For many of us, it isn’t news that today in America, there are around 2 million people in prison, and about 6.5 million people under some sort of supervision of the criminal justice system. And in the latter part of the last century, it was the development of “tough-on-crime” rhetoric which helped to sell harsh, punitive sentencing as necessary for the “safety” of the general public, in spite of the clear and present devastation they brought—and continue to bring—to the communities that faced the most policing.

As the rate of incarceration reaches catastrophic heights nation-wide, an atmosphere of no-nonsense, revenge-style justice continues to inform public policy and public perception at large. In California, however, a new trend is developing in corrections and rehabilitation, one that serves as a kind of corollary to the “tough-on-crime” stance. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations (CDCR) recently “identified 4,500 women that, by its own criteria, do not need to be in state prison.… Rather than release them, the Governor, CDCR, feminist scholars, and some advocates have proposed building a whole new system of smaller prisons throughout the state for people they concede do not need to be in prison.”[1] The plan is couched in progressive, soft-and-comfy rhetoric, proposing to build what Rose Braz, director of the grassroots prison-abolition group Critical Resistance, calls, “kinder, gentler, gender responsive cages.[2]

The “Gender Justice Statement” from the JusticeNow website explains what this new wave of prison construction is all about: “This ‘gender responsiveness’ movement has launched itself in California with the creation of a ‘Gender Responsive Strategies Commission’ of the state’s corrections department. The commission is pushing to expand the women’s prison system by adding a new system of mini-prisons dressed as ‘community-based’ and ‘alternatives to incarceration’, increasing the number of women’s prison beds in California by up to 40% in two years. Proponents of prison expansion now are exporting this ‘gender responsive’ model across the country.”[3]

            In some significant ways, the framing of this plan is more disturbing than the more familiar tough-guy stance of a great deal of criminal justice policy and messaging. For instance, the “soft-on-crime” approach takes a culture of fear so completely for granted that it imagines itself to be performing a service by bringing these 4,500 women closer to home, but still keeping them behind bars. It assumes a degree of innocence regarding the “need” to provide programming that teaches manners to “loud” or “rude” folks, and most importantly, ignores the real needs—like access to affordable healthcare and housing—which are sorely lacking in the mostly poor, Black communities from which the majority of folks in women’s prisons hail.

“Gender-responsive” movements within the prison-industrial complex ought to be looked on as a fraud because they threaten to expand an already expansive network of prisons, under the guise of the necessity to “reform” women and preserve an ideal of femininity rooted in outmoded social roles.

[1] Rose Braz, “Kinder, Gentler, Gender Responsive Cages: Prison Expansion Is Not Prison Reform”, Women, Girls & Criminal Justice, October/November 2006.

[2] Ibid.