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Beyond the Binary Behind Bars


June 17, 2013

The activist academic on the prison industrial military complex and its impact on women of color.

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Juanita Diaz-Cotto knows she’s seen as radical. The activist academic blurs the lines that often delineate two clear, if not antagonistic, camps: scholarship and social justice. An expert on Latina and Chicana women’s experiences in the U.S. prison system, she’s been one among just a precious few voices in academia calling attention to the devastation the criminal justice system wreaks on women of color.

Her work deals with a crisis hidden in plain sight. While Latinos made up just 16 percent of the total U.S. population in 2011, they were the majority of all those sentenced for federal offenses. Women of color, meanwhile, comprise the fastest-growing sector of the prison population—a growth that has been driven largely by the War on Drugs. In the last twenty years the number of women behind bars has increased at a rate almost double that of men, with Latinas and black women being sentenced at 1.6 and three times the rate of white women, respectively. And yet, Diaz-Cotto maintains, most people, academics included, tend to ignore these realities “because everyone is caught up in this black and white thing. This country is used to thinking in terms of binaries.”

It’s with that pressing reality in mind that Diaz-Cotto has pushed forward the academic discourse on exactly how law enforcement disproportionately criminalizes women of color. A professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton, Diaz-Cotto’s approach is community centered, transnational, and aggressively multilayered in its attempt to reckon with how different social forces intersect to produce injustice. “There are relationships of power and oppression that are identified with all those different identities,” she says. “So when you’re looking at structures of power you need to understand how identities, race, class and gender work together.” Her 2006 book, Chicana Lives and Criminal Justice: Voices from El Barrio, draws on the accounts of women who had been jailed, often repeatedly, for nonviolent drug-related crimes. It has widely been recognized as the first comprehensive study of Chicana women’s subjective experiences in the prison system—or the prison-industrial military complex, as she calls it. It’s for her subjects that she writes. “My priority is to document the communities so they can seem themselves reflected in there,” she says. “I’m writing for the people that I’m interviewing.”

I spoke with Diaz-Cotto by phone about the international impact of the War on Drugs, what she thinks society holds against poor women of color, and how her big, supportive, women-centered family instilled the political values that ground her work to this day.

Julianne Hing for Guernica

Guernica: You approach the War on Drugs from an international perspective, and use the term “prison-industrial military complex.” Why is that more apt than the “prison-industrial complex”?

Juanita Diaz-Cotto: When you’re dealing with Latin America, the term “prison-industrial complex” is very U.S.-centric and I don’t like it. If you’re going to use a term like that, “prison-industrial military complex” is more correct because the U.S. has exported the War on Drugs to nineteen Spanish-speaking Latin American countries. So it not only affects the Latinos in the U.S., it affects Latinos elsewhere.

Since Reagan, [the United States] pushed the U.S. military—who didn’t want to get involved in War on Drugs politics because they said it was beneath them—to get involved in enforcing that policy along the U.S.-Mexico border and they sent military equipment to Latin America. They sent advisers, they sent money to enforce the War on Drugs. So now you have a mix of U.S. military, with the CIA, the FBI, and Homeland Security helping Latin American civilians and military authorities conduct a war on drugs in Latin America. They help enforce the trade so if you just talk about what the United States is doing here, it doesn’t explain why the military is there, because then you’d have to ignore the U.S.-Mexico border.

Guernica: What shifts have you seen in the last twenty years in terms of the how the prison-industrial military complex has impacted women of color?

Juanita Diaz-Cotto: Well, not even among activists have Latinos gotten the attention we deserve, even though we’re the fastest-growing [demographic] of people who are incarcerated. Among the immigrant population, that rate is going up even faster. Look, we’re the fastest-growing ethnic minority in the United States. Most of the people in our population are young people. It’s the young people who tend to get incarcerated, so as our population increases, the number of Latinos who get incarcerated has to increase. So even though African Americans still compose the majority of the prison population in many states, the [population] that is climbing faster is the Latino population.

This country is used to thinking in terms of binaries—black and white.

Guernica: What are some of the most powerful figures that really highlight the severity of the criminal justice system’s impact on women of color, especially with regard to the War on Drugs?

Juanita Diaz-Cotto: That one-third of incarcerated women in federal prisons are there for drug-related crimes. A large number of women have been incarcerated under the War on Drugs.

We hear a lot about how African Americans are disenfranchised. You talk about losing voting rights—how all these African Americans who come out of prison can’t vote. That’s happening to Latinos too. No one has started to talk about how Latinos are disenfranchised politically.

Some of the colleagues I really respect, and some really intelligent people, they still ignore that reality because everyone is caught up in this black and white thing. This country is used to thinking in terms of binaries—black and white. And when push comes to shove, unless there’s a Latino presence in the room, they still think that way. Folks getting published, they still think that way. People lack an ability to think in more complex ways because to think in more complex ways you have to do an analysis—race, class, gender, sexual orientation—all together at the same time.

If it were just a question of whites oppressing people of color it would be very simple, but no, violence against women cuts across all of our relationships.

Guernica: One of the things I hear you saying is that the current, mainstream discourse on mass incarceration, even those conversations which foreground race and class, tends to sideline gender and sexuality.

Juanita Diaz-Cotto: Wait a minute. I don’t want to say they’re being left out altogether, because the activists aren’t leaving them out altogether. I would say the type of analysis that’s being done is not necessarily comparative analysis, which is, to answer your question, why it is important to understand women. Because women make up half of the Latino population for sure, and probably half of the African American and white populations too.

How are you going to understand a community if you leave out half the population from your study? How are you going to talk about how the government has impacted a community when you leave out half the community? How are you going to plot strategies for mobilizing people, organizing people, making demands on the state if you leave out half the population because you don’t care, because you don’t know how to study them, because you don’t have the time? That’s the problem with leaving out gender and sexuality.

And it’s not just that woman are oppressed by criminal justice agencies. They are oppressed in their homes, in their communities. If it were just a question of whites oppressing people of color it would be very simple, but no, violence against women cuts across all of our relationships.

Guernica: So you lay out the risks and the irresponsibility of excluding women. But how does foregrounding race, gender, and sexuality augment our understanding of these systems? I imagine it’s like when you’re at the optometrist trying to find a good prescription, and they layer in all these different lenses and then, ah! All of a sudden you’ve got some clarity. How do you see it working?

Juanita Diaz-Cotto: What happens is you’re talking about race, class, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, age, all those are identities that we have inside of ourselves. We take them everywhere. There are relationships of power and oppression that are identified with all those different identities. So when you’re looking at structures of power, you need to understand how those identities—how race, class, and gender—work together to produce different relations of power. Because you want a theory that expresses oppression, ideally for as many people as you can. We’re trying to explain: Why is it that one Puerto Rican is incarcerated, and the other ends up being a prison guard, and the other ends up in Iraq killing a bunch of Iraqis? You want your theories to be able to explain why those contradictions happen.

Guernica: Colorlines has reported on school districts that have started prosecuting mothers for sending their kids to the wrong school districts. Two cases, which have made big headlines, involved black mothers, poor women trying to send their kids to a better school district. So they got their kids into neighboring school districts and they were prosecuted.

Juanita Diaz-Cotto: For what?

Guernica: The actual charges were for larceny, and for records tampering. But politically, it was about these poor mothers stealing public education from wealthier families for their own kids.

Juanita Diaz-Cotto: I’m sorry, I have to laugh about that for a second. Okay, go ahead.

Guernica: Well, you’ve suggested that women, especially working-class women who turn to criminalized activity, are basically being prosecuted for being poor. And that in reality they’re just daring to challenge their very dire economic and social circumstances. Where does that animosity toward poor mothers of color come from?

Juanita Diaz-Cotto: They’re not just being prosecuted because they’re poor. They’re being prosecuted because they’re women. And they’re poor. And they’re women of color. They’re being prosecuted for all of it at the same time. You can’t separate one from the other. In Michelle Alexander’s book [The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness] she makes the argument that whites and blacks have always had a lot of things in common. But what the white power structure has done is create differences to give whites just a minimal sense of privilege that creates division among whites and blacks who are poor.

If you want to get to the nitty-gritty, you know what misogyny is. You’ve heard of genocide. Women getting killed. Five thousand women in Guatemala have gotten killed. Thousands of women in Mexico and Puerto Rico get killed all the time. Underlying the hatred of women is that we are supposed to stay in our place because the male power structure wants us to stay in our place. But the male power structure is white. It’s also middle class. It’s also Protestant. It’s also Christian. It’s not just male. Underneath that is an effort to keep women in place so we don’t question the nuclear family. And so we don’t question capitalism. It comes in a package and we can’t ignore the package.

I don’t want to forget that where I come from, it could be me tomorrow.

Guernica: What are some of the personal and political values that you keep close when you conduct your research?

Juanita Diaz-Cotto: One of the values I have is to remember that it could be me. I have had cops stop me to look in on who was driving a brand new car. It was mine. I have been criminalized because of my political stances. I have been surveilled. I publish about these issues. I have tenure. I have an OK salary compared to the rest of my family. I don’t want to forget that where I come from, it could be me tomorrow.

My family history has a lot to do with it. We were poor, but the reason we weren’t destitute is because I was raised in an extended family. My mother had eleven sisters and one brother, so all those sisters and my grandmother all fed each other. We didn’t lack for food, clothing, or shelter. I was raised in a family composed mostly of women in which the women, even those who did whatever their husbands wanted, still dominated a lot. They weren’t anyone’s lackeys. My mother was very independent. My grandmother was one of the first nurses trained by the United States. My father didn’t try to interfere because we weren’t raised with him. I came from a poor, working-class, and very generous family. My father, grandmother, aunts, will take the shirt off their backs and give it to someone who needs it. Sharing is a big thing.

I don’t understand having more than the basics that you need in your house, or the idea that it’s everybody for themselves, because I wasn’t raised like that. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We were put here to look out for each other, and as I have grown older I have developed as a result of that. I was raised in Catholic schools, and I forgot all about it because I was too busy critiquing the Catholic Church. And now I’ve come back to the idea that all my work was informed by being guided by spirituality. Native Americans talk about ancestors. African Americans talk about ancestors. I don’t talk about ancestors, but there have definitely been a lot of saints looking out for me, you know what I mean? There have been a lot of spiritual forces guiding my work and I only came to realize it after I had finished the work.

I’m older and I see how complicated life is. It’s not just about white people oppressing us all the time. Or males oppressing us all the time. Because women oppress women. And blacks oppress blacks and Latinos oppress Latinos. Even though we don’t control the system we still feed into it.

The whole point of living is to help other people and to be of service. What good is an education if you’re just going to hoard everything you learn?

Guernica: Have you ever felt any kind of tension between your roles as an activist and an academic?

Juanita Diaz-Cotto: Oh my god, I almost didn’t finish my Ph.D. because I felt such a conflict between the two. Part of it was laziness and the other part was knowing all these people are being oppressed. Then I realized the leaders who I respected were professors and they were educated. At some point I said, “Mao was educated. Fidel Castro was educated.” All the people I look up to, Marx and Engels, they were educated. And on top of it, they were European! So yes, I have that conflict. I have students who have that conflict now. They’re activists and they’ve been facing the conflict of whether they should quit school to become activists.

I explain to them: No, because as an academic you can do everything. You have so much freaking free time to publish and to write and to organize the community. You can help document the community. You have so much privilege. You cannot quit academia. You can do it all.

Guernica: I hear you saying that at a certain point, you need to deploy your privilege.

Juanita Diaz-Cotto: The whole point of living is to help other people and to be of service. What good is an education if you’re just going to hoard everything you learn?

We get benefits from publishing our books, even though my priority is to document the communities so they can seem themselves reflected in there. I’m writing for the people that I’m interviewing. That always has to be my priority.

Guernica: Can you do a little reimagining for me? What does a truly just and fair and equitable criminal justice system look like to you?

Juanita Diaz-Cotto: I’ve got to go back to The Communist Manifesto for that one. When we think about a communist or a socialist society, we’re thinking about a society in which people have been educated enough, spiritually, to care about each other. To me, communism is very Christian. The ideals are very Christlike. We care enough about each other so we respect each other so we don’t have to go hoard what we have.

There are reforms you can make in the short term and in the long term, and I summarize them all in Chicana Lives and Criminal Justice: Voices from El Barrio. You can provide better food, better clothing, and shelter. You could decriminalize prostitution, marijuana, heroin, drinking on the street. There’s a series of actions you can take that would reduce the jail and prison population instantly.

It’s just hard for me to imagine locking people up in cages. But even prison abolitionists say there are some people who have to be locked up. And if you’re going to lock them up you have to give them food, clothing, shelter, adequate living standards. Treat people like human beings, like life is sacred. Everybody’s life is sacred. Even the person who kills and maims—their life is sacred. That’s why we shouldn’t go around thinking about taking that away. I don’t know how else to answer that question because I can’t imagine it. I don’t want to imagine it. I don’t want to answer your question and justify incarceration.

Guernica: Very fair. So what does a truly just and equitable society look like to you?

Juanita Diaz-Cotto: A society where everybody respects each other. Where people love, go beyond respect, people respect the sanctity of life. And therefore what I think about you, what I say to you, how I act toward you needs to be informed by that sanctity, that respect, that you are a living creature. That nobody owns this planet. That for whatever reason we’re here, it’s clear to me that we weren’t here to kill each other.

I like that quote, “Your rights end where mine begin. And my rights end where yours begin.” It’s not a free-for-all. Even an oppressed person may have power over other people. It’s not good to look at people just as victims. It’s not even real. Nobody is ever that victimized that they don’t have any power.

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