Most women in prison are the victims of abuse and suffer from mental health issues–inhumane prison conditions aren’t helping.
By Andie Park
Earlier this month, Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren publicly introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, a landmark bill to improve living conditions for female inmates who are also the primary caretakers of their families.
Some of the provisions of the bill address fairly straightforward and common-sense needs such as creating better access to feminine hygiene products and expanding visitation policies for the families of inmates. Other provisions, however, reveal a more horrifying system of abuse in federal facilities for women.
Until the introduction of this bill, the shackling of pregnant inmates was still legal. In federal facilities, several women sacrifice the decision to make a phone call to family members in order to buy box a tampons from their commissary – or vice versa – due to the exorbitant costs tied to each choice.
The alarmingly vast lack of protections stems from the institutional inability to include women in legal discussions for reform. Whether it be solitary confinement or going into childbirth while shackled, these actions were still technically legal mainly because legislative measures never accounted for the difference of struggles between female and male inmates. Ultimately, the bill is a push for the Bureau of Prisons to confront its own gender bias and make concentrated efforts to not only protect female inmates but also restore a semblance of human dignity during their incarceration.
It’s not a surprise that women have not been recognized in legal discussions centered on prison reform. Misogyny, sexism and issues that feminists today are addressing are not only present in prisons, but amplified to the point of inhumane treatment.
Prior to 1970, women made up a negligible portion of the incarcerated population, with around 8,000 inmates. From 1980 to 2014, the total female inmate population has skyrocketed by 700 percent to approximately 215,000 women. Yet recent prison reform measures have predominantly modeled themselves off of a male-based prison system. While the majority of prisoners are male, the growth of the female inmate population has surpassed that of males by 50 percent.
While introducing the bill last week, Senator Booker emphasized the degrees of struggle that female inmates endure prior to even being incarcerated: “A majority of women behind bars are mothers and nearly three-quarters have been the victims of trauma or abuse. We must take these circumstances into account when we place women in prison facilities. That means common-sense changes such as considering where an incarcerated mother’s kids live when assigning a prison location, providing phone calls to home free of charge for primary caretakers, and banning the shackling and solitary confinement of pregnant women.”
According to a 2012 study from the Department of Justice, female offenders have different “risk factors for offending than do male offenders” such as mental illness, substance, physical abuse and sexual abuse. A vast majority of incarcerated women suffer from mental illness, ranging from Major Depressive or Bipolar Disorder to PTSD.
Approximately 86 percent of female inmates have suffered from sexual abuse while 77 percent have suffered from domestic abuse. Abused women are twice as likely to be arrested than non-abused women, however, 82 percent of women are arrested for nonviolent offenses.
Considering the overlap between mental illness, emotional trauma, and nonviolent offenses, the demographic information of female inmates in suggests that the criminal justice system uses incarceration as an immediate response to contain disadvantaged women without knowing how to properly counsel them.
With the inclusion for free telephone and video conference calls as well as overnight visitation programs, the bill’s central aim is to support inmates’ roles as caregivers. Approximately 80 percent of female inmates are mothers, usually single parents. Once mothers are incarcerated, their parental responsibility is not only stripped away from them but seemingly obstructed by the criminal justice system itself. The tactics of price gouging in the federal telecom industry make the simple act of making a phone call to one’s children devastatingly difficult, as inmates cannot afford the exorbitant fees.
This country views women from disadvantaged backgrounds as illegitimate mothers undeserving of their children. Implying that they must uphold a persona of purity in order to be worthy of raising children and stripping access to their children while in prison, is a reflection of the most degrading practices of gender bias in this country.
Although the The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act addresses only the federal prison system– versus local and state prisons–it is a promising piece of legislature that has shed light on a hidden topic of imprisoning women and ignoring their concerns as women and caregivers. It also facilitates a more productive public discussion of female incarceration in this country – prompting people unaffected by the issue to understand how mass incarceration signifies the very real effects of gender bias and socioeconomic inequality. Whether or not the bill passes through the Senate, it will at the very least emphasize the need to establish that all people deserve dignity, regardless of their crimes or conditions.
Author Bio: Andie Park is a writer based in New York, focusing on culture, film, and politics She’s either always listening to Lana Del Rey or eating a burrito – usually at the same time. You can follow her on Medium & Twitter.
Featured image: Bob Jagendorf, Creative Commons.