether pintas' experiences with law enforcement were significantly different from that of Chicanos. Chapter 9 reviews pintas' interactions with prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges and the types of sentences and post-release supervision they received, particularly following their first adult arrests.


Part II (Chapters 10-17) traces Chicanas' experiences of incarceration at SBI between 1963 and 1997. The chapters pay particular attention to the conditions under which Chicanas were incarcerated, the manner in which they sought to empower themselves in relation to non-Chicana prisoners and staff, and the ways they joined non-Chicana prisoners to demand changes in oppressive treatment and conditions.


In Chapter 18, pintas examine various dilemmas they confronted once released from jails (and prisons), including how to adequately support themselves and their families, get and stay clean and sober, and stay out of penal institutions. Chapter 19 offers some concluding observations and remarks as well as a summary of the major themes underlying the experiences of pintas interviewed. These include: violence in their lives; biological and nonbiological kinship networks; gender role expectations; racism and discriminatory criminal justice policies; economic constraints; addiction; and pintas' efforts to exert their agency through various means and in diverse settings.



“This book is a groundbreaking addition to the fields of criminology, women's studies, and Latina/o studies, as well as to the broader disciplines of qualitative sociology and cultural anthropology. In this project the author allows the testimonials to speak for themselves, providing a chilling composite of the typical pinta, with emphasis on the patterns of abuse and exploitation that presaged their crimes and punishments. The author also marks patterns of individual and systemic abuse alongside information that illuminates the pintas' agency. Significantly this book goes against the grain of work on prisoners because it is easy to read and free of jargon.”
Ben V. Olguín, Associate Professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative American Literatures, University of Texas at San Antonio


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