Quick Hit: Juanita Diaz-Cotto on women of color and the prison-industrial military complex

Check out this great interview with academic-activist Juanita Diaz-Cotto at Guernica.

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.”

Click here to read the interview, which covers the War on Drugs, growing up in a large Latino family, and Diaz-Cotto’s vision for a truly just and equitable society. She also offers a concise and powerful articulation of the need for an intersectional analysis: “[Y]ou 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.” It’s clear that her work–which refuses to fall into simplistic binaries–lives up to that goal.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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