In discussions of prison reform, one group is nearly always overlooked: women. Women are the fastest growing segment of America’s prison population, but because they are typically not the first image that comes to mind when someone thinks of an incarcerated person, they are often afterthoughts in policy discussions about ways to fix our broken system.
In July, we introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, a bill that would help address the unjust conditions incarcerated women face. The bill would institute a number of reforms that strengthen family ties and support rehabilitation, including requiring the Federal Bureau of Prisons to consider the location of children when placing mothers behind bars, expanding visitation policies for primary caretakers, banning shackling and solitary confinement for pregnant women, and prohibiting prisons from charging for essential health care items, such as tampons and pads.
By treating incarcerated women with dignity and giving them basic support, we not only improve public safety and reduce recidivism, we live out our values, making our criminal justice system more just.
The mass incarceration wave that began in the 1980s had a devastating impact on women. Since 1980, the number of women serving time in prison has skyrocketed by over 700%, much faster than the rate of incarcerated men. The United States has less than 5% of the world’s women, but it is now home to one-third of the world’s incarcerated women. The vast majority of those women are black and brown, usually serving time for low-level, nonviolent offenses.
A woman’s incarceration often hits a family hard. More than two-thirds of female prisoners are moms, a large majority with kids under age 18. When these moms are incarcerated, they are often forced to rely on family members or friends to care for their children. And because the federal prison system doesn’t consider the location of family members when determining where women will serve time, incarcerated women can be shipped hundreds of miles away from their children, seeing their kids sporadically if at all during the months or years they are behind bars. The damage this separation inflicts on children, grandparents, extended families and communities is enormous. And the impact echoes through the years, as incarceration splinters the family ties that help women rebuild their lives when they return to their communities.
Because women are so often overlooked in the national discourse over prison reform, our existing system has failed to meet their needs. In today’s prisons, it’s not uncommon for pregnant women to be shackled, or for moms to be forced to choose between using the little money they have to call home to talk to their kids and buying sanitary products.
In addition, US prisons have become warehouses for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, people suffering from mental illness, and individuals struggling with drug addiction. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, 86% of women in jail are victims of past sexual violence and 77% are victims of partner violence. Too many women who end up in prison have been shuttled through the abuse-to-prison pipeline. One Justice Department study found that a quarter of women in state prison were sexually abused as children, while another study found that 43% of women in jail — nearly half — suffer from serious mental health problems.
In prison, many women find themselves without the tools and support necessary to deal with their traumas or recover from addiction. Prison staff are not sufficiently trained to interact with women who have suffered trauma, and many prisons lack the programs and resources to help women successfully address these issues.
It’s time to change that picture.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons recently decided to provide sanitary products to female inmates free of charge — implementing one of the reforms called for in the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act — but much more needs to be done. There is a growing consensus among Americans that our criminal justice system is deeply broken and in need of real, drastic change. State governments in red, blue and purple states have led the way in the reform effort, showing that it’s possible to reduce crime and prison rates simultaneously. It’s time for the federal government to do the same. Basic dignity for incarcerated women is a good place to start.