Reimagining Women’s Incarceration

By Jasmine Heiss

America has not always been an “incarceration nation.” On the contrary, the imprisoned population increased by an estimated 500 percent during the last four decades, driven largely by changes in sentencing law and policy. For someone like me, born in the midst of such a seismic shift, it is easy to forget that mass incarceration is younger than the Super Bowl. Our reliance on overincarceration and overcriminalization has simply grown so quickly, I am hard pressed to imagine a world where prisons and jails are not a fundamental part of the American landscape.

Fortunately, our collective cultural literacy finally seems to be catching up. Rapper Common is visiting prisons, Uber celebrates the success of their formerly incarcerated employees, and Koch Industries’ Mark Holden is teaming up with Weldon Angelos and Snoop Dogg to stop the criminalization of poverty and mental health. But there is another story that is still missing from the many conversations about the state of justice in America: the unique experience of women struggling to navigate our nation’s prisons and jails.

The fact that the United States incarcerates nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners is practically part of common parlance. Much less discussed, however, is the equally staggering statistic that approximately 30 percent of the world’s incarcerated women are in the United States. While men still make up the vast majority of people subjected to our country’s systems of correctional control, the growth rate for women’s incarceration has increased far more quickly than that of men. Women incarcerated in local jails now constitute the fastest growing population of people behind bars, even as the overall correctional population inches downward.

Ultimately, this means that women are increasingly filling a system that expanded around a predominantly male experience of incarceration. In a carceral setting, daily realities like motherhood and menstruation are often treated as a burden or inconvenience to be minimized or ignored. And while not all women choose to be mothers, the majority of incarcerated women have children waiting for them on the outside. Between 1991 and 2010 alone, the number of children with a mother in prison increased by more than 100 percent, creating spiraling consequences for a second generation of vulnerable young people, separated from primary caregivers by plexiglas, concrete and steel. Some children of incarcerated women are removed from their mother’s arms only hours after they first emerge into the world.

Unfortunately, we don’t know how many women give birth behind bars each year, as the federal government does not require precise data to be kept about pregnancies or childbirth in America’s jails and prisons. Nor do we have comprehensive data about the care that women receive after giving birth in custody. This incomplete picture is echoed by a poorly defined patchwork of different pre- and post-natal practices including — horrifyingly — the shackling and isolated confinement of pregnant women and new mothers. In fact, according to data from the American Psychological Association, twenty states either allow the indiscriminate use of restraints on incarcerated women during pregnancy, labor, childbirth, and recovery or have no publicly accessible policy on such use of restraints.

Allowing such practices flies in the face of evidence that restraints pose a threat to both a mother and child because of their potential to obstruct medical care and spur complications. There are stories of doctors unable to administer epidurals to their shackled patients and — worse — of staff covering the mouths of laboring women as they scream in pain.

While proponents of the practice argue that shackling pregnant women is a precautionary measure that upholds public safety, this claim crumbles when you consider that approximately two-thirds of women incarcerated in state prisons have been convicted of non-violent offenses. But even the distinction between victim and perpetrator begins to blur in the context of women’s incarceration. We know that an estimated 90 percent of women who commit crimes are spurred by past trauma, and 80 percent have a history of drug or alcohol abuse. Shackling such vulnerable members of society is not only antithetical to treatment and rehabilitation, it also unnecessarily compounds the cruelty and degradation many women have already suffered.

Last month, I had the profound privilege of moderating a panel at the “Women Unshackled” conference, hosted by our colleagues at Justice Action Network. In my conversation with women leaders like Louisiana state Rep. Patricia Smith, Miyoshi Benton, Dr. Bronwyn Hunter, and Gail Smith, one of the most resounding messages to emerge was that women’s incarceration is a reflection of America’s communities at large. We are implicated in the experiences of women behind bars, inasmuch as they reflect a societal failure to respond to the victimization and hopelessness of too many of our sisters, mothers, and friends.

But our collective responsibility for this issue means that we are also collectively empowered to make change. In my lifetime, we have built an international space station and vastly expanded the capacity of the internet to connect people around the globe. It must also be possible to both stem the flow of women into our nation’s prisons and jails and fundamentally change the experience of incarceration to one rooted in dignity. To believe anything else is simply a failure of imagination.

Jasmine Heiss is director of coalitions and outreach with the Coalition for Public Safety.