Between 1980 and 2014, the number of women incarcerated across the United States increased by 700 percent. In Illinois, women’s incarceration increased by 767 percent during that same time period. While that number has slowly decreased over the past two decades, the 1,418 women in the state’s prisons at the end of 2020 is still more than quadruple the 401 women imprisoned in 1980. (These numbers only include people in Illinois’s “women’s prisons;” they exclude people in women’s jails and trans women in men’s jails and prisons.)
In July 2018, the Women’s Justice Institute (WJI), a Chicago-based nonprofit, convened a Women’s Justice Task Force to create strategies to reduce the state’s women’s prison population by at least 50 percent.
Halving the women’s prison population may not be as difficult as some might imagine. In 2020, as COVID-19 swept the nation, arrests decreased, courts came to a standstill and jails stopped sending many people to prisons after sentencing. Admissions to Illinois’s women’s prisons fell by nearly 50 percent, decreasing the number of women in prison by over 37 percent from 2,264 in December 2019 to 1,418 one year later.
The Task Force’s new report, “Redefining the Narrative,” not only highlights the realities of women’s incarceration, but also charts ways to halve the state’s female prison population, reduce the harms caused by current policies, and improve the lives of women, children, families and communities most devastated by mass incarceration. While its scope is limited to Illinois, the report reflects the reality of women’s incarceration nationwide.
The Abuse-to-Prison Pipeline
Women of color experience higher rates of domestic and sexual violence than their white counterparts. An estimated 4 in 10 Black women have experienced intimate partner violence. They are more than twice as likely to be killed by their partner than white women. At the same time, Black women are disproportionately criminalized and incarcerated and, in many cases, their experiences of abuse are ignored or disbelieved.
The WJI report includes the experiences of Black women who have experienced both domestic violence and incarceration, like Paris Knox and Tewkunzi Green. In 2007, Knox was convicted of murder and sentenced to 40 years after defending herself from her ex-boyfriend’s attack. She spent 13 years in prison before her conviction was vacated for ineffective legal counsel, thanks to the long-term work of organizers. In February 2018, she pled guilty to second-degree murder, was given time served and released from prison. In 2009, Green was convicted after defending herself from a boyfriend’s assault and sentenced to 34 years in prison. In November 2020, under sustained pressure from organizers to free Green, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker granted her clemency and she was released from prison.
Even when abuse has not directly contributed to the criminalized action, women with histories of abuse and neglect are 77 percent more likely to be arrested than those without those histories. A survey at Logan Correctional Center, Illinois’s largest women’s prison, found that more than 99 percent of those surveyed had experienced abuse and intimidation during their lives.
The entanglement of gender-based violence and incarceration is not limited to Illinois. Across the country, 86 percent of women in jails reported experiencing sexual violence; 77 percent also reported having experienced partner violence.
In a handful of states, lawmakers, at the urging of advocates, are considering or passing laws allowing survivors of gender-based violence a second chance. In 2015, Illinois passed the Corrections-Mitigating Factor Act, allowing abuse survivors to petition for resentencing if evidence of their abuse was not introduced during sentencing. Since then, only two women have been released from prison under the new statute. The WJI report notes that other women’s petitions have been rejected under the erroneous assumption that the law is not retroactive. It recommends that the law’s language be clarified and that those whose petitions had previously been denied have the chance to refile.
In 2019, after nearly a decade of advocacy, New York passed the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, allowing judges to consider the role of abuse in sentencing and, for those already sentenced, the opportunity for resentencing. Since the law was passed, two women were convicted in the deaths of their boyfriends. Both petitioned to have abuse considered at sentencing as directed by the new law. In both cases, the judges denied to consider abuse under the new law and sentenced them to prison.
As of March 2021, several dozen women who had been sentenced in previous years have applied for resentencing. Ten have been resentenced: four were released from prison, while the remaining six, who had already been released from prison, were able to have their post-prison supervision shortened. Others, however, have had their applications for resentencing denied and remain imprisoned.
Organizers in other states have pushed for similar bills, allowing judges to consider the role that domestic violence played when sentencing survivors, but most have yet to see success. In Oklahoma and Oregon, similar bills failed. In California, a similar bill is winding its way through legislative committees.
In courts across the country, prosecutors decide which charges to pursue or dismiss. In Cook County, Illinois, after urging from advocates, the state attorney’s office reduced charges against one abuse survivor and dismissed charges against another. The “Redefining the Narrative” report recommends that state actors, such as prosecutors and courts, utilize their power to reduce or dismiss charges. It also recommends the creation and funding of diversion services for survivors of gender-based violence as well as changes to laws that currently punish them for defending themselves or engaging in criminalized actions under the coercion of abusive partners.
“There Is All This Talk About the #MeToo Movement, But Who Is Fighting for Us?”
When she was 18 years old, Celia Colón was sexually assaulted while in Chicago’s Cook County Jail. Terrified and without a support system, she did not report the assault. “Who was going to believe me, someone in a jail cell, vs. an officer?” Colón said. “The answer was no one.”
Twenty-five years later, incarcerated women are still often dismissed when they come forward about sexual violence and misconduct. Logan Correctional Center had 115 reported cases of sexual misconduct between 2015 and 2017; only five of those claims were determined to be substantiated. A lack of substantiation does not mean that an assault did not occur; it simply indicates that investigators report that they did not find enough evidence to determine whether it occurred.
The lack of substantiation isn’t limited to Illinois. Nationwide, of the 24,661 reports of sexual victimization in prisons in 2015, only 1,473 (less than 6 percent) were determined to be substantiated by prison authorities. Between 2012 and 2015, there were 67,168 reports of sexual victimization; prison authorities completed investigations for 61,316 and found 5,187 (8 percent) to be substantiated. (These are the latest data available from the Department of Justice.)
A 2019 survey at New York’s largest women’s prison, Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, found that 74 percent of women surveyed had witnessed violence or abuse by staff; 53 percent had personally experienced staff violence or abuse.
Colón has been out of prison for over 20 years and, as the founder of Giving Others Dreams, facilitates mental health workshops for those currently in the jail. (Like other programs, the workshops are paused because of the coronavirus.) But, because she did not report the assault, she still encounters disbelief and skepticism when she shares her story. “There is all this talk about the #MeToo movement, but who is fighting for us?” she asked.
That’s what Tracey Nadirah Shaw, a 52-year-old incarcerated in Pennsylvania, wants to know. Shaw entered prison in 1996. Shortly after, she says she was heading to the evening meal when a prison officer instructed her to follow him to the basement. There, he raped her.
Like Colón, Shaw did not report the rape, explaining that not only did she have to see him daily, but also, the officer had threatened to hurt her family if she said anything about what happened. The rapes continued for four years, stopping only after Shaw was moved to a different housing unit.
Seven years later, in 2013, she learned that the officer was applying to become the manager of her unit. This time, she contacted her family and the Pennsylvania Prison Society, an outside monitoring agency. She also reported his assaults. In response, she was transferred from the prison at Muncy, a two-hour drive from her family in Philadelphia, to Cambridge Springs, a six-hour drive across the state. She was later told that prison investigators dismissed her claims as not only unfounded but, because so much time had elapsed, frivolous. “I can tell you there is nothing frivolous about being raped,” she wrote in a letter to Truthout.
The majority of people in women’s prisons have experienced sexual violence before arrest. Once in prison, they often face even more. Even when they are not overtly sexually assaulted, prison policies, such as strip searches and invasive pat-down searches, can be retraumatizing.
The Women’s Justice Task Force report recommends that prisons provide a safe and confidential way for women to report sexual abuse and other harmful conditions. This includes the creation of an independent ombudsman as well as a greater number of phones and kiosks so that women can report without being overheard. The report also recommends overhauling strip search policies and the creation of a statewide task force to create a plan to eliminate sexual assault and staff misconduct in jails and prisons.
“Moms and Babies Won’t Stop Needing to Be Together After the Pandemic Is Over”
Across the country, approximately 1.5 million children currently have a parent behind bars. Illinois ranks sixth in the nation, with one of every 20 children having experienced parental incarceration. Some were born while their parent was incarcerated; one was even born on the floor of the prison shower after medical and prison staff dismissed a woman’s labor pains. Between 2016 and 2018, 94 babies were born in Illinois prisons.
Illinois is one of seven states with a prison nursery, where incarcerated mothers can spend up to two years with their newborns. But the state’s Moms and Babies program has only eight slots and, though Illinois prisons incarcerate an average of 30 pregnant people each year, the program has rarely filled more than half of those slots in recent years. Admission requirements are strict — women must be convicted of a nonviolent offense, not have a history of child welfare involvement, and not have objections from the baby’s other parent or other immediate family members. Women who have outstanding warrants because they failed to pay past fines and fees can also be denied entry to the program. The program stipulates that mothers must be within two years of release, but mothers who are close to release, like Emily French who had two months remaining on her sentence, might be denied as well.
In March 2020, as COVID began exploding throughout the nation’s prisons, Illinois released the five mother-baby duos and one pregnant person in its Moms and Babies program as well as nearly all of the 17 pregnant people in its pregnancy unit. Danielle, who was only identified by her first name in the report, was able to give birth outside prison after being released from the pregnancy unit. She reflected, “I have to wonder, if we could release all of the pregnant women to be with their babies because of the pandemic, why can’t we do it all of the time? Moms and babies won’t stop needing to be together after the pandemic is over.” The Moms and Babies program remains empty though the prison has started accepting newly sentenced people, including those who are pregnant.
New York also has a prison nursery program which can hold 27 mother-baby duos, at its Bedford Hills prison. At the start of the pandemic, officials released nearly all of the mothers and babies. One year later, however, its prisons began accepting new arrivals, including pregnant people and new mothers into its nursery program. COVID soon followed, with 108 women testing positive at Bedford Hills by mid-April, including at least two mothers and three babies in its nursery.
“Redefining the Narrative” is filled with recommendations to halve the state’s female prison population and strengthen individuals, families and communities.
Illinois actually has two laws that could allow for rapid decarceration of its women’s prisons. The 1998 Women’s and Children’s Pre-release Community Supervision Program Act directs the state to establish a community-based program allowing mothers and their young children to live together outside of prison. The directive has been underutilized, according to the report: Only one program, the Women’s Treatment Center in Chicago, has been contracted and has received only three women from prison during a four-year period.
The other law, the 2019 Children’s Best Interest Act, requires courts to consider the impact of imprisoning a parent or caregiver in sentencing them for a nonviolent felony. That year, approximately 947 imprisoned mothers might have qualified. But the law, which went into effect in January 2020, is not retroactive. If it was, sending even 10 percent of these mothers to a community-based program would reduce the prison population by 101; 25 percent would mean a reduction of 253 in the prison population.
The report recommends expanding the 1998 law, including contracting with more community-based programs and approving more mothers to enter these programs. It also recommends the statewide implementation of the Children’s Best Interest Act, which would not only decrease the numbers in women’s prisons, but also prevent the separation of children and parents.
The recommendations don’t stop inside prisons. They also include strengthening resources outside of prisons and in communities, including access to safe and affordable housing, an end to gendered pay inequality, affordable child care, accessible health and mental health care, and paid family and medical leave. “Redefining the Narrative” recommends investing in resources that prevent gender-based violence, from age-appropriate education about consent and violence prevention for children to programs that support people who have engaged in such violence, and greater services and supports for those who have experienced this violence.
“Decarceration work cannot occur by exclusively addressing risk factors,” the report states. “Rather, it must focus on building the protective factors that must exist for women — before, during and after their criminal justice involvement and incarceration — to prevent their system contact and entrenchment.”
As Willette Benford, who spent over two decades in prison and now works as a decarceration organizer with LiveFree Illinois, an organization working to end mass incarceration and gun violence, said, “Keeping women in prison does not keep us safe.”