International Women's Day is an opportunity to reflect on changes needed around the world to improve the lives and status of women. Here in the U.S., the increasing impact of the criminal justice system on women is one of the most pressing human rights and social justice issues of our time.
More women are ending up behind bars than ever. Between 1980 and 1989, the number of women in U.S. prisons tripled. And the number of women in prison has continued to rise since. In the last 10 years, the number of women under jurisdiction of state or federal authorities increased 21 percent, to almost 113,000. During the same time period, the increase in the number of men in prison was 6 percentage points lower, at about 15 percent. The increase in women in the federal population was even larger- over 41 percent from 2000 to 2010.
Most women are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. Over one-fourth are in prison for a drug offense, while 29.6 percent were convicted of a property crime. Addiction plays a large part in a number of women's property crimes, and a lack of available or appropriate treatment only serves to drive their contact with the justice system.
The war on drugs - with its increasingly punitive approach to drug use - has turned into a war on women. The relationship between addiction and trauma is well established; in fact, as many as 57 percent of women substance abusers meet the criteria for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Women behind bars have experienced trauma at much higher rates than the general public. Research on women in California prisons showed that 80 percent had a history of physical abuse, sexual abuse or both as children and/or adults. In a survey of women in Illinois prisons, 60 percent showed symptoms of PTSD. Another study comparing women on parole to those in a community HMO showed that women on parole were over twice as likely to have experienced emotional abuse and neglect and family violence. They also were twice as likely to have experienced some traumatic childhood event. Society punishes women for the pain they have endured and incarcerates them for addictions they have developed in attempting to cope.
Not only are the prisons and jails women are sent to lacking appropriate, trauma-informed practices and policies, women are often re-traumatized by the inhumane conditions that continue to exist. Particularly despicable is that 36 states continue to allow pregnant women to be shackled; This regressive, antiquated practice is degrading, inhumane, dangerous to mother and child, and, as any person that has been in the labor and delivery room as the mother, birth coach or medical professional knows, makes no sense from a public safety standpoint. About six percent of women in jail were pregnant when they were admitted, and it’s estimated that at any point in time, between six and ten percent of all incarcerated women are pregnant.
Women in the community also face a host of consequences related to mass incarceration. In 2007, it was estimated that 1.7 million minor children had an incarcerated parent. As 92 percent of people in prison are men, and 90 percent of children whose fathers are in prison remain with their mother, there are likely close to a million women taking care of children without the help of the father due to incarceration. Not only are there virtually no financial or other types of public supports available, women who make the significant effort to keep the father involved in their children's lives bear the financial burden of visits to often remote prisons far from home, and exorbitant phone calls that bear on average a 42% tax by the state. And finally, barriers to employment faced by people with criminal records and the lack of education and job training in prison impact both women who have been incarcerated and those who depend on the income of a formerly incarcerated man to help raise children.
Ending the policies and practices that lead to mass incarceration will improve the lives of women in the U.S., particularly for women of color. There is significant disproportionality in the number of women incarcerated: 133 per 100,000 Black women and 77 per 100,000 Latinas are incarcerated, as compared to 47 per 100,000 White women. And with 6.7 percent of Black children having an incarcerated parent (as compared to less than one percent of white children), African American women more often must shoulder more family responsibilities with fewer resources as a result of the fathers' incarceration.
What are some of the most urgent changes needed?
- More services for girls and women who experience trauma. This can reduce the likelihood that women will become addicted to alcohol or drugs, and prevent other illegal behavior related to being traumatized, such as prostitution.
- Adopt a public health approach to drug use. Mandatory minimums and long sentences for drug offenses don't improve public safety or help people combat addiction. Treatment should be readily available in the community, before someone becomes involved in the justice system.
- Reduce the collateral consequences of a criminal record. This includes improving access to public programs such as TANF and housing, and ending discrimination in employment through such initiatives as "ban the box" (disallowing job applications to ask about criminal records).
- Make institutions for women safer and more humane and rehabilitative. While we work to reduce the number of people entering the criminal justice system, we cannot neglect those who remain behind bars. Women in prison have different needs than men, and by being more responsive prisons can increase the chances a woman will be successful upon release. And no woman should experience retraumatization or have their basic human rights violated while in the custody of the state, either through violence or abuse, or practices such as shackling during childbirth.
As the world’s largest jailer, the United States must address the serious and growing issue of the substantial impact of incarceration on women. We hope today, on International Women’s Day, you will join us in pushing for change.
Tracy Velázquez is the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute.