The Crisis of Women’s Incarceration

Photo: Officer Bimblebury, Wikimedia Commons

by KALIYAH DORSEY                                                                                                         Staff Writer

When it comes to reporting on prison populations, the discussion of women’s growth in the system is often overlooked— as we look back on Women’s History Month, we are acknowledging women and mothers who have been affected by the criminal justice system.

According to the Sentencing Project, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700% between 1980 and 2016, rising from a total of 26,378 in 1980 to 213,722 in 2016. While there are substantially more men than women in prison, women incarceration is growing at twice the pace of men’s rates.

Image: Prison Policy Initiative

If you think of how small a 5% decrease in six years is — which is the rate of men incarcerated — then how small is 0.29% when it comes to women? Too small. Especially when you consider that two-thirds of women in state prisons are there for nonviolent offenses and twenty-five percent of the women in state prisons are serving non-violent convictions related to drugs.

1 in 50 children in the United States has a parent in prison. According to the Sentencing Project, more than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18. The role of a mother in, and the effect of an absent mother on, a child’s life is tremendous. In an article for the Chicago Tribune, Lavette Mayes, who spent two years as an inmate at Cook County Jail, encapsulates this unfortunate reality: “When you incarcerate women, you incarcerate the whole family.”

Not only are state prisons failing these women and their children, but they also are not properly attending to the female-specific health care needs of female inmates. Since women make up between 5 and 10 percent of the prison population, prisons and jails are making the cost-effective decision to not serve this small, but significant, population. This leads to the lack of professionals who are trained in obstetrics and gynecology in prisons, so women in prison are at risk for untreated diseases like breast or ovarian cancer. Likewise, the list for other neglected health concerns include prenatal care, pregnancy, postpartum depression, sexual and physical abuse, and mental health disorders (which are more prevalent among women than men).

Recently, the First Step Act ended two gender-based issues in federal facilities: the shackling of pregnant women and restrictions on menstrual hygiene products. These changes, as well as the act’s other reforms, are a step in the right direction. However, this does not mean there is not more to be done, starting with the fact that women in state and local prisons will not benefit from these reforms at all. Other issues, like lack of healthcare and biased solitary confinement, must be resolved by using a more gender inclusive lens when considering prison reform.  

“When you incarcerate women, you incarcerate the whole family.”

Lavette Mayes, former Cook County Jail inmate

Thus, although mass incarceration is harmful to all who are impacted by the system, it is clear that incarcerated women face unique challenges which require special attention. Moreover, any progress that only alleviates the plight of incarcerated men will be dampened by the increasing population of incarcerated women. So, taking the necessary steps to address the growing crisis of women’s incarceration is a necessary step for combatting the mass incarceration of all people.

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