Today, women are the fastest growing prison population, particularly African Americans. In 1999, the number of drug arrests for women were nearly twice as high than for men, yet twice as many men were arrested for violent crimes. Women are even arrested for simply living with a drug dealer, regardless of whether or not she was involved in the drug business. Sociologists have declared that the war on drugs, quickly translated to the war on women.
When lawmakers created structured sentencing, mandatory sentences, truth in sentencing and the three strikes law, their image of a criminal was a violent male predator, not a first time drug offending female. Many women prisoners, most who have no priors, commit non-violent crimes such as writing bad checks, shoplifting, and credit card fraud.
These women often lack meaningful employment and are educational and economically deficient. And we cannot forget that a vast majority of these women are mothers.
Before the war on drugs, judges had the discretion to consider the woman’s crime, along with her family responsibilities, when it came to sentencing. That’s not the case now. According to the National Policy Committee’s 2001 report, almost half of incarcerated mothers have never received a visit from their children.
This is due to the proximity of the prison to their homes. Many women’s prisons are located in rural areas and the average inmate’s home is a hundred miles from where they are incarcerated. What’s even more disturbing is that these children are five times more likely to commit crimes and become prisoners themselves.
Laura Gottesdeiner’s article in the Huffington Post describes the horrible conditions in Central California’s Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.
The prison houses nearly 3,700 inmates which is 180% capacity. Eight women are packed into a cell that is meant for only four. These prisons are designed, built and run by men. Both former and current inmates report squalid conditions, lack of sanitary needs, and medical treatment is often unavailable or inconsistent.
Across the country, these women tell their horrifying experiences of sexual abuse at the hands of the male guards. They are often raped by the guards, who also forced the women to have sex with maintenance workers, other prisoners, and even the prison chaplain. If the inmate becomes pregnant, she often forced to have an abortion.
According to Gottesdeiner’s article, California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation began rationing supplies for basic needs such as toilet paper, soaps, and toothbrushes in an effort to relieve the painful swelling of the state budget. It has prompted some women inmates to resort to prostitution with guards in order to obtain these items.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, bars an employer from denying someone a job based on their sex, so male guards grossly outnumber their female counterparts.
Women and Prison is a site dedicated to the lives of women incarcerated in the U.S. It is a venue developed in order for the public to hear the voices of both current and former women prisoners, who write about their experiences behind bars, many of which are emotionally difficult to read. Sara Olson, one such inmate wrote an article entitled, The Conditions in Women’s Prisons where she describes the mistreatment that runs rampant in California’s women’s prisons.
I want to make clear that I do believe criminals need to be dealt with, but accordingly. I think it’s ignorant to assume that all women (and male) prisoners have received sentences that fit their crimes. And even if they have, should they be denied their basic needs? Is it acceptable to cram them into cells that can barely accommodate them? Do they deserve to be sexually abused? The U.S. was highly criticized by it’s own citizens for the ill-treatment of foreign detainees at Guantanamo Bay, yet fellow Americans are being brutalized daily in both male and female prisons.
As lawmakers and voters, we need to alleviate this epidemic of abuse. Efforts need to be focused on addressing the problems that low-risk women offenders are faced with when it comes to sentencing.
Until there are programs to educate and rehabilitate prisoners, as well as programs to alleviate the economic strain on them, our prisons are going to continue to become broken down institutions of abuse and corruption.
June 22, 2011 by April Moore | Author of “Folsom’s 93: The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison’s Executed Men”