The United States has the highest prison rate in the world: 724 people incarcerated per 100,000 people. Since 1977, the number of women in prison in the United States has risen over 700 percent, surpassing the growth rate of men in prison in every state. At the end of 2011, there were 103,674 women incarcerated in federal and state prisons, jails, halfway houses, boot camps, weekend programs, and other overnight lockups throughout the United States. Approximately 51,100 of these women were white, 26,000 were black, and 18,400 were Hispanic.
The population of women in prison has grown faster than men; 75 percent of these women are mothers of minor children. Unlike men, the majority of women are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes arising from economic need or substance addiction; many of them follow their husbands or boyfriends into criminal activity. In 2010, 25 percent of women in state prisons were serving sentences for drug crimes, 29 percent were serving sentences for property crimes, and 37 percent were serving sentences for violent crimes, including 10 percent for murder. A small percentage of women in prison have been incarcerated for the immigration offenses of being in the country without status or unauthorized border crossing. Women convicted of nonviolent crimes receive shorter sentences; thus, the turnover for these populations is greater.
Challenges Facing Women Prisoners
Women in prison face different challenges than men. Approximately 75 percent of incarcerated women in the United States suffer from mental illness and are more likely to harm themselves or commit suicide than male prisoners. More than half of female prisoners are victims of physical and sexual abuse; approximately 75 percent have substance abuse problems. Many women continue to be sexually abused in prison. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that almost 10 percent of incarcerated women have reported incidents of sexual assault by other inmates or prison staff.
In 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was passed by Congress. As the first federal law to address the issue of prison rape, this act created the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, which drafted standards for the elimination of prison rape. These standards were finalized by the U. S. Department of Justice in 2012 and provide guidelines for available avenues for prisoners to report allegations of sexual assault, as well as guidelines for investigating and responding to these allegations by prison officials. In addition, a federally funded National PREA Resource Center has been created to provide training and other assistance to states to comply with these federal standards, as well as to serve as a clearinghouse for related research and resources.
The special health needs of women inmates are often overlooked in the typically “gender-neutral” environment of prison. In addition, many incarcerated women suffer from substance abuse problems and have serious mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, arising from physical or sexual abuse. Some experts have recommended that male prison guards should never be assigned to supervise female prisoners, have physical contact with them, or have access to their living quarters or bathrooms. Others emphasize the unique needs of women prisoners and recommend rehabilitation programs especially designed for women, such as Stephanie Covington’s Women’s Integrated Treatment. This program recognizes the traumas female prisoners have suffered and works to create a safe, supportive environment in which to address their substance abuse and mental health issues. Assisting with women’s transitions back to their families and their communities and assistance in obtaining employment and education are also recommended as important programs that could prevent women offenders from returning to prison. Under some laws, women who are convicted of drug offenses may be denied welfare benefits, public housing, and financial aid for college, creating yet more roadblocks for women released from prison.
Separation of Women From Minor Children
In addition to their personal and socioeconomic challenges, three-fourths of the women in prison are mothers of minor children. The majority of these children are sent to live with other relatives or friends, or are placed in foster homes, while their mothers are incarcerated. Children of incarcerated mothers may suffer attachment disorders and are more likely than their peers to fall behind in school, become substance abusers, and commit crimes; they are five to six times more likely to end up in prison when they grow up. In 1997, the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act was passed, requiring that parental rights be terminated if a parent is absent for 15 months in a 22-month period. Under this act, the focus has shifted from protecting the rights of biological parents to protecting children’s health and safety and facilitating their removal from abusive households.
Increasing numbers of women are giving birth in prison. No national standards currently exist for the treatment of pregnant women in the criminal justice system. Shackling of women prisoners to their hospital beds while giving birth is allowed in 33 states. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Public Health Association condemn this practice, which causes severe pain and is a serious health risk. Restricting a pregnant women’s ability to move, especially during labor, is not only extremely painful but increases stress on her body and may decrease the flow of oxygen to the fetus. Except in extreme circumstances, the Federal Bureau of Prisons prohibits the shackling of pregnant women in federal custody. In 2010, the American Medical Association issued a statement that shackling pregnant women at any stage of their pregnancy is “medically hazardous” and has since drafted model state legislation prohibiting the shackling of pregnant prisoners. Organizations such as The Rebecca Project for Human Rights advocate for the passage of antishackling laws and other safeguards for pregnant women and mothers in prison.
Improving cleanliness and hygiene standards for newborns and their mothers in a prison environment has been a continuing concern, as well as adequate standards of prenatal and postnatal care. Many advocates argue that the best interests of the child must be the primary consideration in determining appropriate treatment of women who give birth in prison. Others argue that the basic individual rights of women to be treated with dignity and respect should be paramount.
Newborns are often removed after birth and placed with relatives or in foster care. Nine states are operating or developing prison nursery programs in special housing units. Prison nursery programs allow mothers who do not have a history of child abuse and neglect, and are convicted of nonviolent crimes, to live with their newborns during the first year or two of the child’s life, when crucial bonds are formed and early stages of child development occur. Children who benefit from early bonding with their mothers display greater self-reliance and self-esteem, rendering them better able to handle stress and develop good relationships with others. In addition to these important child developmental considerations, mothers who have been involved with prison nursery programs develop stronger motivation for improving their lives and those of their children, and thus have lower rates of recidivism. Opponents of prison nurseries point out that prisons are not good environments in which to raise children, and argue that women who have broken the law cannot be good mothers and should not be provided the privilege of parenting.
One alternative to separating incarcerated women from their young children is the use of community residential parenting facilities. These alternative facilities allow mothers to live with their young children in a more homelike environment in the community while serving their sentences and/or their terms of probation or parole. Like prison nursery programs, eligibility for such alternative housing facilities is limited to pregnant women and mothers who do not have a history of child abuse and neglect and who are not convicted of violent crimes. These facilities may also offer counseling, substance abuse treatment, parenting classes, vocational training, and other educational services focusing on assisting female inmates to reenter their communities as good parents and responsible, productive citizens. Children are typically allowed to live with their mothers in residential facilities until they are old enough to attend school. These residential programs are often operated by nonprofit and faith-based organizations that partner or contract with local correctional facilities. More research needs to be done on the long-term effects of residential and prison nursery programs on participating mothers and their children.
Another program that fosters relationships between incarcerated mothers and their daughters is Girl Scouts Behind Bars. This program was originally created by the National Institute of Justice and the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland and now includes thousands of girls across the United States. Mothers and daughters participate in regular Girl Scout meetings in correctional facilities where the mothers are housed. They work together on crafts and other projects, and participate in activities that improve communication and decision-making skills and foster positive habits and personal growth. After the mothers are released from prison they can continue to participate in scouting activities with their daughters, so that the Girl Scouts organization becomes a positive support system as they transition to life outside of prison. A 2012 evaluation of Girl Scouts Behind Bars found that 84 percent of the participating girls reported a stronger relationship with their mothers. A related program, Girl Scouting in Detention Centers, involves girls who are detained in juvenile facilities in similar self-development and leadership activities and seeks to create a positive support system for female juvenile offenders.
During the last decade, a number of groups have organized to address the growing population of women in prison. The Women’s Prison Association (WPA) assists female offenders to find housing, work, and medical care once they are released and works with them to rebuild their families and rejoin their communities. The WPA also sponsors the Institute on Women & Criminal Justice, which engages in research, public policy recommendations, and advocacy on behalf of women in the criminal justice system. As the population of women in prison continues to increase, U.S. society will be challenged to address the unique issues and problems that the growing incarceration of women present.
- Carson, E. Ann and William J. Sabol. “Prisoners in 2011.” Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, NCJ 239808. Office of Justice Programs. (December 2012). http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=131 (Accessed May 2013).
- Covington, Stephanie. “The Relational Theory of Women’s Psychological Development: Implications for the Criminal Justice System.” In Female Offenders: Critical Perspectives and Effective Interventions, Ruth Zaplin, ed. 2d ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett, 2007.
- Frost, Natasha, Judith Greene, and Kevin Pranis. “The Punitiveness Report-HARD HIT: The Growth in Imprisonment of Women, 1977–2004.” Institute on Women & Criminal Justice. (2004). http://www.wpaonline.org/institute/hardhit/index.htm (Accessed May 2013).
- Rebecca Project for Human Rights. “Mothers Behind Bars: A State-by-State Report Card and Analysis of Federal Policies on Conditions of Confinement for Pregnant and Parenting Women and the Effect on Their Children.” National Women’s Law Center. (October 2010). http://www.rebeccaproject.org/images/stories/files/mothersbehindbarsreport-2010.pdf (Accessed November 2013).
- Women’s Prison Association. “Mothers, Infants and Imprisonment: A National Look at Prison Nurseries and Community-Based Alternatives.” Institute on Women & Criminal Justice. (May 2009). http://wpaonline.org/pdf/Mothers%20Infants%20and%20Imprisonment%202009.pdf (Accessed November 2013).
- World Health Organization. “Women’s Health in Prisons: Correcting Gender Inequity in Prison Health.” (2009). http://www.euro.who.int/data/assets/pdf_file/0004/76513/E92347.pdf (Accessed November 2013).
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