As imprisonment rates for women rise disproportionately across the nation, a group of formerly incarcerated women in Texas has called for family-oriented policies that provide mothers with community-based alternatives that allow them to avoid jail, in addition to major changes to state sentencing guidelines such as sharply lowered penalties for nonviolent drug offenses.
“Nationally around 62 percent of women in prison report being parents of minor children, and 81 percent of women in Texas prisons are mothers,” said a report published by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC).
“The incarceration of a parent is destabilizing and traumatic (and) women must be able to remain in their communities, where they can continue caring for their children while receiving tools to help them succeed and contribute.”
Summing up the policy recommendations of a retreat last fall attended by 60 formerly incarcerated Texas women that was convened by the TCJC, the report, entitled “The Future of Dignity,” is part of a growing effort to single out the special needs of women in prisons and jails.
“Women in the justice system are truly an overlooked population, and the failure to address their specific needs has dire consequences, not only for incarcerated women, but also for their families and communities,” the report said.
Texas, with about 12,000 women behind bars, now records among the top ten highest female incarceration rates in the country, even as the state’s male inmate population has steadily decreased. The highest is Oklahoma (with 157 per 100,000 women), which also has the highest overall rate of imprisonment, according to The Sentencing Project.
The number of females in Texas prisons soared 908 percent between 1980 and 2016, more than double the rate of increase for men—a number that parallels national figures, according to the Prison Policy Intiative.
The TCJC report singles out the drug war as one of the primary reasons for the disproportionate increase in female incarceration.
“Conspiracy and accomplice” laws aimed at breaking up illicit drug organizations “are some of the most egregious examples of the drug war’s harsh treatment of women,” the report said, citing research that showed women are often trapped against their will in drug deals because they are dependent on a male partner for financial support or are loath to imperil family units.
About 3,600 women are currently incarcerated in Texas for nonviolent drug offenses, receiving average sentence lengths of nine years.
The women at the retreat said a change in sentencing guidelines that took account of the circumstances of the offense and their own personal circumstances, such as being the primary family caretaker, could address the disparities.
Providing in-prison and post-prison programs and counseling geared specifically towards women’s needs was also critical, they said.
“Many of the current alternatives to incarceration are also failing women,” the report added, noting that in one Texas jail housing female inmates held for drug or property offenses, about 55 percent of the population had been rearrested for technical violations.
The women complained that many of the probation conditions were difficult to comply with while caring for children.
A system that was “trauma-informed” and “gender-responsive” would also take into account women’s special needs as caregivers.
“Incarcerated women are likely to be isolated from their children due to limitations on visitation, costly prison phone fees, and great distances (often hundreds of miles) between children and the prison units,” the report said.
Currently only one Texas reentry program—a pilot initiated by the TCJC for 31 participants—is specifically designed to help women overcome trauma and connect them with jobs after their release.
The report called on state legislators to pay more attention to the needs expressed by women inside the system.
“The voices of women impacted by Texas’ justice system must be at the forefront of local and statewide conversations around women’s justice,” the report said.
The full report can be downloaded here.