While there is talk of criminal justice reform in the U.S., something must also be done about a decades-long spike in female inmates, experts and members of Congress of both parties said.
“We talk a lot about racial disparities in our system, but for some odd reason, we’ve really not focused on women, and it’s been to the detriment of public safety,” Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, told CNA.
Harris spoke at the event “Women Unshackled,” sponsored by both the Justice Action Network and the Brennan Center for Justice, and was held at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. on July 18.
It featured a keynote address by Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma (R) and speeches by members of Congress of both parties, Rep. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Rep. Sheila Jackson lee (D-Tex.), Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah).
“If we as a country value life as much as we say we do, then we value all life, even those who have made mistakes and have went through the incarceration system,” Rep. Collins said in the morning welcome remarks.
“How can we justify a system that takes people who are survivors of trauma, survivors of abuse, and put them on a survivor of sexual trauma to prison pipeline?” asked Sen. Booker, who had said in his address that many women in prison have previously suffered trauma, which may be triggered or exacerbated during their stay in prison.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had addressed the rising numbers of women in prison in their 2000 statement on criminal justice reform “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration.”
The bishops said that the large increase in the number of women in prison came “largely as a result of tougher drug laws,” that most of the women were incarcerated for non-violent offenses, and that “an equal number have left children behind, often in foster care, as they enter prison.”
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the numbers of women behind bars have grown more with each decade, especially when the U.S. is compared to other countries on the issue.
The research is “incredibly dated and scarce,” Elizabeth Swavola of the Vera Institute said at the “Women Unshackled” event on Tuesday, but from what information the organization has been able to study, the numbers are striking.
While fewer than 8,000 women were incarcerated in the U.S. in 1970, 110,000 were incarcerated in 2014, the Vera Institute reported, with the sharpest increases coming in small or “midsize” counties. In the U.S.,127 women per 100,000 people are incarcerated. In Canada that rate is just 11 per 100,000.
They make up the “fastest growing segment of the prison population” Harris said. Most of them are mothers, and many, like the men in prison, suffer from drug issues, poverty, and mental illness, and racial minorities make up higher rates of the prison population than in society.
Many women, however, have suffered previous instances of trauma – which can be exacerbated or triggered in prison. Vera reported that “almost a third had experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the past 12 months,” and that 86 percent of women in prison have “experienced sexual violence in their lifetime,” along with 77 percent suffering from partner violence.
Eighty percent are also mothers, with some being the primary caretaker for their children, Vera reported. “In many instances,” Cynthia Berry of the Council for Court Excellence said, “children aren’t even told their mother is incarcerated.”
If their mother is their primary caretaker, children may end up in the foster care system as a result, and mothers may not eventually be reunited with their children after they are released from prison.
Most are in prison for low-level or non-violent offenses. “According to the latest available national data, which are now more than a decade old,” Vera reported, “32 percent of women in jail are there for property offenses, 29 percent for drug offenses, and nearly 21 percent for public order offenses.”
For the violent offenders, some are serving sentences for violence committed against people who were violent with them, like women retaliating against abusive husbands or boyfriends.
Why has there been such a sharp increase in the number of women behind bars?
There is “very little out there explaining why,” Swavola said, but from Vera’s findings, “at the very front end, policing practices have come to increasingly focus on low-level, non-violent offenses” like low-level drug possession and disorderly conduct. This would be the result of “broken window” type policing, based on the belief that if smaller infractions are punished, there will be fewer greater infractions.
Because of a “punitive” approach to drug enforcement, she said, there are more women in the prison system.
Yet once they land in prison, they face a system that is hard enough for men to cope with, but one that at least is designed for men. For the women, they face greater threats of abuse and a more severe lack of privacy.
“Women are different from men,” Harris told CNA/EWTN News. “Their needs would be different. So unfortunately right now, women are entering prisons that are programmed for men.”
The result is that, although time in prison may help men become more hardened criminals, women may exit feeling far more degraded and dejected.
“All of these women have completely physically changed,” Harris said. They are visibly lacking self-confidence and staring at the floor. “It’s just clear that they are emotionally and mentally devastated.”
They are more likely to be victimized in prison. For instance, while women accounted for only 13 percent of the local jail population between 2009 and 2011, 67 percent of victims of staff-on-inmate sexual victimization were women, as well as 27 percent of inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization, Vera reported.
They may have to endure indignities like male prison officers walking in to their room while they are undressed, Sen. Booker said. Practices common in prison like shackling and searching inmates “can really re-trigger a lot of that trauma,” Swavola said.
Also, women prisoners tend to be poorer, which means that they may have less of a chance of having their bail paid or may not be able to afford expenses in prison like basic health necessities, laundry expenses, or phone calls home.
“Some jails charge inmates a per diem fee during their incarceration,” Vera reported, “which can leave an individual with thousands of dollars of criminal justice debt upon release.”
Prison can be “incredibly destabilizing and disruptive” to a woman’s life, Swavola said, especially in the case of a severely mentally ill woman.
Cash bail and “excessive fines and fees” can “trap women in the system,” she said.
What solutions can be attempted for the problem of women in prisons? States and counties could begin to invest more in drug treatment and prevention programs rather than law enforcement, Swavola said.
“A huge portion of these county and community budgets go toward public safety,” she said, and “oftentimes it’s 70 to 80 percent.” Much of that portion “is to corrections,” she said.
Other programs like diversion programs do not get resources, she said. “I think we really need to rethink how we are using our taxpayer dollars to fund the justice system.”
Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin (R) said that her state has put too many women behind bars and is working on decreasing the number of incarcerated.
“For many of our non-violent, low-level offenders, there are alternatives that work better,” she said, like “drug and mental health courts” and “community based treatment, diversion programs, supervision.”
Recidivism is also a large cause of women in prisons, Vera reported.
“It’s no wonder that the female prison population is spiking, because we’re not providing these women with the tools that they’ll need to successfully re-enter society,” Harris said.
“They are not equipped mentally, emotionally, they can’t find jobs, they can’t improve their education, they can’t reconnect with their families, they can’t get adequate housing.”
For instance, CNA spoke with an ex-convict, Casey Irwin, back in April who had been convicted of bank fraud and drug-related offenses.
“I can get a job, but it wasn’t going to pay me any money, and I wasn’t going to ever move up,” Irwin told CNA of her difficulty in finding a job after prison that paid her enough in wages.
Eventually, she was offered a managerial position at a fast food franchise, but said that more opportunities must be available to ex-convicts, who face a myriad of obstacles from employment to obtaining loans.
By Matt Hadro