Academia has a duty to shed light on the voices of micro audiences, especially those stripped of humanity as a result of a system that neglects to balance punishment with the opportunity for redemption. Let’s delve into the deplorable reality incarcerated women are subject to given that they are the fastest growing segment of the prison population increasing at approximately double the rate of men since 1985. Research on female imprisonment is crucial to understanding the comprehensive reverberations of mass incarceration and to disentangling the practices that precede criminalization. From an absolutionist perspective, policy that works to reduce and ostensibly eradicate the repercussions that the carceral system reaps on our society can no longer deem this augmenting population irrelevant. Drawing attention to the necessity of research surrounding female incarceration is designed to underscore the shadow system of laws and regulations that dehumanize those behind bars and profit off the misfortune of their loved ones utilizing mandatory sentencing laws and restrictions on prison visitations.
If we were to ascertain the situation purely utilizing statistics, we would see that incarceration rates of women show a persistent inequity. In 2010, Native American women made up 0.7 percent of women in the United States but 2.5 percent of women incarcerated. White women born in 2001 have a 1 in 111 chance of incarceration, while Latinx women have a 1 in 45 chance. White women are locked up only half as often as Black women. We cannot ignore the racial disparities that exist in our nation’s flawed system.
Despite the fact that fewer women are incarcerated than men, that does not make the consequences of the carceral burden less consequential. Communities across the nation – the South in particular – are reliant on the care of women, especially Black women. Over incarceration of Black, Indigenous, and women of color at astronomical rates, a cycle of generational trauma and community erosion ensues. The current carceral system exacerbates inequality which means that if fewer women are caught up in the system, the overall population is less generalizable to the general public. Thus, the lived experiences of women shed light on the experiences of incarcerated peoples at large.
Over 80 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system in the United States are sexually or physically abused prior to their time spent in jail. With an overwhelming display of sexual and physical abuse transpiring in every state, it is no surprise that these victims resort to drugs or alcohol to relieve abuse-related trauma which lends to higher rates of substance abuse. Along the same lines, mental health disorders are pervasive in this imprisonment arena. The cycle of abuse against women in the justice system needs to be addressed and corrected.
In the state of New York, incarcerated women are facing matters that risk their lives at the Rose M. Singer Center, the women’s jail on Rikers Island. Women locked up here have been reported to be housed in unsanitary conditions and denied medical and mental health services. Some women have been raped and sexually abused by guards and others have even died in custody. Layleen Polcano, a 27-year-old transgender woman, died from a fatal epileptic seizure while she was in solitary confinement and the guards failed to respond in a timely fashion. New York is not the only state with a despicable track record of human rights abuses. There is an enormous amount of suffering and torment in jails across the country. It seems as if these conditions are inherent to the American justice system.
We must implore our policymakers to think critically about incarceration and gender in the context of reformation with an ambitious agenda. Organizations across the country are working to increase the visibility and rights of incarcerated women, audacious in face of harrowing conditions these women face. For instance, there was a New York campaign entitled “#BEYONDRosies to close the Rose M. Singer Center with a goal to “improve the lives of women and gender expansive New Yorkers affected by mass incarceration.” Additionally, the Women’s Community Justice Association transformed the Lincoln Correctional Facility on West 110th Street in New York City into a Women’s Center for Justice. The center focuses on healing mechanisms, family reunification, skill building, and healing. Humanity must grapple with the repercussions of incarceration on their communities.
Even beyond the United States, there is a dire need for reform in justice systems. The connection between violence and women in prison was encapsulated by the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women who claimed “the undeniable link between violence and incarceration, and also the continuum of violence during and after incarceration, is a reality for many women globally.” There must be a global movement that concedes to the unfortunate truth that women are disproportionately subjected to higher levels of violence compared to their male counterparts. Once there is acknowledgement, the international community can begin galvanizing change.