Lee Daniels's blockbuster Empire, an over-the-top soap opera featuring a prominent African American family in the rap world, has tackled a variety of subjects that most mainstream black shows fear to tread -- such as homophobia and psychiatric illness.
Yet Cookie Lyon, the mother and ex-wife of the record label's founder, sheds a rare light on black female incarceration and the challenges of prisoner reentry. Played by Taraji P. Henson, Cookie, is an old gangster with a heart of gold. She helped support her husband's rap career and financed his fledging record label with $400,000 of drug money. When Cookie is arrested and goes down for seventeen years, her backstory shows that visits with her kids are infrequent and her old man just stops showing up.
True to Cookie's storyline, in 2000, black women were incarcerated in federal and state prisons at a rate six times that of white women -- with the War on Drugs responsible for a significant number of those arrests. Of course, contrary to Cookie the overwhelming majority were low-level addicts and drug mules. Roughly a decade later that rate has been cut by nearly 50 percent.
Unfortunately, the damage resulting from the nearly decade long apex of black female confinement is substantial.
Unlike Cookie's character, because many of the black women in prison were single mothers at the time of their arrest, their children were displaced. Paralleling the prison system, in 2000, black children represented the largest group in foster care, despite being only 15 percent of children in the US. Because of mandatory parental termination laws after 15 months in care, a number of black mothers lost and remain at risk for losing their parent rights.
Still Cookie's character also helps focus on another area of concern, namely the difficulties of prisoner reentry. The dysfunction in her relationship with Hakeem Lyon was both heartbreaking and hilarious -- the scene where she beats him down with a broomstick for calling her a bitch comes to mind.
African American female prisoners face unique challenges trying to reintegrate into society and reconnect with their families. For starters, not only were roughly 60 percent of the women using drugs prior to their arrest, but 44 percent reported being physically or sexually abused and nearly 70 percent reported having been abused before the age of 18. Substance abuse issues and the fallout from emotional trauma are key factors, but also the women battle stiff employment obstacles, laws that make them ineligible for public assistance, a lack of healthcare and housing discrimination.
Currently, the recidivism rate for female offenders averages 45 percent. Lack of support and inadequate reentry programs are a huge factor, but so too is the intensifying parole regime, which has shifted from a rehabilitative model to one more closely aligned with law enforcement. In 1985, 70 percent of parolees successfully completed supervision, by 1997, that rate dropped to 44 percent.
Cookie Lyon's character aside, we need to help more black women successfully reenter society. In order to do that reentry programs must tackle the social and economic challenges that this population faces and successful prisoner reentry has to become a much larger focus in the ongoing effort to arrest mass-incarceration.