Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of Louisiana
Since 1986, Louisiana has ranked in the top ten states nationwide for the highest incarceration rates. From 2005-2018, Louisiana ranked first in the nation and the world in holding people captive.[i] Louisiana only lost its title of “Incarceration Capital of the World” to Oklahoma after state reforms enacted in 2017 lowered our incarceration rate. Louisiana still far outpaces the nation, incarcerating 712 people per 100,000 compared to a national average of 450 people per 100,000.[ii]
Women are one of the fastest growing state prison populations. The incarceration rate nationwide for women has grown 834% over the last 40 years, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.[iii] Here in Louisiana, the incarceration rate for women is significantly higher than the national average.[iv] The majority of women in Louisiana are incarcerated for lower-level crimes, such as drug or property offenses.[v] About 80% of women imprisoned are mothers, of which the majority are the sole caregivers for their children.[vi] One in 12 children in Louisiana have an incarcerated parent.[vii] Women in jails are overwhelmingly survivors of reported abuse: 86% have experienced sexual violence; 77% have experienced partner violence, and 60% have experienced caregiver violence.[viii] Nationwide, 60% of women imprisoned did not have full-time employment at the time of their arrest[ix].
Newcomb Art Museum has partnered with formerly incarcerated women, community organizations, stakeholders, and those directly impacted by the prison system to create the exhibition Per(Sister), which is intended to share the stories of currently and formerly incarcerated women in Louisiana, and shine a light on the myriad issues as identified and expressed by the women themselves.
The experiences of incarcerated women are often unknown, overlooked, dismissed, or misunderstood. Per(Sister) presents the personal and intimate stories, in their own voices and in their own terms, of thirty women that persist in their drive for the integral survival of their mind, body, and soul.
Their stories come to life through the pairing of a “persister” and an artist who created a work inspired by her story, other stories take the shape of voice recordings, or handwritten messages, all with the intention of challenging misconceptions and uninformed assumptions. By building awareness of the situations arising before, during and after incarceration, the exhibition Per(Sister) seeks to find common ground and pathways for society to empathetically move forward together.
Per(Sister) examines themes such as the root causes of women’s incarceration, the social impact of long-term incarcerated mothers, the psychological and physical toll of incarceration, and the challenges and opportunities of reentry for formerly incarcerated women.
Syrita Steib-Martin and Dolfinette Martin are the museum’s equal partners in the creation and development of this exhibition together with museum director, Monica Ramirez-Montagut, and museum curator, Laura Blereau. Mellon Fellow for Community Engaged Scholarship Megan R. Flattley served as the curatorial research assistant. Further support was provided by Operation Restoration and Women with a Vision. Special thanks to Prof. Andrea Armstrong for assisting in the writing of all exhibition texts and timeline.
A note on Louisiana Law: A combination of laws contribute to the state’s excessive incarceration rates. First, Louisiana’s “habitual offender law,” which increases sentences for those with prior convictions (including non-violent crimes), is among the harshest in the country. The threat of these serious penalties for low-level crimes often incentivizes people to plead guilty and accept disproportionate prison sentences, even for crimes they didn’t commit. Second, many crimes require a mandatory sentence of incarceration, even for first time offenses, removing discretion from judges to account for the actual circumstances of the crime. Third, Louisiana law generally does not allow the possibility of parole for anyone sentenced to life after 1979. Accordingly, Louisiana has one of the highest rates of people serving life or virtual life sentences nationwide and has more people serving life without parole sentences than Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas combined.[x]
In 2017, a bipartisan coalition successfully urged the legislature to enact critical reforms to lower Louisiana’s incarcerated population. These reforms included focusing prison beds only for those considered a serious threat to public safety, strengthening community supervision, reducing barriers to re-entry, and reinvesting savings into reducing recidivism and supporting victims of crime.[xi] In 2018, by constitutional amendment, Louisiana eliminated split juries and now requires a unanimous jury for all felony convictions. Prior to this reform, a person could be convicted of a serious felony crime, even when 2 out of 12 jurors voted not guilty.[xii]