Jorja Leap has spent much of her career as an academic and professor at University of California, Los Angeles writing about men trapped in America’s obscene prison industrial complex. Leap recently realized, however, she’d been overlooking another urgent issue that most Americans also neglect: the plight of women who have been incarcerated. In her latest book, “Entry Lessons: The Stories of Women Fighting for Their Place, Their Children, and Their Futures After Incarceration,” the sociologist and psychological anthropologist amplifies the voices of women and families who have suffered their country’s cruel crime policies. In a large number of cases, these women are stuck in jail because they are unable to pay bail—in other words, because they are poor.
On this week’s “Scheer Intelligence,” Leap joins fellow Angeleno Robert Scheer to discuss California’s female prison population and the scholar’s must-read new book. Focusing not just on what happens in jails and prisons but what occurs upon reentry, Leap reports with a keenly humanitarian perspective on how these women’s trials and tribulations can often be as difficult if not more so once they’re free. A shocking lack of reentry programs and immense legal obstacles to reuniting with their children are just some of the many problems the scholar and Scheer discuss on the show.
As Scheer points out throughout the conversation, the trauma caused to these women and children by our so-called justice system ends up increasing crime rates. It’s also very clearly not in keeping with the “pro-family” stance many of our leaders on both the right and left purport to advocate. Scheer and Leap also discuss Susan Burton’s “A New Way of Life,” a reentry program created by Burton—who has also been a guest on Scheer’s KCRW show—after her own struggles behind bars and in the outside world.
Offering hope in the form of stories like Burton’s and others throughout “Entry Lessons,” Scheer declares Leap’s book to be essential reading for all Americans who need and want to understand this homegrown problem and the policy changes we all must all fight for. Listen to the full conversation between Leap and Scheer as they shine a much needed light on one of the greatest domestic tragedies in America today.
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence, I always hasten to add, comes from my guests. In this case, Jorja Leap, who has spent many years teaching at UCLA, studying the situation of crime, particularly younger people, gangs in Los Angeles, written a number of very important books.
And her most recent book is Entry Lessons—the struggle of incarcerated women; I’ll let you give me the full description of it. But it is such an important book, because we have the largest prison population in the United States, and jail population, and hardly any attention paid to: Who are these people? What happens to them? Is there any kind of rehabilitation? Do they get [a] fair trial? And your book really gets into the situation involving women. You have their personal stories; you trace one particular case involving a murder allegation from beginning to end.
But really what you do brilliantly, I think, is remind us that these are people. And in this case, most often mothers; people who have children that they care about but don’t get to see, and are sort of thrown away in jail, and the key is thrown away. So let’s take it—why this book, how it fits in with your other work, and what you think is really the message here.
JL: Well, I think you’ve already given the message beautifully, which is we do not know the stories of these women. We do not know what has gone into them being incarcerated. And it’s really part of the work I’ve been doing all my life, but to be blunt, the work I’ve done has focused largely on men.
And my own sort of emphasis reflects what goes on in our society. Even when we think about people who are locked up, incarcerated, we tend to think about them as men. And where this fits in in my work was, it was important—just as important for the stories of gang youth, and also formerly incarcerated men that I’ve talked about in previous books. This book was about that invisible group of incarcerated people: women.
And it’s ironic, because in these past few days we’ve been hearing about how in Texas they put a stay on the execution of a woman on death row, and she was—there’s been all kinds of attention because it was a woman who was about to be executed. And yet I don’t even know if people are aware that women are the fastest-growing population of incarcerated individuals, both in Los Angeles County and in the United States of America. So this book had to be written. It really did.
RS: Yeah, but I mean—you read this book, you can’t accept the idea that these are, what, throwaway people, or—you know, first of all, as you point out in the book, for every person who goes to jail, and particularly the case with women, there are children involved. There are larger families, there are communities; you’re tearing somebody out of a community. And the women are central to that community.
And I just want to bring up a personal note here. I teach—you teach at UCLA, which is in an upper-income part of town. [Laughter] Over in Westwood. And I teach really in a school that’s central to the neighborhood that you’re writing about. You know, South Central L.A. And being at that school where I’ve been for a quarter of a century, we have almost daily reports—I think we’re required by law to have them—about crime in our neighborhood, you know.
And this crime usually is a six-foot-two Black male, or a six-foot Black male, or five-foot-ten Hispanic, purse-snatching, grabbing iPhones, more serious crimes and so forth. And we’re never told: who are these people, where do they come from, and what happens to them. What kind—you know, most of them plea bargain and admit to guilt, whether they’re guilty or not. And what happens to them after? Is there any rehabilitation? There is never any discussion of that.
And then just to add to that, we recently redesigned our campus at great expense to have what used to be an ordinary shopping village, where people in the community would shop—now it’s a gated community, and our whole campus is gated. And outside we have, you know, these constant reports of crime, also homeless encampments, in this center of Los Angeles. And your book, among other things, introduces us to the life there. Neighborhoods that I have driven past, even sometimes walked through; I now know the names of gangs there, or I think of individuals, they’re raising families, what kind of schooling goes on there.
And so while this is a book about women, incarcerated women and what happens to them, it’s really an insight into the neighborhoods and into their children, and how these children are raised. And a community that has been described even by a respected newspaper like the L.A. Times, where I worked for almost 30 years, as kind of “the other”—marauders, people who invade. But you introduce us to these very horribly frightening, sad, tragic stories of trying to raise a family in those communities. And in particular when the mother is ripped out of the picture.
JL: You have described it so very, very accurately. And USC is not the only place that’s putting gates up. There are other communities throughout Los Angeles that put these gates up, as if they can lock people out. And in fact, when we look at the women, especially in this book, they are just women who want to raise their children, who want to see their children go to college and be successful. And yet they get locked up.
And I want to say the most important thing: 46% of the women who are locked up right now, at this moment—46% of them are in jail because they can’t post bail. It’s not because they’ve been found guilty. It’s because they’re poor. And yet once they’re in jail, they can’t be with their children. And just as you said, their children are ripped from them, or they have to go to other kin, other family members, or when that’s not possible they go into the child welfare system.
And so if you don’t care what happens to women and families and communities, you should also be aware this costs the taxpayer a tremendous amount of money, both to lock women up before trial, and also to have all the children’s services that are involved with them when their mothers are locked up. So it’s both heartbreak, it’s emotionally expensive, and it’s fiscally expensive in all our communities. And we cannot lock it out.
RS: Yeah, but it’s also a breeding ground for, then, for violence, for chaos. I mean, what are we talking about? You know, suddenly there are these children without parents, or relatives that didn’t necessarily want them; sometimes they do, but they become foster children or they’re farmed out one way or another.
And as you point out—you know, you have a statistic that really shocked me. In L.A. County, you said, 20,000 people a day are arrested, or some huge figure like that.
JL: No, no—it is in Los Angeles County, in any given day, there are 20,000 people locked up. They’re not newly arrested; they’re locked up. And of those 20,000, 2,000 are women; 10% are women. Not 1%, not two—10. And it is, if you sit down and think about it, it is shocking that we have 20,000 people locked up each and every day in Los Angeles County.
And they don’t—why should they be locked up if they have committed—if they are accused of committing nonviolent crimes? They’re not a danger to us if they’ve had drugs in their possession; they’re not a danger to us if they’ve shoplifted. And yet they’re locked up, many of them because they cannot make bail.
And right now, when we hear about all these increases in crime, I want to urge people to be thoughtful about hearing about these statistics. Because they do not represent every single person who is locked up. And we’ve got to be very, very careful as we look at increases in crime, what we do to people, what we do to mothers, what we do to children, what we do to communities.
RS: And that’s really the power of your book. Because, you know, as I say, sitting there at USC, University of Southern California, which is in this neighborhood, all we know is that some 16-year-old or 18-year-old or 22-year-old committed a crime. And then—oh, they got him, the campus police cooperated with the city police, and he’s arrested—or she—and they’re gone. And where they came from, how they were raised—I mean, it’s the most irresponsible approach to social stability, to justice.
And in your book you describe the horrible, low standard for legal defense, and the plea bargaining, and the fact that most people don’t even get a trial. But again, I want to repeat, the power of your book—and particularly because you’re dealing with women—we’re talking about the deliberate destruction of families, OK. I mean, there’s just no attention paid to the fact that when you take this mother out of the picture, what happens to the family? And as you point out, these people are presumed to be innocent at that point. And yet again, this bail thing, that they’re going to be locked up because they just don’t have the money to get out.
And you have a poignant scene, I think, when you bring a busload, or you’re participating in a busload of well-intentioned funders to this jail. And they’re—you know, it’s been prettified for them; they see people in a guest room, they don’t see them in their holding cell where there is no room to even walk, you know, horrible conditions. And what are they going to do about it? And, you know, basically nothing. And it’s—I think, I forget your statistic, I don’t want to blow another one, but I think L.A. County has one of the largest prison populations and law enforcement in the country, right?
JL: It does. With the 20,000 individuals, there is no—jail, not a prison, but a jail where individuals are locked up—L.A. County has the sort of unenviable status of being number one. We lock up more people in jail in L.A. County than any other place. Prison is a different matter, and we won’t, you know, that’s beyond the book—
RS: These are people who are presumed, or should be presumed to be innocent, right? Until proven guilty.
JL: And by the way, you will have a mother who takes a guilty plea and makes a plea deal, not because she’s guilty—she may be innocent—but she takes the plea deal because she wants to be back with her children. And she will do that in order to be back with her kids. Now, I will tell you, there are some very small programs for what are called pretrial diversion. But they’re tiny. And they’re for women, for example, who have been sex trafficked.
Now, I want to ask who in their right mind believes a woman who has been sex trafficked should be locked up pretrial in a jail. And yet in Los Angeles County, this has happened. If you’re sex trafficked, you’re a victim—and yet you might be arrested for prostitution, or you might be taking drugs, because you’re literally trying to self-medicate to get through this, and so you may have drug possession. So, boom—you’re arrested, you go to jail, you want to get out. And you’re a victim of having been sex trafficked, of having had trauma.
And we don’t begin to understand this, because we don’t want to understand this. In Los Angeles, in America, we’re in love with incarceration. And what we should be in love with are the families and the children of people who need our help and understanding and support so that they can be strong.
The stories in the book are tragic and sad—and they are inspiring. And the women in this book are survivors. They are resilient, they are strong, they will do anything for their children. And I just, I’m always in awe of them. I have been in awe of them as they told me their stories and I learned about them, and I’m grateful to be able to share this. But we’ve absolutely got to stop doing what we’re doing, because it is not working.
RS: Yeah, and I want to make the point here that we have the largest active police department, sheriff’s department, incarcerating people. We’re not in the Deep South, you know; we’re not in one of those Trump red states. We’re here in the center of liberal, democratic enlightenment, you know; a massively blue city. And I’m doing this interview with you over a recording, but I’m only, I don’t know, eight blocks away from the building that you’re talking about. I walk by it and everything. But there’s these small windows; you can hardly know what’s going on. And it doesn’t intrude on the life of the city at all. And these people are there.
And as you point out, they’re not—you know, you have heroes in this book. I mean, Father Greg Boyle and Homeboy Industries and other people, and you have some good lawyers who are working with them. And, you know, not all the lawyers are falling asleep during the hearings and so forth. But I do want to—first of all, I want to pay tribute to your scholarship. By the way, this book just came out this week, and we’re going to be broadcasting this on Friday; it came out on Tuesday. So I read it very quickly, but I did read it cover-to-cover; that’s my commitment when I’m doing these shows
JL: Thank you.
RS: And by the way, it’s very well written, and it’s not a long book. It’s powerful, though—powerful. And what struck me is you do something—and this is a tribute; I’m often putting down academic people and academic scholarship. But you do something that rarely do you find in what is called journalism—which is always kind of a hit-and-get-it, and get the story and get out. I don’t know how many years—you’ve spent, you know, decades, basically, studying these kinds of issues.
And this is just the best example of scholarship on social issues. I’m not going to speak for the STEM part of the universities, but rarely does one come across scholarship of this urgency, this depth, this—you know, it forces you to think. And on every page you’re raising questions that, as you point out, other people don’t want to ask; they just want to—you know, it’s too good to check. They just assume, oh, is crime down, or is crime up? If it’s going down, great. We lock up more people. And there’s an immoral subtext to all this. And your book just compels us, reminds us, that these are human beings.
And again, I want to reiterate this point: you can’t just say, well, there are a few bad apples. First of all, they’re not bad apples, universally; they’re complex human beings, like the rest of us. But also you remind us of the far-larger community affected—not just their families, but the rest of us, and anybody who worries about crime, and what can you do about crime. Basically, our system now of incarcerating people is a way of creating criminals, a way of breaking up families, a way of creating chaos. So talk a little bit more about what you think the lessons of this book are.
JL: First of all, thank you so much for your beautiful words. Because this was a lot of work, especially with the interference of COVID, as it has interfered in all of our lives. But you know, the major lessons learned are, as I said before, we’re not doing this right. We need to look, number one, at the issue of bail; we need to look at what happens to women pre-trial; and we need to look at what happens with their children.
And—that’s the one bookend; the other bookend is, we need desperately to look at what happens to these women once they are out of jail, out of prison, out of incarceration. Because what they face when they return, and they want to reunite with their children—and remember, 80% of the women who are locked up in the United States of America, 80% have children. And they want to be back with their children when they get out of prison.
But what these women face is an overwhelming amount of obstacles. They need housing, they need money, they need to do drug testing, they need to check in with their probation officer. What if the probation officer wants to check in while they’re on their job? Then they can’t keep their job, because they’ve got to go to the appointment, and there may even be jeopardy if someone on their job finds out what’s happened to them in the past, what kind of crime they’ve been involved in.
There’s also a clock running. Women are given a limited amount of time, if any, to reunite with their children. So they face a series of obstacles with virtually no support. Homeboy Industries and Father Greg Boyle—he is a hero; its efforts are heroic. Susan Burton and A New Way Of Life—she is a hero, and her efforts in terms of women leaving prison and having a residence to live in—they’re heroic. But the need is great, and the services are limited.
And what we don’t realize, or we don’t want to realize, is the more that we support these women and their children, the more we give them services and housing and support when they’re out of prison—the more crime is going to go down. The best crime prevention is either pretrial diversion—not locking up women in jail while they’re awaiting trial; that’s crime prevention—and the other crime prevention is having reentry, housing and services available for them when they are out of prison or jail. We don’t do this. And then we wonder why poverty is intractable and why crime exists.
And here’s the other key learning in this book. These women are involved in gang activity and in criminal activity because they’ve been traumatized. Out of the 80 women I studied, 72 of them had been sexually abused as children.
They were sexually abused, they witnessed domestic violence, they had partners who engaged in domestic violence with them. These weren’t women that got out of bed one day and said, hey, I think I’ll commit some crimes. They were women who were traumatized, they were women who felt protected in gangs.
And what we have in the United States and in Los Angeles is the criminalization of trauma. We need to stop locking up women because they’re poor. We need to stop locking up women because they’re traumatized. And we need to strengthen them and their families.
RS: Yeah. And the connection with your other large theme in this book is the last way to strengthen a family is to rip out the mother and put her in jail without bail, so she can’t even visit her children because she doesn’t have the bail money. And I want to mention—you mentioned Susan Burton, and I’m going to link to a podcast I did with Susan Burton on her book and on her experience, first as a prisoner and then as somebody who helps women when they get out of prison.
You know, but I’m just sitting here feeling very guilty. Because what have I really done on this issue since I did that podcast, you know? I mean, that kind of is the limit of journalism in a way; I was all upset about this issue and, you know, I won’t say I haven’t done anything; I do teach, I do write. But it’s very easy to be out of sight, out of mind.
And I want to say something else that I was reminded of in your book. There are people who benefit from this. They benefit from the objectification of people who are going to be jailed. We have a prison-industrial complex, you know. I don’t know what those deputy sheriffs are making; I think police officers, deputy sheriffs in L.A., they very quickly get over a hundred thousand dollars a year in salary. It’s incredibly, you know, maybe risky and scary, but it also is an incredibly lucrative job. And so we have an internal civil war going, and we have an economy that feeds on it.
And there’s something very—your book is so wise, in a way. Because you don’t demonize anyone. You just actually describe the process. And so it’s not—you know, we don’t have cartoon figures. And so—but even the good people turn out to be complex. Like Jerry Brown was the governor, he tried to do some things—but not enough. Now we have Gavin Newsom as governor; Kamala Harris was the attorney general here in California, can talk a good game. Our senators have talked a good game about, you know, racial inequality in the criminal system and et cetera, et cetera.
And that’s why I brought up that we are supposed to be in the center of progressive views, you know. And yet this system in Los Angeles may be one of the best in the country, but it’s a horror. It’s an absolute horror, and the key word is “indifference.” Lock them up, throw away the key. That’s the key thing. You don’t have to think about it. They’re not someone’s mother, you know, they’re not people you care about—but your book reminds us, if we don’t care about them, locking them up, that just increases criminality. That just—that’s exactly, maybe, what the people who make a living off it want. But it’s totally counterproductive.
JL: Well, and I’m so glad you brought up Susan Burton, because she has—she is an important voice in this arena. And I also do want to say, all of the proceeds from this book go to Susan Burton and A New Way Of Life, which is a woman’s re-entry program in South Los Angeles, in the very area you and I are talking about.
The other thing is, yes, it is very remunerative. It is, it’s really—there’s a lot of rewards in being a police officer, a deputy sheriff, along with salary, with benefits, with pension. And many of these individuals do not want the situation to change. Probation officers most drastically do not want this situation to change. But if we demonize these women, and we do not humanize them, we do not understand they were traumatized, they were abused—they are mothers, they are daughters, they are sisters. They are us.
And we cannot have indifference. Because the other thing, the other statistic we should all be aware of is, 120 million people in the United States have a relative or family member who is incarcerated. And I actually had an LAPD deputy chief, Phil Tingirides, say to me: everyone has that person in their family. I have a brother in prison. And I think about my own family; I’ve had people in my family incarcerated. We cannot be indifferent, because these women—these mothers, sisters, wives, daughters—they’re in, they have the potential to be in all our families. And if you believe your family is different, you and I need to have a talk, because we’re not. It could happen to any of us.
RS: Yeah, but it is also racially informed.
RS: Yeah, and so as long as we think of Black people or brown people as “the other,” or poor people as the other—and that is the illusion of the gated community. For instance, as I said, at USC we have become a totally gated campus. We had incidents, and OK, now we’re going to check—and this is even before the pandemic, and you know, lots of luck getting on that campus after five o’clock if you’re brown or Black and don’t have the perfect ID at that moment—you’re not getting on. And we have a gated community.
And I’m not exonerating UCLA; you know, UCLA is gated in a different way. It’s situated in a community of privilege, and has of course its own massive policing. And I want to ask you a little bit about, you know, your own work as a scholar. To what degree—you know, I know UCLA has policing programs; you educate quite a few people who go into this profession. But to what degree do you find resonance on your own campus about [laughter]—no, but really getting—
JL: No, you don’t know why I’m laughing. You don’t know why I’m laughing. I’m going to tell you. But I also want to go back to something you said a minute ago, which is the race issue. And I think anyone who’s listening should be aware that of women who are incarcerated, one out of nine Black children has an incarcerated parent, mother or father, as opposed to one out of 57 white children. So that’s one out of nine Black children, one out of 57 white children. So when you say racial, it is there in, no pun intended, black and white. And I’m so grateful you brought that up.
I’m laughing about your question because, to be transparent with you and with your listeners, and most people who know me or know my work—I don’t know how much of a scholar I am, but my research work—know that for the past 19 years I’ve been married to a now-retired member of the LAPD. So when you said “resonance,” I did laugh, because I thought of myself personally. And I will also add, when you say opposites attract, it has never been more true than it is in my own marriage, which is wonderful.
RS: But you do mention, you do mention in your book that your husband secretly puts money into your bank account when you are taking it out to help people bail out of jail.
JL: Yes. Yes. And he’s very, very—let’s just say we—in my house we say since he retired, can’t believe I’m going to say this, 17 years ago—17 years ago, he’s been in recovery. Let’s put it that way. [Laughs] But he’s very supportive.
I will talk about the resonance, or lack of resonance, on the UCLA campus. And I also appreciate what you said; while there may not be physical gates, there are gates. There are gates, and there’s inside and outside. Nevertheless, on the UCLA campus, post George Floyd, there has been little to no resonance with law enforcement and with the mission of law enforcement. There has been a critique. There have been protests. There has been a real kind of pushback in terms of law enforcement, at this time, in this day.
And it has been very challenging to see this and to interact with this—not because of my husband, just because of so much of the work I do, whether it’s been at Homeboy or A New Way Of Life; so much of it is intertwined with law enforcement and with the community. And I do—Watts is my community, my home. And there’s—the relationship between the campus and communities and law enforcement is so incredibly nuanced and difficult. And resonance is far, far away, is what I would say.
RS: So let me—we’re going to wrap this up in a way. First of all, I do want to tell people, this is not—well, yes, it is a depressing book. I was going to say it’s not a depressing—
JL: Oh no, don’t say that—[Laughs]
RS: No, no, wait a second, except—except learning, and caring more, and being sensitive and getting educated on a subject is also exhilarating. And I think what the book does is just a reminder of what we want to ignore, which is that you can’t marginalize people. You can’t ghettoize a problem. And the fact of the matter is, you’re not going to solve the problems of crime, violence in this society, even one as gilded as Los Angeles, if in fact you are participating in the process of tearing families apart.
And the big message I got out of your book is how stupidly counter-intelligent, counter-intuitive, our policies are. Why in the world would you want to do everything you can to imprison mothers? That’s really what the policy is. Why would you want to keep mothers, who have not been convicted of a crime, in prison without bail while—who’s taking care of their kids? You know, do they get to say something to their kids about what it’s all about?
And so we claim we’re pro-family, but we’re not. We’re not. And your book, really where it gets my blood going, is—we always have this talk about, you know, birth control or abortion, and who’s pro-family, who’s pro-children and everything. But what your book shows is this incarceration policy, and you know, the jailing of people, again, who have not yet been convicted, is deliberately anti-family.
It deliberately destroys family. The mother is arrested and she can’t even tell her story to her children, because she can’t make bail and she’s going to get a lawyer that doesn’t even have time or interest to take her case seriously. And she’s going to be railroaded into a plea bargain deal that’s going to permanently, or for a very long time, separate her from her children.
And so really this is taking that—you know, a lot of people claim they’re pro-family, the family is the basis of stability. And we have a criminalization process that, you know, takes these mothers and gives them the worst deal, defines them as criminal before they’ve even had a day in court, and does everything it can to separate them from their children. It’s startling. That really is, to my mind, the big takeaway of your book.
JL: Well, I so appreciate what you’ve said. I cannot—I can’t improve upon what you’ve said. It is the exact summary; it’s what I tried to do. I’m gratified you see it. And we need not to forget these women; we need not to forget their children. So I’m grateful for the summary, because that in fact is the point. Our policy must change. We will never be safe, and we will never be an enlightened city, county or society, without changing our policy and our practices.
RS: Yeah, and it doesn’t work. I mean, I don’t know, the last time I looked at the statistics where I teach at USC, they’re supposed to have the biggest private police force anywhere around; I don’t know, but it’s large. And they work very closely with LAPD and the sheriff’s department. And crime—I’m not saying we are, you know, have more crime than every other campus. But crime is on the agenda every day. Fear of the neighborhood is on the agenda every day. And so the idea that you can just lock people up, and lock people up—you know, you create more criminals. You create a culture where criminality becomes a norm. And there’s just—you know, you can’t build gates high enough. You know, it’s been said many times; you can’t ghettoize anymore. The way to deal with it is to get at the root cause of crime.
So I want to thank you, Jorja Leap. The book is called Entry Lessons, and there’s a lot of lessons in it, but it’s also a very well-written, accessible book. I don’t want to say—yes, the subject is concerning, but you offer really a great deal of hope. You introduce us to vividly alive people, even though they’ve been dealt a lousy hand. And so I do want to recommend it very highly. It’s published by Beacon [Press].
And that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. I want to thank Christopher Ho and the staff at KCRW, the great NPR station here in Southern California, for hosting this. Joshua Scheer, who’s our executive producer and puts this all together—and found your book, and so I want to thank him. Natasha Hakimi Zapata, who is a graduate of UCLA and learned a lot about writing, and writes the introduction. I think she won the big poetry prize there at UCLA, from our community. Lucy Berbeo, who does the transcription. The JKW Foundation, which in the memory of Jean Stein, who wrote a lot about Los Angeles and these kinds of problems, for giving funding. And T.M. Scruggs, who in addition supports the show with funding. Thank you all. And see you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.