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Efforts to Decrease Prison Populations Are Leaving Women Behind

Incarceration rates for women are rising in many states.

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

Anastazia Schmid has spent the past 17 years behind bars in Indiana. During that time, she’s seen firsthand the impacts of changes and trends within the state’s prison system — and the ways in which criminal legal reform efforts continue to leave women behind bars.

Schmid, who has spent many of these years studying mass incarceration as well as Indiana’s history of female incarceration, isn’t surprised. “It has been easy to disregard, really not even have anyone notice, this astronomical increase in female prisoners when women have completely been left out of any major criminal justice discourse in recent times, particularly public discussions,” she wrote in an email to Truthout.

Indiana is one of eight states where the women’s prison population continues to grow even as the men’s prison population has declined, according to “The Gender Divide: Tracking Women’s State Prison Growth,” a recent report by the Prison Policy Institute. Between 2009 and 2015, Indiana’s rate of men’s incarceration dropped by 6 percent while women’s incarceration increased by 1 percent.

Women have become the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population.

Other states have even more extreme disparities. In Michigan, between 2009 and 2015, the number of men in state prisons dropped 8 percent while the number of women in prisons increased 30 percent. Texas reduced its male prison population by 6,000, but increased the number of women by 1,100. In 19 other states, the rate of women’s incarceration grew faster than that of their male counterparts.

“Women have become the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population, but despite recent interest in the alarming national trend, few people know what’s happening in their own states,” the report noted. “Examining these state trends is critical for making the state-level policy choices that will dictate the future of mass incarceration.”

Fewer Diversions and Lengthy Sentences for Women

Why the contrast? The report offers a few hypotheses. On the front end, fewer diversion programs, or programs that offer alternatives to incarceration, are offered to women. The report points to Wyoming, where young men facing their first prison sentence can instead be sentenced to six months at a state-run boot camp, a rigorous alternative-to-incarceration similar to a military boot camp. However, no similar option exists for women, leaving no alternative but years in prison for the same conviction.

In Oklahoma, which continues to lead the nation in women’s incarceration and where the women’s prison population is outpacing that of men’s prisons, the Department of Corrections recently instituted a diversion program for women facing nonviolent charges in Tulsa and Oklahoma Counties. The program may keep some women out of prison moving forward, but doesn’t apply retroactively to the 3,082 women already behind bars.

In addition to fewer diversions, women may also lack the information necessary to plead to a lesser charge and a shorter prison sentence. D’Adre Cunningham has worked as a public defender in Washington State for 15 years. Now the lead attorney at the Incarcerated Parents Project, she noted that during her time as a defense attorney, many women facing violent charges were in codefendant relationships, meaning that they were arrested and prosecuted alongside other people. Cunningham compares their prosecution — and their sentences — to those of women in federal drug conspiracy cases who often know the least — and thus have little to no information to offer the prosecutor. “Often, the [other] codefendant knows more and can get a better deal,” she told Truthout. “The least culpable, least knowledgeable person ends up with more time because they don’t have any [information] to reduce their time.”

Domestic violence — and the accompanying coercion — plays a role in some cases. Another exacerbating factor is the erroneous notion that women are less likely to be prosecuted to the same extent as their male counterparts. “There’s a mistaken belief by the male partner that the girlfriend will get off easier,” noted Cunningham. Once convicted, Washington has mandatory sentencing enhancements, which compounds long sentences and bloats the prison population. This means that, even if a smaller number of people are entering the prison system, they’re staying for longer periods of time. In Washington, for example, 8,113 people entered state prison in 2017; that same year, 8,055 people left. According to a Department of Corrections report to the state Senate, the overall state prison system is currently at 103 percent capacity; the main women’s prison, however, is at 127 percent capacity.

For Women, Petty Offenses in Prison Can Lead to More Time

Once inside prison, women are likely to receive disciplinary tickets and other sanctions for behaviors that are ignored in men’s prisons. These sanctions decrease chances of parole or other forms of earlier release (such as earned good time).

“This is particularly prevalent in the state of Indiana,” wrote Schmid, who has been in four different state prisons and has seen little violence between incarcerated women. This might be why officers focus on pettier rules violations. “One thing that remains consistent, and I believe is partially because there is so little violence within these facilities, is the high charges and sanctions for petty internal offenses.” In other words, incarcerated women are often penalized for acts that are not illegal outside prison walls.

“One of the main targeted areas for sanctioning is ANY offense that is deemed ‘sexual,'” she continued. But, she explained, an action need not actually be sexual to incur a ticket. Any form of physical contact, such as holding hands or giving someone a hug, can result in a ticket which, in turn, can take away a person’s good time or time off for good behavior. Another common internal offense is possession of contraband, which can range from drugs or weapons to tobacco or unauthorized food items. “I recently encountered a woman who has served an additional two months in prison for [possessing] tobacco,” she noted.

These internal charges reduce a person’s chance for a sentence reduction. In Indiana, a person requesting a sentence reduction or modification must send a progress report to the judge and prosecutor as part of their request. That progress report will list any and all rules violations, but not the specific details of that violation. “In other words, all the court sees is ‘Class B violation: sex act’ or ‘possession of unauthorized contraband,'” says Schmid, noting that there is no further elaboration as to whether the “sex act” was actually two people hugging or if the contraband was a burrito made by a friend. But this vagueness means that courts are apt to look less favorably upon reducing a prison sentence and allowing a woman to go home earlier.

These tickets for seemingly minor infractions aren’t limited to Indiana. Lauren Johnson, a Texas prisoner-rights advocate who is formerly incarcerated, characterizes the reasons behind disciplinary write-ups for women as “petty and silly.” For instance, after seeing the prison’s obstetrician, Johnson noticed a dispenser for hand sanitizer on the wall outside the medical office. “I reached out to use it and the guard snapped, ‘You know that’s not for you!’ and wrote me up for using hand sanitizer,” she told Truthout.

Cutting Away the Safety Net

Women’s incarceration is also connected with the way in which supportive systems have diminished in recent decades. For years, the cutting away of Oklahoma’s social safety net has left women with few options for survival, causing their incarceration to balloon into overcrowded prisons. In terms of “poverty and opportunity” for women, Oklahoma ranks among the country’s bottom four states, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Nearly 29 percent of its employed women are working low-wage jobs, and women on average earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by a man.

Incarcerated women are often penalized for acts that are not illegal outside prison walls.

That’s still better than Texas, where women earn 77.8 cents for every male dollar and 29.9 percent of employed women work in low-wage jobs. Texas did not expand Medicaid eligibility, leaving nearly 30 percent of its female residents without health insurance in 2013. “Many people don’t have access to health care or mental health care,” said Johnson. She also noted that, during the last legislative session, the drop in the male prison population allowed the state to close four men’s prisons.

Kentucky is another state where the growth in women’s incarceration outpaced that of men’s. Nearly 20 percent of the state’s women live below the poverty line, a lower percentage than Oklahoma or Indiana; additionally, 80 percent of women had health insurance in 2013. But that may change, now that Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin has overhauled Medicaid, imposing work requirements on some recipients, as well as monthly premiums. Bevin also issued an executive order ending the state’s Medicaid expansion if any part of his overhaul is struck down by a court, a move that would eliminate coverage for nearly 500,000 people. Research shows that poverty, combined with lack of opportunity, is often a pathway to prison; dismantling the social safety net pushes even more people down that pathway.

In Indiana, which boasts a women’s prison population of over 2,382, women outside of prison earn 75.6 cents for every male dollar; 31 percent of women workers are in low-wage jobs. This makes it even more difficult for women to find the support they need to stay out of prison.

“There need to be more programs,” said Brittany J., who was released from an Indiana prison in 2016 to a county with only one small women’s shelter and few supports for formerly incarcerated women. “The state hospitals we have are all gone,” she told Truthout. “The government just says, ‘Lock ’em up.’ I know women who have been to prison six, seven times. A lot of people don’t have support systems.”

At the same time, prison rules keep formerly incarcerated women away from the support networks they cultivate in prison. Brittany notes that the Indiana Women’s Prison has numerous programs, including a well-respected college program. But once out, women are cut off from those supports. “You can’t speak to them anymore,” she said. Prison rules prohibited Brittany’s college mentor from communicating with her; the same goes for the various church volunteers whom she had connected with through their in-prison programs. This left Brittany to navigate post-prison life on her own. Those without support systems on the outside are at heightened risk for reincarceration.

“You need a support system,” Brittany reflected. “It’s hard to do it by yourself.”

Increasing Women’s Prison Populations May Lead to More Women’s Prisons

In Washington State, which eliminated parole in 1984, the women’s prison population has increased 4 percent since 2009. The state’s two women’s prisons have been overcrowded for years. The Washington Correction Center for Women (WCCW) is over capacity by more than 200 people. The women there are constantly at risk of being transferred to the less-crowded (but still slightly over capacity) Mission Creek Corrections Center.

But the move can have long-lasting consequences extending beyond their time behind bars. This is what happened to V.R., a mother of five who has spent nearly three years at WCCW. (She asked that she only be identified using her initials because her custody case is ongoing.) To avoid having her parental rights terminated, V.R. must participate in reunification therapy. The prison itself does not offer reunification therapy, so a licensed therapist must drive the 1.5 hours from Seattle to work with her. But in November 2017, V.R. was abruptly transferred to Mission Creek, 30 miles (or roughly half an hour) further from Seattle. The therapist said that she was unable to travel that far, and so the reunification therapy sessions stopped. V.R. worries that the family court judge will look unfavorably on her inability to continue the court-ordered therapy sessions without considering the fact that the transfer was beyond her control.

Women’s incarceration is connected with the way in which supportive systems have diminished in recent decades.

In Yakima County Jail in the eastern part of the state women have no access to programs where they can earn time off their sentences, fulfill court mandates to reunite with their children or develop skills to help with reentry. Furthermore, the 150-mile distance from Seattle means far fewer, if any, visits from children and family members.

Even then, the state’s women’s prisons remain at capacity. According to its 2018 operating budget request, the Department predicted a shortage of 185 beds in female prisons by 2021 and 229 beds by 2027. Noting that the state currently has only two women’s prisons, the Department plans to include 128 new beds for women in its upcoming 700-bed prison for adults with mental illnesses built on a now-closed juvenile detention center, and requested additional money to add another 16 beds to WCCW. (It also requested funds to add 114 beds in minimum security men’s prisons.)

Indiana is not planning to increase prison beds for women anytime soon. But, reflects Schmidt, this doesn’t mean that incarcerated women should continue to be ignored in decarceration efforts. “We need to address and repair the systemic problems that foster crime: poverty, abuse, addiction, mental illness, un/underemployment, lack of [or] inadequate housing, food, education, skills training,” she said. Otherwise, she predicts that the numbers of women sent to jail and prison will continue to grow.

“How many women do we need to lock up before we do something to change it?” Schmidt asked. “Do we have to surpass the million mark like men, in order to have large numbers of women released from captivity, or before powerful leaders take notice and redeem the error of the system’s ways?”

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