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Author's Poetry Addresses Incarceration Of Black Women

DaMaris Hill
DaMaris Hill

The incarceration rate for women is now more than five times higher than it was in 1980, and the rate of incarceration for black women is double that of white women, according to research.

Those rates actually represent an improvement. In 2000, the rate of incarceration for women was six times higher, based on analyses by the Prison Policy Initiative and the Marshall Project.

In North Carolina, the rate of incarceration for women in prisons has tripled since 2000, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Incarceration rates like these alarm professor DaMaris B. Hill, but she says it goes beyond the numbers for her.

“I do want others to understand that the problem with women and incarceration is not just statistics. This affects their individual lives, the lives of their children, and the lives of our society,” Hill says.

So the University of Kentucky English professor set out to try to humanize the experience of incarceration – not by direct accounts of inmates but through poetry. Her new book, “A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing,” represents the voices of African-American women over the past 150 years – some who were imprisoned, others who were bound by their situation in both good and bad ways.     

“When looking at the long history of women – in particular, black women in America – there are some parallels and overlapping themes that show up in the experience of black women that I’m talking about that are also evidenced in the way I write the book,” Hill says.

In her book, she hits on power dynamics involving race, poverty and gender.

“The way America is set up, somewhere around 400 years ago, we began to create social hierarchies that didn’t previously exist…These mythologies about intelligence, these mythologies about social value, these mythologies about gender have become so interwoven into American culture that they almost go unnoticed.”

Many of Hill’s poems were inspired by the book “Colored Amazons” written by historian Kali N. Gross. It analyzes the crimes, prosecution, and imprisonment of black women at the turn of the 20th century. Several poems begin with one of these women’s stories. There’s Laura Williams who Gross writes died of tuberculosis in a Philadelphia prison one month before her sentence ended.

Hill’s poem concludes:

Awake to my own barking. My voice strained.

The nurse’s compress grips me like a leash.

She whispers not to run. I can’t refrain.

 

She tells me to hush as I try to explain.

Stale air of this jail tangled in, death’s crease.

I dream of hounds. Their teeth loose in my veins.

She whispers do not run. I can’t refrain.

Incarceration can be a difficult topic to discuss, Hill says, because most people are trained to demonize criminals. But she says it’s critical to understand the issues, like addiction, which underlie many of the crimes that land women in prison. According to the Sentencing Project, 24 percent of female prisoners in state prisons in 2014 were convicted of drug offenses.

“I’m trying to share the research in my artistic form,” Hill says.

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  DaMaris B. Hill will be part of a forum sponsored by the Gantt Center addressing the incarceration of women. The forum also includes Patrice Funderberg, who mentors young women at the Mecklenburg County jail for the group Changed Choices, and Kristie Puckett Williams, a former inmate who now works to curb addiction. It’s at the Knight Theater and starts at 6:30 p.m.