criminalizing survival

Chicago-based organizer Mariame Kaba recently hosted a twitter talk on the topic of the criminalization of women and girls, which inspired these comments. Visit Mariame’s amazing blog at

I think a lot about women in prison because of my clemency work for survivors who have fought back and my pro bono legal work with moms in Cook County jail. And it seems to me that not just some but many of the so-called crimes that women and girls are targeted with are related to surviving.

In the same way that we might think about emotional as well as physical safety, we can think about emotional as well as physical survival, and day-to-day-being-able-to-eat survival. When we think about survival in these broad terms, it seems like so much of what we criminalize is related to the ways that people are trying to survive this brutal world.

Many women who are incarcerated are there for drug-related crimes. Of course, substance abuse is highly associated with experiencing trauma. In studies, virtually all women in substance abuse treatment had histories of experiencing domestic violence or other trauma. See NCDVTMH and especially the work of Patti Bland on this point. Others are incarcerated for engaging in survival sex work. And of course some women are incarcerated for using physical violence to protect themselves or their children from the people who abused them.

What does this framework show us about how we think about our world? I think it gives us a lot of insight into just how ubiquitous victim-blaming culture is in our society. More to come on this…

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