We are facing a correctional crisis in California that is unparalleled in other states. With prisons at or above 200 percent of capacity and federal court intervention imminent, a hidden aspect of corrections is the plight of incarcerated women.
Relative to men, the number of women in state prison may seem small. But, at more than 11,000, female prisoners are a growing and significant population, currently the largest in any state. Additionally, there are almost as many women locked up in county jails. The net result is more than 22,000 women in custody.
Not only are women prisoners hidden, their pathways to prison are often neglected and not addressed. Additionally, women have different reasons for being in prison than men, different histories of abuse and addiction, different family roles and relationships, different health concerns and different motivations to change.
A vast majority of women in prison (68 percent) are incarcerated for property or drug crimes rather than crimes against persons. When women are prosecuted, they have less to bargain with because they are often less engaged and on the periphery of the criminal activity. But they have much to lose physically, mentally and financially.<NO1><NO>
Incarcerated women are poor, disproportionately African American and Latina and mothers of children under the age of 18. And women prisoners are more likely than men to have had the responsibility of caring for their children prior to their arrest. As a result, their greatest loss may be the loss of their children.
Most women in prison have histories of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Their patterns of drug use often stem from trauma and untreated mental health issues. They tend to be unskilled and have sporadic work histories in low-wage jobs.
Women?s health issues call for different treatment in prison. Women?s relationships, especially with their children, are often key to their desire to improve their lives. But a mother?s imprisonment can have a long lasting and negative affect on her children.
As described in a 2004 Little Hoover Commission report, a significant number of women prisoners do not represent a serious threat to public safety. The commission recommended a greater reliance on community corrections for women rather than remote prisons.
Housing women in community settings that are rich in services and nearer their families is considered key to reducing their recycling in and out of prison. This approach can also keep families together.
Helping women maintain links to their families and communities is simply smarter and more efficient than keeping them locked in costly high-security institutions.
Of course, there are other options, including sending fewer women to prison in the first place. If we expanded drug courts, we could reduce the women?s prison population by a third over time.
<NO1><NO><NO1><NO>For women who are in prison, we could make meaningful strides toward breaking the cycle of neglect and abuse by addressing the significant circumstances faced by those we incarcerate. Services in prison should include medical and mental health care, counseling, education and job training, drug treatment and parenting on a scale that can make a true difference.
None of this is possible without acknowledging that the women we lock up are human beings. They are our mothers, daughters, sisters, relatives, and friends, and if they are hidden and not addressed in prison reform efforts, we risk the perpetuation of women?s imprisonment for generations to come.