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Rachel Roth's picture

On many measures of well-being, women in the United States fare better than their counterparts around the world, but when it comes to imprisonment, the situation changes: Of all the women and girls in prison in the world, one in three is confined right here in the United States. With only five percent of the world’s population, the United States has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners – and 33 percent of the world’s female prisoners.

The prison system provides vivid illustrations of inequality in the United States, based on race, class, immigration status, and gender.

More than 200,000 women and teenage girls are confined in prisons, jails, immigration detention centers, and juvenile detention facilities in the United States, a more than eight-fold increase since 1980. When we take probation and parole into account, more than one million women are under some form of criminal justice supervision.

The burden of imprisonment falls most heavily on poor women and women of color, who are overrepresented compared to their numbers in the general population. One major reason is the “War on Drugs”: Women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds use drugs, yet in New York, for example, more than 77% percent of women serving time in prison for drug offenses are women of color. Moreover, across the country white women are the majority of those on probation and women of color are the majority of those behind bars.

Typical prison conditions expose women to a range of dangers, from sexual abuse to permanent loss of family connections. The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) has yet to issue final regulations to implement a 2003 federal law aimed at preventing sexual abuse of people in prison. After almost a decade of research, public hearings, and thousands of public comments, the DOJ is stalling. One sticking point is whether the rules will apply to people confined by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Although the legislative history makes it clear that Congress intended the law to apply to all institutions of confinement, DOJ is reportedly resisting including ICE in the final rules. Certainly, women experience sexual assault in ICE prisons and need the same protections as any other group of women in custody.

A majority of women in prison are mothers; if they do not have someone to care for their children while they are imprisoned, then their children will be placed in foster care. Since 1997, federal and state laws have mandated the termination of parental rights once a child has been in foster care for 15 months in a 22-month period. Only a few states make any exceptions for parents who are in prison. Because women are more likely than men to be the primary caregivers of children under 18, this policy has a disproportionate impact on women and their children.

Women who manage to maintain their legal bond to their children still find it difficult to reunite with them once they get out of prison. If they have a felony drug conviction, public policies in most states prohibit them from accessing public housing, food stamps or loans to go back to school – resources that would help them to build a secure future for themselves and their families.

They must compete for jobs with a scarlet “C” for “criminal record,” a serious disadvantage in today’s difficult economy. Given the racial dynamics of poverty and the racial biases of criminal justice administration, women of color are disproportionately affected by these policies, which undermine their right to be mothers.

What can be done to change the situation?

The single most important thing we can do is to reorient our public policy to treat drug addiction as a public health matter instead of a crime. This paradigm change would have a tremendous impact on the number of women arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned, because so many women are behind bars for non-violent drug offenses or for other minor offenses they committed in order to obtain money to buy drugs.

Another policy change that could have a significant impact – yet gets almost no attention – is bail reform. Fully half of the women waiting to go on trial at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Framingham, for example, are stuck behind prison walls because they cannot make $50 bail.

No one argues that we should ignore crime. The question is, what is the best way to address the core reasons that most women find themselves enmeshed in the criminal justice system – including poverty, violence and trauma, limited educational and work opportunities and experience, and lack of access to health care, including mental health care and drug treatment. From a fiscal perspective as well as a human rights perspective, what policy approach best serves all members of the community?

The United States spends more than $68 billion each year to imprison people. In Massachusetts, the cost is about $46,000 per person per year. Compare that to expenditures on public education: about $13,000 per student per year.

As we commemorate International Women’s Day, let us commit to challenging the overuse of imprisonment as an integral part of the feminist policy agenda, and to advocate for a shift from punitive policies that deplete our resources to investment in communities.

This post is part of the International Women's Day blog carnival in partnership with Ms. Foundation for Women.

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