The United States of America puts thousands of women in prison, more women than any other country globally. Incarcerated women constitute more than one tenth of the whole prison population. More than one million women are behind bars or in custody –with all forms of correctional supervision considered- affirming this way that the US female population is the fastest growing part of the total incarcerated population, increasing at nearly double the rate of men since 1985.
The American Civil Liberties Union offers striking numbers and evidence on the mass female incarceration across the United States. More precisely, the number of incarcerated women in state and federal prisons and local jails increased from 12,300 in 1980 to 182,271 by 2002. Going up to 4.6% annually between 1995 and 2005, women now comprise a 7% of prison inmates in state and federal prisons.
One of the most obvious reasons of the massive female imprisonment in the US over the past 20 years has been the policy widely known as the war on drugs. The dominant attempt to eradicate drugs and punish strictly and very often without distinctions the different types of drug users led to massive arrests, detention and imprisonment of women, in most of the cases for non-violent drug offences. The war on drugs and the unjustifiably harsh sentences apparently impacted on women more than on men, making the rate of increase for the last decade to reach the figure of 4,8 per cent for women compared to 3,1 per cent for men, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
According to the ACLU findings, 40% of criminal convictions leading to incarceration of women in 2000 were for drug crimes, 34% were for petty and non-violent crimes such as burglary, fraud or larceny and only 18% of imprisoned women have been sentenced because of violent conduct. A percentage of 7% was convicted for public order offences such as vagrancy and drunk driving.
Women in the US prisons are often subjected to painful life conditions and lack respect and a vital recognition of their needs. A big number of incarcerated women are drug addicts in need of treatment and support, which rarely receive. Many of them are also mothers and do not have access to specific treatment services responding to their needs. Nearly two‐thirds of incarcerated women have at least one child, and 77% of these mothers were the primary caregiver for their children before their imprisonment. The available statistics show that over 1.5 million children have a parent in prison and more than 8.3 million children have a parent under correctional supervision.
Apart from mothers, pregnant women also suffer from immense injustices. They are not treated accordingly to their specific pregnancy needs and very often are humiliated and abused. It is hard to believe that in some states in the US, there are still laws that allow for the shackling of women during pregnancy. It has been reported that women can get shackled during medical appointments, screenings and court appearances as well as during labour, under the official justification that shackling is necessary to prevent them from escaping. Who can easily accept that a so called civilized world, the leader in science and technology, and the want-to-be pioneer in ensuring democracy and human rights puts chains and cuffs on pregnant women?
It comes as no surprise that many female inmates experience all the time physical or sexual abuse and violence at the hands of men, including prison staff in many instances. ACLU informs us that 92% of all women in California prisons have been ‘battered and abused’ during their incarceration period, thus making sexual violence and gender inequality in prisons one of the most vital and urgent issues that the US government has to address.
The two problematic aspects of the lives of women in the US prisons are first of all the sexual and emotional abuse in the prison environment and second of all the lack or denial of the appropriate provision of the necessary healthcare services. These devastating aspects of the US prisons deteriorate women’s physical and psychic health, result in high recidivism rates and cause irreparable traumas and injury.
When thinking about women’s emancipation in the modern era, women’s fights for equal rights and equal treatment, women’s achievements in many different fields, it is almost unimaginable that millions of them continue to be the victims of sexual harassment and abuse especially inside prisons, an institution that is an instrument of the state, existing in order to protect the citizens from the dangerous segments of society and to restore justice. Putting vulnerable women behind bars and thereby sending them straight to hell shows that something goes deeply wrong in the current criminal justice system.
In a true and purified justice system, those who can be entitled of a real and severe condemnation should be those who commit crimes against humanity, those who severely cause harm to others and not those –women, in our case- who might make use of substances, or steal because of extreme poverty, or get more drunk than they should be. And in a fair and humane system of justice, the dignity and integrity of anyone found in prison should be above all protected and defended.
*This article was published at international think tank IARS’S 99% campaign blog.