National News

The plight of incarcerated women

By Charlene Muhammad -National Correspondent- | Last updated: Nov 10, 2017 - 10:27:46 AM

Bookmark and Share

What's your opinion on this article?

Sixty percent of all women languishing behind bars in the United States without any convictions shows they are off the radar when it comes to prison reform, according to a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative and the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Campaign for Smart Justice.

“That not only speaks to not only what’s broken within our bail system, but larger use and willingness to use incarceration in the U.S.,” stated Aleks Kajstura, Prison Policy Initiative legal director, and author of “Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017.”

The report tackles why 219,000 women are incarcerated, identifies the various correctional systems that control them, and how these women fit into the even larger picture of that control.

women-in-prison_11-14-2017.jpg
Click for full size

The report indicates that nearly the same number of women are in state prisons (99,000) as local jails (96,000). Of those, 75 percent are on probation, 16 percent locked up, and nine percent are on parole, according to the report.

The breakdown for state prisons is 35,300 for violent crimes, 27,400 for property crimes, 24,700 for drugs, and 10,100 for public order; meaning charges stemming from weapons, court offenses, drunk driving and other offenses.

In jails 58,000 women are not convicted, 38,000 are convicted, and 4,600 are youth. Some 14,000 women are in federal prisons.

Women are disproportionately stuck in jails, due to pre-trial incarceration. For instance, authors said, women unable to make bail earned annually just $11,071 per year on average.

“For Black women who can’t make bail, for instance, the typical bail is set at $10,000, which is more than a full year’s salary for Black women who can’t pay bail,” Ms. Kajstura told The Final Call. “This is just unfathomable,” she added.

Women are most impacted by poverty than the rest of the population, because they’re most often the primary caretakers, forced to decide whether to feed their children or pay fees imposed through the criminal justice system, Ms. Kajstura said.

Eighty percent of women in jails are mothers, and if they can’t make bail because they must pay their rent or feed their children, they’re violated off probation and land back in jail, according to the report.

“One thing that we need to do is really focus on jails as well as prisons. … That goes to a much larger question of how the U.S. uses incarceration when a quarter of women aren’t even convicted of (a) crime yet,” explained Ms. Kajstura. “That’s a big red flag,” she said.

The data provided is a first-of-its- kind, because getting the answers means not only disentangling America’s decentralized and overlapping criminal justice systems, but also unearthing the frustratingly hard to find and often altogether missing data on gender, stated report authors.

The data really didn’t exist all in one place, explained Ms. Kajstura.

“For the military statistics on one of the facts, we had to go back to 1998. That’s two decades ago. It is a small number of women (70), but still, ’98. Come on!” she argued.

The movement to end mass incarceration is filled with talk about drug sentences, which may seem easy for people, she said. “Whole Pie” shows the movement really needs to grapple with the use of incarceration for all crimes, including violence and property crimes, she said.

Ms. Kastura said the feedback includes people asking very basic follow- up questions that the researchers still can’t answer, such as what is the racial background for incarcerated women.

Going forward, she said the goal is to find out, but she’s not optimistic. The trend has been for the U.S. to actually collect less data, she stated.

“Some of it is not being published. BJS (Bureau of Justice Statistics), for example, just stopped collecting conviction status by gender in 2009, so how can we answer these questions, when the government’s not even bothering to ask it.”

Aaliyah Muhammad, a paralegal for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children in San Francisco, said isolation is one of the major problems facing Black women in prison.

“Women’s visiting rooms are fairly empty compared to a men’s facility visiting room. Women are naturally care givers and make the burdensome trips to visit their male partners, but this is not always seen in the women’s facilities,” Ms. Muhammad told The Final Call.

“Phone calls are very expensive, poor quality with a 3-to-5 minute limit. The distance where the women are caged is far from their children and family, and makes it hard for the women to be able to visit with their children,” the advocate stated.

She added, programs are lacking, and mental health programs, substance abuse classes, self-help programs and educational classes are needed.

“The food is horrible. Mental and physical abuse and rape are also problems,” Ms. Muhammad stated.

Black women represent 30 percent of all incarcerated women in the U.S., although they represent 13 percent of the female population generally, according to statistics cited by the ACLU.

Ms. Muhammad said they are only invisible if they don’t stand up, fight for their rights, and advocate for themselves and others in a serious way.

She recommends looking for alternatives to locking women away from their children and communities. “We’re the greatest country on the planet, I heard. We need an Alternative Custody Program in place, and shut down some of these prisons. We have 33 in California! Prisons are not the answer,” Ms. Muhammad argued.

“We know that Black women are the fastest rising prison population. We believe that America’s criminal legal system is fundamentally unjust and racist, and was designed to continue the enslavement of Black people,” said Yoel Haile, political director for the Afrikan Black Coalition, the network of Black Student Unions across California.

“The fact that 60 percent of incarcerated women are there before trial speaks to the urgent need for bail reform in California and the rest of the country. It further belies America’s notion of “innocent till proved guilty” and makes it “guilty till proven rich,” Mr. Haile told The Final Call.

Things got this way before the bail system in California, and the U.S. is really predatory, racist and against poor people, he charged.

The current system is essentially if a person is rich enough to pay their bail, they can be released while waiting for their day in court but if they are poor and can’t post exorbitant bail, they have to stay in jail till their day in court, Mr. Haile stated.

The big picture reveals that even all of the women who are locked up, just make up 16 percent of women under correctional control, according to the study. Seventy-five of women under correctional control are on probation.

“That’s the next place … what should be looked at is now probation, because not only is that most likely unnecessary state control, it really sets up barriers to women, but also funnels some back into the correction system,” Ms. Kajstura continued.

She urged housing the data all in one place is the first step to reform, because people can’t change what they don’t know.

Shining a light on women means greater efforts for reform, according to Ms. Kajstura. The root of the non-convictions amounts in part to women not having as much money as men do, she said.

“Often times, it’s the women who help with the men’s bail, but once it comes down to the woman there’s not that type of (help) similarly available,” she continued.

Bookmark and Share