The Unique Challenges Incarcerated Women Face

Photo by Alex Ronsdorf on Unsplash

Nicole Ann Lee had been in and out of three Ohio county jails before she was sentenced to six months in prison at The Ohio Reformatory for Women, the state institution for convicted female felons.

Lee was 28 when she was convicted of a felony for two counts of drug theft. After an adolescent bout with cancer in her knee, Lee became addicted to pain medication and was caught stealing two Vicodin pills from the hospital where she worked as a nurse.

Now age 39, Lee has been out for 11 years but she was unable to get her nursing license back and she is still struggling to find stability.

“It was my drug problem that got me back in trouble again,” she says.

“When I came back from prison, day one I was using again.”

While there are many conversations and reports about the shortcomings of the American prison industrial complex from high recidivism rates and lack of reentry programs, there is a specific population that gets lost in the conversation: incarcerated women. Women are the fastest growing population in the nation’s prisons and jails yet they have the fewest resources allocated to their release and they face unique challenges compared to their male counterparts.

According to a report by the national non-profit and justice think tank Vera Institute of Justice, 82% of incarcerated women are imprisoned for nonviolent offenses. Studies also show that while incarcerated, women face harsher punishments and sanctions for lower-level infractions than men.

Incarcerated women are, also, more likely to be sexually abused and exploited by correctional staff. Sixty-seven percent of incarcerated women are victims of sexual assault by correctional staff.

“The male [correction officers] would come in and rip open the showers, say that they thought somebody was smoking or having sex in there or whatever,” Lee told me in a phone interview.

“They would just open up the shower curtains and just look.”

If a woman is or does become pregnant while incarcerated, only about one-third will receive prenatal care. This exposes them to many health risks, including miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies. And the women who do have children face strained relationships through lack of custody and visits. A 2017 study by the Urban Institute details how prison visits can be traumatic for children of incarcerated parents, through intrusive searches and lack of physical connection.

“In there, you only had, like, one visit a month, and you had to schedule it and it could be a pain the the butt sometimes. You know, to get it scheduled and make sure everybody could come.”

Like Lee, many incarcerated women show higher rates of mental trauma and addiction prior to incarceration.

“When I got older, my knee really started bothering me, and my doctors started throwing pain pills at me,” she said.

“Because when you have cancer they pretty much want to keep you comfortable.”

But women also have less access to mental health care and rehabilitation programs while in prison. According to a report from Wheelock College, 90–95% of women in prison and jails have trauma in their personal history, which can lead to self medicating with drugs and alcohol.

There is another major hurdle for women who are working towards a successful reentry upon release. There are fewer chances for incarcerated women to take advantage of educational and vocational programs, because such programs are not as readily available as they are in institutions for male prisoners.

“We need education. A lot of women inside don’t have a GED and many times county jails don’t even offer that. They say they do, but I haven’t seen it or heard about it and i’ve been to three different county jails,” Lee said.

While no one believes incarceration sets anyone for a successful future, women face unique personal and institutional barriers while incarcerated and upon release.