Iowa Equity Challenge Day 17

Day 17 of 21


Lady Justice, a blindfolded woman carrying a sword and a set of scales that represent justice, sits atop many courthouses throughout Iowa — a powerful portrayal of our justice system as blind and balanced. But is the system she represents just, fair, and equitable for everyone?


The U.S. Department of Justice has a mission “to enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law; to ensure public safety against threats foreign and domestic; to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime; to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior; and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.”


Although many members of our justice system work toward this mission, the system itself doesn’t always achieve these goals. In fact, some Americans believe that, since its very inception, our justice system has not been fair. They maintain that the system is biased against people in poverty, that it disproportionately impacts Black and Latinx individuals, and that it’s not equipped to address the unique needs and experiences of women in prisons.  


“My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”

 - Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption


Over the past 40 years, the number of incarcerated citizens in the United States has increased by 500% — giving us the largest prison population in the world. 


Unfortunately, the rise in incarceration rates has not affected everyone equally. For example, Black Americans are imprisoned at 10 times the rate of their white counterparts. They are also far more likely to be wrongfully convicted and serve more severe sentences for comparable crimes. 


Additionally, incarcerated women are among the fastest-growing prison populations, and they face a unique set of barriers and trauma. These challenges are compounded by a lack of access to basic services and safety — both within the justice system and when the women reenter society. 


Once we understand the intersection of socioeconomic status, race, and gender within the justice system, we can more thoughtfully discuss ideas for reform — to truly address inequities and move forward toward liberty and justice for all.


Learning Objectives

  • Understand how systemic racism is embedded in the justice system.
  • Describe how the increase in Black mass incarceration rates impacts communities of color. 
  • Learn about the unique challenges faced by incarcerated women.


Today's Activities


Choose one or more of these daily activities to learn about today’s topic. Plan to set aside 15 to 30 minutes to complete the activities and journal about your thoughts and feelings. 


Read “8 Facts You Should Know About the Criminal Justice System and People of Color” (4 min) from the Center for American Progress to learn how the current system disproportionately affects people of color and creates significant barriers to opportunity for those with criminal records.


Watch “Women Behind Bars” (6:10), a segment from PBS NewsHour, about the inequities experienced by women in prison and how their needs differ from those of  incarcerated men.


Listen to “The Power of Mercy and Forgiveness” (35:54), an episode from Oprah’s Super Soul podcast, for an interview with civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, who has spent more than three decades challenging poverty and racial discrimination within the criminal justice system.


Capture what you learned by writing down your thoughts and feelings about today's content.

  • What was your aha moment (moment of surprise or new information)?
  • Does this information change your perspective?
  • How will you use what you learned today to create more equitable spaces? 
  • What bias exists within the criminal justice system? 
  • What reentry or transition programs exist for incarcerated people returning to your community? 

Download a free journal page for today.



Additional Resources & Activities


If you would like to dig deeper into this issue, check out these additional resources. We encourage you to revisit this material when you have more time. Feel free to come back to this topic as often as you’d like!


  • Explore the Sentencing Project website, including:
  • Explore the website of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) to learn how racial disparities impact every aspect of the criminal legal system
  • Check out Pushout” (303 pages) by Monique M. Morris about the criminalization of Black girls in schools and the harsh and harmful experiences they are forced to confront every day. 
  • Screen “The 13th” (1:40:03), an award-winning documentary directed by Ava DuVernay that explores the intersection of race, justice, slavery, and mass incarceration in the U.S. 
  • Screen the film “Just Mercy” (2:17:00), based on the true story of civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson working to free a wrongly condemned death row prisoner in 1989. 
  • Screen “When They See Us” (a Netflix 4-part mini series), based on the true story of five Black and brown teen boys from Harlem who were falsely accused of a brutal attack in Central Park. 
  • Screen “The Grey Area,” a feature-length documentary film about the lives of inmates at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, Iowa. 
  • Read The Unique Challenges Incarcerated Women Face” (3 min) about the inequities in health care and reentry programs. 
  • Read this blog post about women in prison (6 min) from Just Public @365, which explains the profile of women in prison and the impact of their incarceration on their families and children. 
  • Read The Color of Justice: Racial & Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons” (25 pages), a report from The Sentencing Project that documents the rates of incarceration in each state, identifies three contributors to racial and ethnic disparities in imprisonment, and provides recommendations for reform. 
  • Watch “Mass Incarceration: Visualized” (2:33) from The Atlantic about the inevitability of prison for certain demographics of young Black men and how incarceration has become a normal life event in the 21st century. 
  • Watch “Is This What You Pictured Women In Prison Would Be Like?” (6:41) from SoulPancake to hear incarcerated women describe how they feel about the facts and numbers around incarceration. 
  • Watch The Origins of Law Enforcement in America” (7:03) from The Washington Post, which explains how American policing grew out of efforts to control the labor of poor and enslaved people in the 19th century and beyond. 
  • Watch this TED Talk (23:41) to hear civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson share some hard truths about America's justice system, starting with a massive imbalance along racial lines. 
  • Watch the episode “Hope” (24:20) from the TV show “Black-ish” to hear the Johnson family discuss race issues while watching news coverage of a grand jury considering the indictment of a white police officer accused of killing a Black teen.
  • Listen to this episode (1:03:25) of the Justice In America podcast with author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates to learn about mass incarceration and its continued devastation on Black communities. 
  • Listen to music that helps express emotions about and experiences with the justice system that are sometimes hard to verbalize.
    • Sweeter” (2:49) was recorded by Leon Bridges following the murder of George Floyd. It’s a powerful song about bias in the criminal justice system.
    • Changes” (4:30) was released two years after 2Pac’s death. It’s a sorrowful, lyrical representation of the war on drugs, police brutality, and racism.



Share your reflections on today’s topic on social media using the hashtag #IowaEquityChallenge.



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