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Re-Imagining Justice for Women: Learning by Listening

By Amy Dorman, MPP, Research Manager at the Minnesota Justice Research Center

A few months ago, I had the honor of organizing - in partnership with community members - a panel titled Re-Imagining Justice for Women during MNJRC’s third Re-Imagining Justice Conference. Although many people with institutional and political power crossed my desk as solid recommendations for panelists, we knew we had an opportunity to use this space to change our narrative around who is presented and honored as an “expert” in these research and policy conversations. We wanted to go straight to the source of the deepest, experiential knowledge: Women who have lived through incarceration and are now helping others move through the challenging re-entry process.

Through community connections, three women – two of whom had experienced incarceration – were identified and invited to participate as panelists for this discussion:

The discussion was moderated by Kayla Richards, self-described as an “indigenous mother and at times a conflicted criminal legal professional and scholar,” and PhD student at the University of Minnesota.

This post centers the voices of the women who generously shared their time and expertise as part of this panel.

“This is a guiding thing for me every single day and it’s a part of who I am based on this traumatic experience. It is a fire in me that won’t go out.”

- Kahlee Griffey

How do gender and race intersect when it comes to incarceration?

In Minnesota, women of color, particularly Black and indigenous women, are disproportionately represented in the prison system.

Teresa: When my case started, I didn’t realize that race was part of the dynamic. But looking back on it now, I see how absolutely the fact that I’m an indigenous woman… when all the judges, the prosecutors, everyone who was involved in my case saw that I was an indigenous woman who was addicted to heroin and had an open child protection case because of my charge, it was like, “Well, we’re going to make an example out of this person.”

Kahlee: They’ve always been locking girls up for running away, for truancy, for curfew, they just called it “incorrigibility.” When we look at this history, what we see is that over time all they’ve really done is change the language and tried to make a bigger, better justification for locking girls up. It really ties into our entire American patriarchal system which is embedded in our beliefs as much as racism is.

Kshitiz: When I came to the United States [racism] was so evident, and I was being treated differently because of what I look like, and what my accent was like, and then because of being a woman. There’s so much intersection and discrimination that is overlapping.

How are women’s pathways to incarceration different than men’s?

For many girls and women, domestic and/or sexual abuse are often linked to addiction and ultimately, to the charges that land them in prison.

Kahlee: My chemical use was mistaken as the problem, when the problem was actually that I was in an abusive relationship.

Kayla: Most of us are socialized to sit in minimization around difference. So, if we just treat everybody the same, if we don’t see color, if we treat other people the way we want to be treated, everything will be fine. But there are differences that make a difference. And we have these stories about what is familiar and what is acceptable when it comes to women’s behavior or coping strategies.

Teresa: I think women get a harder charge or outcome of their charge because of the fact we are women. We get higher sentences [compared] to our male counterparts. And we certainly get higher sentences because of our race. I’ve seen so many women that were incarcerated for the sole [reason] that they were addicts or had experienced domestic violence or sexual violence.

How do we begin to re-imagine justice for women and families?

Many more women than men are the parents living with their children at the time they are incarcerated. Incarceration of a parent contributes to generational trauma, particularly when a primary caregiver, often a woman, is imprisoned.

Kshitiz: We’re not really thinking about what the root cause is here, why is this happening? I want to work on really looking deeper, listening to the person, listening to their stories and where they’re coming from - what history, what different traumas they’ve been carrying for generations. There is a lot of generational trauma that puts us where we are.

Teresa: I imagine there being a system in the future where we aren’t shaming, blaming, guilting women who have experienced [domestic and sexual abuse] and then capitalizing on it so that incarceration becomes part of their story.

Kahlee: We definitely want to have people [who have experienced incarceration] at the table, but I want us to be mindful about what that looks like, that there’s always space for those people to process their trauma or to have mental health [supports] they need.

Kayla: There are people and communities who know, and who have a sense of the possibilities, but they often aren’t involved in those conversations. If they are, there isn’t access to decision-making, there isn’t real power. So, how do we shift some of that, especially those of us who have power?

Our panelists illuminated that research involving inmates and formerly incarcerated persons can be transactional and traumatizing. So much of the research process, and what we strive for at MNJRC, is not about “finding the answers,” but about listening, continuously asking questions, and seeking a deeper understanding that can lead to lasting social and systems change. As one of our panelists shared, this is the best way to provide space for transformative conversations and community-based solutions.

“When we think about the criminal justice system, even the way that we label that system: the criminal ‘justice’ system. Justice for who? And what does that look like?”

- Kayla Richards

What questions are you asking?

Join the conversation by emailing us at:

Watch the Re-Imagining Justice for Women panel:

Watch other recordings of panels, speakers, and plenaries from the Re-Imagining Justice Conference:

Amy Dorman, MPP is a Research Manager at the Minnesota Justice Research Center and PhD student at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work.


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