A New War on Women? : Female Incarceration in America

One of the most popular series on Netflix centres on a thirty-something middle-class white woman who unexpectedly finds herself thrust into the federal prison system when she is convicted for a minor drug offense committed a decade prior. Hillary Clinton, the defeated Democratic nominee for President, penned an opinion piece for CNN where she decried the effect that women’s increased incarceration rates had played in ‘destabilising families and communities’ and called for wide-ranging prison reform. In popular culture, women in prison are subjects of both pity and intrigue. While Orange is the New Black largely paints Litchfield Prison’s population as victims of abuse, poverty and addiction, Piers Morgan’s new ITV series, Killer Women, takes a voyeuristic look at the most ‘deranged’ female murderers locked away in American penitentiaries. It seems like women in the American prison system have suddenly permeated popular culture and political rhetoric.

There is good reason for America’s abrupt interest in its incarcerated women. While ninety-three per cent of the US prison population is male, things have been rapidly changing in the past three decades. Women are the fastest growing demographic in the prison system. Since 1980 women have outpaced the incarceration rate of men by fifty per cent and there are currently 1.2 million women in the prison system. This trend has not affected all women equally. African-Americans are twice as likely to be convicted than their white counterparts, and Hispanic women are 1.2 times more likely to go to prison. In a country with an incarceration rate that is already disproportionately high, women are more likely to be incarcerated in America than anywhere else in the world. Proportionately, there are twice as many incarcerated women in American than in China, and four times a many as there are in Russia. Thirty per cent of the world’s female prisoners are American.

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The steep and abrupt rise in the female prison population can largely be attributed to the mass incarceration and social chaos that characterised the ‘War on Drugs.’ President Richard Nixon’s now-infamous catch phrase refers to the largely unsuccessful 1970s initiative to reduce drug use through tougher policies on dealers and users. It is now largely acknowledged that this program disproportionately targeted and incarcerated poor men of colour. While the popular image of a ‘War on Drugs’ victim is that of a low-income, young black or Hispanic man living in one of America’s gritty inner-city neighbourhoods, this program also disproportionately affected minority women and their families. Women are more likely than men to be convicted of drug offenses. The ACLU has asserted that women are disproportionately affected by Nixon-era policies like ‘mandatory minimum sentences, prosecuting low-level drug offenses, increased conviction and imprisonment of those with relationships to drug dealers and mental health problems and histories of sexual abuse.’ Eighty per cent of women incarcerated in state prisons have substance abuse issues, and many were incarcerated for the minor drug offenses that the ‘War on Drugs’ criminalised.

The prevalent image of women in prison has been that of a victim. While this characterisation is inevitably tainted by sexism, there is also truth in it. Female prisoners have largely been convicted for non-violent offenses. As mentioned earlier, many female prisoners are also victims of substance abuse. Many of these women have experienced childhood abuse or were recent victims of sexual assault. Of the girls who have become incarcerated, many were convicted of crimes that adults would not be charged for, like skipping school or running away from home. In fact, the vast majority of incarcerated women can be characterised as non-violent criminals, many of whom have addiction issues or prolific histories of abuse. Women are also likely to be incarcerated on account of their relationships with criminal men. In the context of the ‘War on Drugs,’ many women were incriminated because their boyfriends or husbands gave their name to prosecutors to secure more lenient sentences.

The increased instance of women in prison also has a huge effect on their communities. More than sixty per cent of women in prison have children under the age of eighteen, and these mothers are five times more likely than fathers to have to send their children to foster care while they serve their sentences. Previously convicted mothers are also disproportionately harmed by laws that make it impossible for them to regain custody of their children if they have been in prison for particular lengths of time. Due to these factors, female incarceration has tended to harm families and communities far more than the mass incarnation of men. Although the War on Drugs took a large, and well-documented, toll on the family structure of minority communities, the incarceration of women affects these communities in a more apparent and forceful way as more children are left homeless and orphaned by the sudden absence of their mother.

The increase in the female prison population leads to new challenges in prison reform. Women in prison have distinctly different challenges than male prisoners, especially considering their prominent role in the family and their increased likelihood of being mothers with dependent children. The high price of calls home means that some women’s families spend as much as $30,000 on phone bills while their mothers are incarcerated. There is also a pressing need to address the rights of incarcerated pregnant women. While the practice of shackling women during labour and delivery has been banned in twenty-one states, it is still widely practiced. For example, women have reported being shackled in many states that have banned the practice. The most prominent case was that of Valerie Nabors, who sued the Nevada Department of Corrections for illegally shackling her during her delivery in 2011 and received a $130,000 settlement. In a grisly recounting of events, Nabors described an episode where she suffered several pulled muscles in her groin during labour, a condition that her physician attributed to the shackling.

Women are a steadily growing proportion of America’s colossal prison population. This is the result of a progressive criminalisation of non-violent and addiction-related crimes. Many of these women are victims themselves: of poverty, abuse, sexual assault and addiction. This has resulted in a crisis for families and communities of colour, where young African-American and Hispanic children are increasingly likely to grow up with an incarcerated mother. Considering the integral role of single mother households in low-income, minority communities, this trend has led to desperate situations for some of America’s most vulnerable people.

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