America’s ‘Forgotten Inmates’

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Photo by JobsforFelonsHub via Flickr

Photo by JobsforFelonsHub via Flickr

Last month, video surfaced online of a district court judge in Kentucky going apoplectic over the condition of an individual who had been brought before her for arraignment.

The female defendant – who had been arrested three days earlier for failing to complete a diversionary program for a prior shoplifting offense – appeared to be wearing no pants. (She was actually wearing athletic shorts that were obscured by the hem of her shirt).

The young woman went on to explain, through her public defender, that she was menstruating and that during her stay at Louisville’s Jefferson County Jail she had been denied feminine hygiene products. She also said the jail refused her requests for access to a shower or a change of clothing.

“Am I in the twilight zone?” the shocked judge, Amber Wolf, asked rhetorically. “This is outrageous. Is this for real?”

After placing a call to jail officials demanding an explanation, the judge apologized to the defendant and released her with a $100 fine.

“This is completely inhumane and unacceptable,” the judge said. “I’m sorry you had to go through this.”

Unfortunately, the circumstances revealed in Judge Wolf’s courtroom are all too common for female inmates in America’s jails, according to a study released today by the Vera Institute of Justice.

The report, “Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” was underwritten by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge and provides a stark and long-overdue look at the plight of an ever-increasing number of incarcerated females.

The study is part of a $75 million effort announced last year by the MacArthur Foundation to reform America’s pre-trial detention system by supporting innovative strategies for reducing jail populations.

Among other things, researchers found that women in county lockup are routinely denied feminine hygiene products, lack adequate neonatal services, and rarely receive contraceptive and gynecological care while incarcerated.

Liz Swavola – one of the principal authors of the report and Senior Program Associate for Sentencing and Corrections with the Vera Institute for Justice – explained that the study aims to expose the unique challenges faced by female offenders in a correctional system designed by and for men.

“As jurisdictions are exploring ways to reform their jail systems we really wanted to bring women into the conversation,” said Swavola. “Women are really the low-hanging fruit [of the reform conversation] because they often are often committing low-level offenses.”

Data shows that the number of female inmates in county and municipal jail custody has skyrocketed over the past four decades. In 1970, three-quarters of the nation’s jails didn’t hold a single female inmate, according to the report. Since then, the number of women in the correctional system has grown fourteen-fold, with more than half of females in custody housed in local jails.

The vast majority of these women — 82 percent — are charged with minor or nonviolent offenses, and a significant proportion are jailed for violating terms of probation or parole. Almost all are poor, and – like the majority of jailed inmates, regardless of gender – most are awaiting trial and unable to afford bail.

But female offenders stand out as a particularly vulnerable group.

According to the Vera Institute, 60 percent of women in jail lacked full-time employment at the time of their arrest, and nearly 30 percent were receiving public assistance. That’s compared to fewer than eight percent of male inmates who were on government assistance when they entered custody.

Also, female inmates exhibit higher rates of mental illness than their male counterparts, and more than three-quarters report having suffered sexual or physical abuse at some point in their lifetimes. Few jails have the resources to properly address these issues. Even worse, according to Swavola, jail protocols – such as pat downs, full-body searches and monitored showers – can have the effect of re-traumatizing women who are already being untreated for past abuse.

According to Swavola: “Trauma survivors are likely to perceive the often invasive nature of many daily correctional procedures, and the close quarters in which incarcerated women live, as profoundly threatening, activating the distress that both underlies and accompanies trauma.”

In Philadelphia — which is one of 20 municipalities to receive grant money under the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge — prosecutors say they are working to address these issues through a partnership with the Joseph J. Peters Institute — a nonprofit group that provides treatment to survivors of sexual abuse.

Derek Riker — who heads the Diversion Courts Unit for Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office — says his program aims to identify defendants who are victims of sexual abuse and provide necessary services.

Riker’s office oversees a number of “problem-solving courts” that promote alternatives to detention — including an Accelerated Misdemeanor Program that eliminated 4,880 listed cases from the court calendar last year, according to city data.

Another diversionary program, Project DAWN, connects repeat offenders arrested for prostitution with therapeutic and reentry services.

But Riker says that navigating a social service network that is largely geared toward male offenders presents challenges.

“It’s a resources game that we are playing,” he said. “There is a disproportionate lack of availability of services for women.”

For example, he explained that while the city contracts with roughly half-a-dozen residential programs that accept male offenders on methadone maintenance for opioid addiction, there are only “one or two” available for women.

“Add in a child and things are even trickier, there are really few options,” he said.

Nearly 80 percent of women in jails are mothers, but unlike incarcerated men, they are, by and large, single parents, solely responsible for their young children, the report found.

Meanwhile, women in local jails now represent the fastest growing incarcerated population in United States. Researchers lay much of the blame on the war on drugs and “broken windows” policing — which for decades focused law enforcement attention of low-level “quality of life” crimes.

“While the increased focus on minor offenses stemming from these policies expanded both men’s and women’s risk of arrest, there have been clear gendered impacts in practice that magnified the likelihood of arrests of women,” the report states.

“This is primarily because women are more likely to be involved in minor offenses like simple drug possession — the type of activity targeted by both drug law enforcement and broken windows policing.”

Between 1980 and 2009, for instance, the arrest rate for drug possession or use tripled for women — while the arrest rate for men doubled. By the early 2000s, 50 percent of women in jails were in custody on public order or drug charges.

Yet Swavola says researchers still lack a complete picture of all the factors impacting female mass incarceration.

“The data that does exist is pretty scarce, and most of it’s a decade or two old,” she said.

One mystery is the exponential rise of incarcerated women in some of America’s smallest jurisdictions. While the number of women in jail in major metropolitan areas has remained fairly steady over the past few decades, the incarceration rate for female offenders in counties with populations below 250,000 has surged and is now 31 times what it was in 1970.

“This is one of those areas that further needs more explanation about what’s going on,” said Swavola. “People are finally talking about jails and starting to think about practices and policies to address unnecessary incarceration.

“But it has to be evidence-driven and we just don’t have all those answers yet.”

Christopher Moraff

Christopher Moraff

Christopher Moraff is a Philadelphia-based freelancer and a contributing writer to The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.

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