Unlike Orange Is the New Black’s Piper Kerman, who goes to federal women’s prison, the fastest growing group of American women behind bars are now housed in local jails. A new report shows they face many of the same issues addressed in the show: a system designed for men, getting tampons, and abortion access.
The main takeaway from the study, released Wednesday by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Safety and Justice Challenge, is stunning: In 2014, there were 14 times more women in local jails than in 1970 (110,000 women, up from under 8,000) — representing half of all incarcerated women. The majority of them are women of color (64 percent, mainly African-American or Latina), and most have struggled with drug or alcohol abuse (a vast 82 percent). Most didn’t do anything violent: 82 percent committed property, drug, or public order offenses.
Unlike incarcerated men, women in jail are often primary caregivers: Nearly 80 percent are mothers, most single parents. They’re more than twice as likely to suffer from a serious mental illness as jailed men. If they were abused (86 percent of these women survived sexual violence at some point in their lives), they’re prone to the gendered trauma you’ve seen on Orange Is the New Black and procedures that can trigger PTSD: full-body searches for contraband, or male-guard supervision while showering, dressing, or using the bathroom.
Designed to help men, many pretrial supervision and probation programs actually keep women in jail — as an example, the report spotlights the mom who misses appointments with her parole officer because she can’t afford day care.
The solution? Researchers describe an “urgent need” for more studies in order “to move beyond an almost solely male-focused criminal justice reform landscape.” Jail should become a last resort instead of a stopgap social-service provider, with more constructive alternatives to arrest instead. The study suggests three current programs as models: a specialized family- and community-based probation unit in Connecticut, a Milwaukee program that finds alternatives for low-level offenders, and a Philadelphia pre-trial diversion program that shifts away from jailing poor women only because they can’t afford bail.
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