Treat Women Prisoners with Dignity, Texas Report Says

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women in prison

By Giuseppe Milo via Flickr

Incarcerated women should be treated in a way that acknowledges both their special needs and their dignity, whether by barring shackles when they are pregnant, or by providing them more opportunity to connect with their families and children, says the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC).

A survey of female prisoners in Texas shows that their needs are often ignored by prison administrators, making it more difficult for them to lead productive lives when they are finally released.

The survey, released Tuesday as the second part of a wide-ranging study of Texas’ soaring population of women in prison, found that the majority of those incarcerated were poor, over 81 percent had children, and many had a long history of sexual and physical abuse.

“It is critical to address the drivers of women into incarceration — especially substance abuse, mental health issues, past victimization, and poverty,” said the TCJC report. “Doing so will stop the cycle of reoffending and re-incarceration that comes at great expense to taxpayers, families, and communities.

“Similarly, it is vitally important to treat incarcerated women with dignity and to prepare them for a safe, successful reentry.”

Texas has one of the top 10 highest female incarceration rates in the country, and the number of incarcerated women has increased by a startling 908 percent between 1980 and 2016, compared to an increase in male prisoners of 396 percent over that time, the report said.

Researchers said the experiences of incarcerated women in Texas are not dissimilar to those in other states.

“According to national studies, pregnant inmates are more likely to have complicated and higher-risk pregnancies than women in the general population,” wrote study author Lindsay Linder, noting that this results “in a higher numbers of stillbirths, miscarriages, and ectopic pregnancies.”

The women who responded to the Texas survey reported they had little access to adequate health care.

Some claimed their newborns were taken from them soon after birth.

“I got to hold her [my newborn] for fifteen minutes, and then they took her,” said one prisoner identified as “Angelica.”

“ I would wake up hearing babies crying at 3 o’clock every morning. It messed with me so deep, psychologically. It put me in a deep depression. I know I committed a crime and had to serve my time, but I did the wrong, not my child.”

When asked to rate how well they thought prison officials helped them address their family reunification needs, 71 percent of women responded, “not well at all.”

Some 400 women in jails and prisons around the state responded to the survey, which was sent to some 1,600 females.

As elsewhere in the country, women in Texas jails and prisons have high rates of mental illness and substance abuse. The Texas survey results made clear that incarceration hits hardest at women who are poor, and have been victims of trauma.

Some 58 percent reported being sexually abused or assaulted as a child. More than half of the women respondents reported that their total household income, before taxes, was less than $10,000 per year, well below the 2017 federal poverty level for even a single-member household, and some 80 percent reported that their pre-tax income was less than $30,000 per year.

“For women who enter prison in an already precarious financial condition, justice system involvement can push them and their families even further into financial crisis, as they are prevented from contributing (even meager amounts) to their families, and their likelihood of employment on reentry can be slim with a criminal record,” the report said.

“The earning potential of this population is also stifled by low education levels.”

The report recommended that Texas authorities:

  1. Invest in programs and tools that address women’s unique needs;
  2. Improve conditions of confinement for women, including better treatment for pregnant women and new mothers;
  3. Remove barriers to family unity, including by eliminating costly charges for phone calls from prison, and by creating more welcoming, family-friendly visitation areas.
  4. Better prepare women for release from incarceration, including by providing pre-release programming, linkage to child welfare agencies, and improved aftercare and parole assistance.

“As the survey results reveal, it is vitally important for agency staff, corrections system practitioners, and policy-makers to acknowledge and address women’s unique needs, to implement policies and practices that treat these women with dignity, to ensure they remain in their children’s lives, and to prepare them for a successful return to their families and our communities,” said TCJC executive director Leah Pinney in an introduction to the report.

The full report can be accessed here.

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