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Action Alert

Women In Prison

Prison bars.

Women's Equality Day

August 26 will mark the 40th anniversary of Women’s Equality Day. We must give urgent attention to the increasing incarceration rate of women offenders.

Led by the late congresswoman Bella Abzug (D-NY), the U.S. Congress designated August 26 Women’s Equality Day in 1971. The designation was the culmination of peaceful efforts that began with the first women’s rights convention in 1848. It also commemorated the passage of the 19th Amendment of the Constitution, which in 1920 granted women the right to vote.

This year activists and politicians will pause to take stock and highlight the necessary efforts to help women achieve equality. This August 26th we must give urgent attention to the increasing incarceration rate of women offenders.

In Equality or Justice, J. Pollack asks whether women are receiving more equal treatment in the criminal justice system today than in years past. If equal treatment means equal incarceration, the answer is yes. Barbara Bloom and Stephanie Covington in their book Gendered Justice explain that more women offenders are likely to be incarcerated now than at any time in U.S. history, and the criminal justice system appears to be more willing to imprison women.

Female Incarceration

As of June 2009, there were 114,979 women prisoners in the United States. This is the largest number of women behind prison bars in the history of our country.

Racially, the statics reveal an even more disturbing trend, 1 in every 300 black females is incarcerated compared to about 1 in every 1,099 white females and 1 in every 704 Hispanic females. This makes African American women the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population of the United States.

Sociologist Nikki Jones points out, “Black girls are not committing more crimes, even though they are being incarcerated in record numbers.” Meda Chesney-Lind adds, “National policies like Zero Tolerance are responsible for the school to prison pipeline. And a dual justice system that treats white girls differently from black girls is disproportionately impacting African American girls.” 

A great contributing factor to the increase of female prisoners has been the “war on drugs”. Coupled with mandatory minimums, more children are finding both parents being locked up for one offense.

Before mandatory minimums, the average federal drug sentence was 11 percent higher for blacks than whites. After, the percentage jumped to 49 percent higher for blacks. Black women are 4.8 times more likely to be sent to prison for a drug violation.

Pregnant Prisoners

With more women being locked up, this has increased the amount of pregnant prisoners. Pregnant prisoners face many challenges, such as getting proper prenatal care for the baby, being shackled during childbirth and lack of nurseries. Leg shackles are dangerous as they can cause a pregnant woman to slip and fall, and the waist shackle is often left on while the women are in labor, which poses a threat if an emergency medical complication arises. The use of restraints makes the process of labor and delivery more painful.

The United Nations (U.N.) published a report on June 1, 2011, condemning the U.S. prison system’s lack of adequate health services for women due to their “delays, neglect and mistreatment.” The report points out, “pregnant women are routinely shackled on their way to and from hospital and sometimes remain shackled during labor, delivery, and post delivery.”

Prison nurseries—or lack thereof—is another issue emerging as the number of women behind bars rises. Nationally, 25 percent of adult women enter the prison system having given birth during the prior year or are pregnant at the time of arrest. Of the 13 states that have nursery programs, only two allow children to stay past the age of 2. The alternative to providing a prison nursery is separating the mother from the newborn and placing him or her in foster care or with a relative.

A 10 year Nebraska study found that women who live with their babies in prison nurseries are three times less likely to reoffend than mothers who are separated from their child at birth. Joseph Carlson Jr., who conducted the study, stated that the minimal cost to run the nursery combined with the reduction in recidivism costs will save taxpayers “$100,000 to $150,000 a year.”

Another issue impacting women in prison is that due to lack of prenatal care, babies born in prison have health issues. Medical examinations are not a component of prenatal care in 43 states. Neither prenatal nutrition counseling nor the provision of appropriate nutrition is required in 41 states. For women behind bars in 34 states, there are no requirements for screening and treatment for high-risk pregnancies.

Prison Alternatives

In the United States, there are nearly 2.5 million children with at least one parent behind bars. The majority of single-parent families in the United States are headed by women; therefore, the increase in female incarceration is destabilizing an already fragile family dynamic. With a majority of women in state and prisons being mothers to minor children, alternatives to incarceration need to be considered.

The U.N. report points out the difficulty facing incarcerated mothers as the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) passed in 1997 makes it easier for states to take custody away from incarcerated mothers. “[AFSA] facilitates the easy termination of parental rights of mothers whose children have been placed in foster care for more than 15 months.” 

According to Oklahoma District Judge Allen McCall "90 percent of women offenders are really not threats to society. A lot of their offenses have to do with drug habits. A lot of them are single mothers." The National Women’s Law Center says women are a lower risk of violence and community harm and are therefore ideal for a community based alternative sentencing program. These programs keep families together and prevent children from falling into the failing foster care system. 

Women Inmates Sexually Abused

Yet another reality to women in prison is sexual abuse, and of the women incarcerated, 85 to 90 percent has a history of domestic and sexual abuse. The ACLU and Georgetown University Law Center are asking the Attorney General Eric Holder to address the insufficiencies in the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA). PREA was drafted in relation to male inmates who are often victims of abuse from other inmates, yet women inmates often suffer abuse at the hands of prison staff. Thus PREA doesn't address two key areas: insufficient attention paid to staff on inmate abuse and inadequate grievance procedures not accounting for inmates' fear of retaliation from staff for reporting abuse.

The State of New York is looking to address domestic abuse victims being locked up when standing up to their abusers. The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act would allow judges discretion when sentencing domestic violence survivors convicted of committing crimes against their abusers where the abuse is determined to be a “significant contributing factor.” If the bill passes, then it would be the first of its kind in the United States.


Last Updated: 04/11/2014

© 2014 United Methodist Women