Female Incarceration



West Side Detroit

March 1990

Released from the hospital, I returned to my block a deadlier person than the man who had shot me. For the next fourteen months, anger would become my mask and shield as I navigated my way through the streets. The last remaining shreds of my innocence had been killed, but at the time, I was blind to what was happening on the inside.

I became obsessed with carrying a gun, treating my 9-millimeter Taurus like a crackhead treats his pipe. I went to bed with my gun, woke up with it, and wouldn’t so much as take a dump without it being in arm’s reach. At the first sign of a confrontation, I was ready to shoot.

During this time, I was traveling back and forth from Ohio, selling crack there for two to three times the amount we sold it for in Detroit. It was a lucrative venture, and it provided us great opportunities to buy more guns— which we needed because the local dealers didn’t like the fact we were making more money than they were. As the violence between us and them intensified, we realized that we couldn’t win a protracted war on the other dealers’ terrain, so we closed up shop and headed home.

I returned to Detroit ready to pick up where I left off, but things had cooled down on the block. If I wanted to make any money, I knew I had to figure out a way to turn the heat back up on Blackstone.

I reached out to some of our old customers to tell them we were going to start selling again, and slowly but surely they started coming back. Things were still slow, but I was making enough money to stay fresh and take care of basic necessities. It didn’t compare to the money I had been raking in before, but I had faith that Blackstone would rebound and the money would soon come rolling in.

I had been back for a week when I took notice of the new neighbors who had moved into the house next door to Tamica. They were a family, and although I didn’t know any of them, it wasn’t long before I noticed that a bunch of young ladies were going in and out of the house. From all appearances, it was mostly females living there, and that was right up my alley. Our crew had built a reputation for hooking up with all the females in the neighborhood, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before I made good on that reputation with the girls next door.

A week or so later, I noticed that a few of our old customers were stopping through the house next door, which made me wonder if someone over there was selling dope. My thoughts were confirmed when one of our old customers stopped by our crib and asked me if that was our operation.

Later that same day, one of the girls who lived in the house came outside and approached me. She was light-skinned with a pretty smile and silky, jet-black hair. She was dressed in a sweat suit with her hair pulled back in a ponytail. As she approached the porch, I laughed inside at how confident she appeared to be.

When she got there, she asked, “Do you have a pistol I can borrow?” Her voice sounded casual and relaxed, as if she were asking to borrow a cup of sugar.

At first, I wondered why on earth a girl like that would need a gun— and if she did, why she was approaching a complete stranger for it. Then I thought about the activity next door and some of the things I had seen over the years selling dope, and my thoughts turned to a small .25-caliber Raven I had purchased from one of our customers. I told the girl that she could use it, but she had to return it.

I didn’t think about the fact that I was a teenager giving another teenager a gun. All I could think was, if I ever had needed a pistol from her, I would’ve wanted her to give it to me without asking.

Later that night, she came back to the house, and I learned that her name was Brenda. We talked for a minute, and I found out that she needed the pistol because she was at the other end of Blackstone selling crack. She then asked me if I wanted to bring some rocks down to her the next day.

That’s how my relationship with Brenda began. You know, “Boy meets girl, girl asks boy to borrow a gun, boy and girl start dealing crack together.”

Over the next couple of weeks, Brenda and I spoke whenever we saw each other, but she was in hustle mode and not trying to make sparks fly. But one day, I was coming down the block when I noticed Brenda in a different way. She had her hair done, a little makeup on, and was dressed in a cute short set, looking like a young lady. Her face was glowing, and instead of the serious look she normally wore, she had a smile on her face. She had piqued my interest, and according to one of my homegirls, I too had piqued hers. Within a few days, our brief conversations grew in length, and we started hanging out together.

On the exterior, Brenda had been hardened by the streets of Brightmoor and a rough upbringing. She would fight without much provocation, and she wasn’t afraid to stand her ground. However, the more I got to know her, the more I saw a young lady with a big heart. She would do anything she could to make sure her siblings had money, food, and clothing, and she would fight to the bloody end if anyone threatened them. Sadly, however, like many Black youth growing up in dysfunctional homes, her golden heart had been callused by neglect, hurt, and heartbreak.

At the start of our relationship, we would spend most of our time hanging out, laughing and joking, or kicking it in the back room of her family’s house. It wasn’t long, though, before the mercurial nature of our personalities began to clash. I was raised to respect women and treat them well, but nothing in the father-son handbook had prepared me to deal with a girl as volatile as Brenda. She didn’t believe in holding her tongue, whether she was right or wrong, and I refused to be spoken to in a disrespectful manner. The first argument we had— over my refusal to loan her sister money for an outfit— nearly came to blows, and I should have known then that we were in for a bumpy ride. Together, we were like two birds with broken wings, trying to find solace in each other.

By the next month, Brenda and I had moved in together and were selling crack out of our house, doing whatever we felt was necessary to survive. We had customers coming to the same place we laid our heads, so we were extra vigilant. We were careful about who we let in to buy from us, and we kept several guns in the house, never doubting whether either of us would use one if necessary. We had both seen enough to know that no one was to be trusted. At any given moment, a customer could become an enemy, or a rival dealer might try to set us up.

It was a fast, hard life characterized by desperation and hopelessness. With each day, I drank more and more in an effort to numb myself from the madness around me. I was tired of seeing crack-addicted parents selling food and clothes that should’ve been going to their children. I was tired of defending our territory from other dealers. I wasn’t happy, and no matter how much money we made, it wasn’t enough to heal the deep wounds I had suffered as a kid.

The spring months came and went rapidly. Our days and nights started merging together into a blur of trips to Northland Mall, meals at fast-food restaurants, and impromptu parties at cheap motels. Like most dealers, we were living for the moment. We had no plans to get out of the game or do anything responsible with our earnings. We spent money as fast as we made it, and we were always playing catch-up. If we had stopped to notice how little money we were left with, we would’ve discovered that we were risking our lives for what amounted to a minimum-wage job.

After a few months, business began to pick up when I started an operation with Brenda’s cousin’s boyfriend, who had been selling from another spot at the other end of the neighborhood and had a couple of thousand dollars saved up. We went in together on various amounts of crack and cocaine, and split the profits, which helped us go from making a few hundred dollars a day to making a couple thousand every few days. It wasn’t kingpin status, but we felt like we were moving in the right direction.

The timing couldn’t have been better, because Brenda thought she was pregnant. She was developing all of the usual signs— morning sickness, mood swings, and weird eating habits. At night, we would lie in bed kicking it about our child and the dreams we had for him or her. Knowing that a new life would soon come into our world, we changed our approach to hustling and began talking about saving enough money to leave the game, move away, and make a fresh start. But, although we spent most nights talking about our grand plans for our new life together, when the morning came, it was right back to business as usual.

Brenda and I really did want better for ourselves and our child; we just didn’t know how to escape the pull of what had become a vicious cycle of crime and desperation. And it wouldn’t be long before that cycle claimed me for good.

Senghor, Shaka. Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison (pp. 149-154). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

After reading chapter 15 of Shaka Senghor’s story in Writing My Wrongs Life, Death, and Redemption, In An American Prison I began to think about what happened to Brenda or rather what could have happened to Brenda if she was incarcerated with Shaka Senghor.

This post will discuss female incarceration in the United States and different ways that museums can be not only an advocate but a community partner while women are incarcerated and as they reenter society.

“Since 1977, the population of women prisoners in the United States has increased by over 700 percent. These women are without access to proper health care, without their children, whom many of them will lose permanently; they are without.”¹

To me this is a travesty and I believe museums and community organizations can and should be venues that allow incarcerated individuals a second chance at freedom.

The Lady Lifers: A moving song from women in prison for life


Brief History of Female Incarceration

The Sentencing Project ² found that the number of women in prison has risen 686% between 1980 and 2010 which is a 1.5% higher rate of incarceration compared to men.³ The International Center for Prison Studies noted in a September 2014 study that nearly a third of a female prisoners worldwide are incarcerated in the United States. Hispanic women are incarcerated at twice the rate of white women, while black women are incarcerated at four times the rate of white women. Many of these problems in our jailing system have arisen from recreational drug laws and the lack of community programs to assist women in their communities.4

Just as an incarcerated individual should not be defined by their crime, these statistics do not have to define American Society. There are many avenues that can assist women and families when they are caught up in the prison system. Group Art Therapy is one method of fostering self-esteem, self-awareness though the process of discussion and creativity. Creativity allows inmates to experience autonomy in their lives at a time when they are often devalued. Historically women and men were placed in the same prisons, one difference between women and men is that women have a higher rate of mental health diagnosis and substance abuse disorders. The majority of women also have a history of trauma whether it be sexual, emotional, or physical abuse as children or adults; this is linked to long-term substance abuse.­5 Criminalizing a medical issue is detrimental both for the women, their families, and the larger community.

Art Therapy and Museum Programming

New Beginnings is a residential substance abuse program in a female detention center in the South. Art therapy is one of the weekly groups offered in a psychoeducational format where a therapeutic topic is brought to the table and an exercise related to the topic is introduced. The inmates are encouraged to think deeply and then they share their work along with their thoughts and feelings. Discipline issues have decreased as inmates are excited to participate and in some fashion they often find a flow which increases their ability to express themselves visually and verbally.

Another avenue for expression is And Still We Rise Productions,6 a theater production group “dedicated to healing, public awareness, and social change through empowering voices of formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones”. Their goals are to foster self-empowerment and storytelling that move audiences to a greater understanding and compassion for incarcerated people who struggle to fit back into the molds of society.

Often those of us who work in museums do not consider who is not coming into our museum or who in our community we can affect social change with. Whether you believe that prisons should be totally abolished, once time is served everyone should have a path to productivity in their community, or some other variation of criminal justice reform museums can engage in art therapy programs for all different members of the community and society as a whole.

Further Reading and Resources

Eastern State Penitentiary http://www.easternstate.org/node/608

Alcatraz Island https://www.nps.gov/alca/index.htm

Interpreting Incarceration: How Historical Prison Museums are Addressing the Social Aspects of Criminal Justice by Faithe McCreery


Writing My Wrongs Life Death and Redemption in an American Prison by Shaka Senghor

¹ INTRODUCTION.: Certain Failures: Representing the Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States. (2010). In Tapia R., Solinger R., Johnson P., Raimon M., Reynolds T., & Tapia R. (Eds.), Interrupted Life: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States (pp. 1-6). University of California Press.

² http://www.sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Incarcerated-Women-and-Girls.pdf

³ http://daily.jstor.org/history-of-womens-prisons/

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incarceration_of_women_in_the_United_States

5 Erickson, Bonnie J., and Mark E. Young. 2010. Group art therapy with incarcerated women. Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling 31, (1) (10): 38-51, http://proxygw.wrlc.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/763366734?accountid=11243 (accessed October 18, 2016).

6 http://andstillwerise.org/



8 thoughts on “Female Incarceration

  1. julianavenegas

    I love the idea of art therapy for those incarcerated or returning to the community after being released from prison. I see why you had us complete that drawing activity in class, and I can see how that would be valuable to those who may feel ‘othered’ within the walls of a prison. A point you made both in class and your post was roughly that we should be mindful of who is coming into our museums, recognizing that we do not always know their respective stories. Something I wanted to point out before we ran out of time, is that we are not only unaware of who has been imprisoned, but we don’t know who is connected to someone who has been imprisoned. I think these type of art therapy groups could be helpful for the families of those imprisoned, like the Still We Rise Productions (SWRP). However, I think it would be helpful for the family members while their loved ones are imprisoned, not just once they are released, as is my understanding of (SWRP). Museums can definitely have a role in that within their communities.


  2. zhuoweiliu

    Thanks for sharing. I like your presentation, a very special subject that I was ignored. I remember there’s a phrase in ancient China, which is the “human nature is goodness (人性本善)”. Of course, they actually and us are no difference, goodness in heart were not change even thought a fault. They should have the power, and a second chance to return to normal life. I can not deny, in this society, lack of understanding of them and the lack of available places offer them a second chance. Museum, as a portal, is face of all the public and it has responsibility to and has an obligation to provide suitable programs for them. At the same time, I think the museum can also provide the appropriate exhibitions and activities, promoting public understanding of female incarceration. I also admit that this is not a process can be implemented immediately; this is a process of tireless, need a lot of assistance from all around the society. However, why don’t we step this step together? Hand in hand going on, my friends!


  3. museumpeople

    Thanks for this post. I did not realize how huge a problem female incarceration is–I knew this was a big problem for men of color, but I hadn’t thought about women. This is a group that can’t come to the museum, but none the less can and should be a museum audience. Cultural institutions have much to offer these women and they likely have much to offer us. Thanks for the challenge–how shall we serve and engage them. Certainly the arts are an excellent way to connect with them. However, I’m thinking history and nature could also be good platforms for engagement.


  4. alw888

    Your presentation “Female Incarceration” was well-organized and thought provoking. Using a YouTube video to allow representative women to “speak/ sing” to us offered a glimpse of what a life-sentence entails. Previously, I had limited knowledge of this particular audience and their respective family and/or friends who, I imagine, such women seldom see. Overall, I am wondering how can we as museum professionals and caring people reach out to incarcerated females as well as their families?

    For instance, I believe the Angel Tree Program (http://virginiasalvationarmy.org/ncac/) reaches out to families of incarcerated persons.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Cristina

    I think the suggestion of art therapy for those who are incarcerated is a brilliant idea. This group can obviously not come to the museum but creating a program that comes to them is a great way to connect to an audience that hasn’t been welcomed before. During your presentation I was moved by the video shown and by your class activity. I think art therapy activities and groups therapy can be a real benefit to those imprisoned. I think involving both incarcerated people and their families in a group art therapy would be the most helpful. Having museums create such programs within jails can not only heal but also open potential windows of inspiration!


  6. Danielle

    Thank you so much for sharing more information about this audience. I think that museums really can help – while many museums cannot afford to send their own educators to institutions, they can however partner with other non-profit organizations whose mission and expertise lies with working with this audience.


  7. Taylor Horst

    Kym, thank you so much for sharing this important audience with our class. Your presentation and the video you shared with us were both incredibly moving. Also, I am so thankful that I was able to attend your museum facilitation. In addition to serving this audience’s unique needs, do you think it would also be possible for museums to address the history of mass incarceration and the problems with our criminal justice system? Perhaps museums could display the artwork produced by the inmates participating in the art therapy program you mentioned (with their permission of course) to shed light on their experiences.


    1. klvholmes Post author

      I think this is a great idea. I know there is a museum that employes formerly incarcerated individuals, Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia PA, and they do discuss mass incarceration in some of their exhibits. I think museums can partner with other organizations that serve this specific population to engage them in history and cultures different from their own. Thanks for your question Taylor.



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