Women, Girls, and Mass Incarceration: A Hidden Problem

Goodwin-Headshot11By Michele Goodwin

Mass incarceration’s invisible casualties are women and children.  Too often, they are the forgotten in a tragic American tale that distinguishes the United States from all peer nations.  Simply put, the U.S. incarcerates more of its population than anywhere else in the world–and by staggering contrast.  While the U.S. locks away over 700 men and women for every 100,000, here are comparable figures from our peer nations:  England (153 in 100,000), France (96 in 100,000), Germany (85 in 100,000), Italy (111 in 100,000), and Spain (159, in 100,000).  The U.S. accounts for less than 5% of the globes population, yet locks away nearly 25%.  Sadly, this has grave social, medical, psychological, and economic consequences.

Congressional Briefing on Women, Girls, and Mass Incarceration

In a recent essay, published in the Texas Law Review, I explained that, the population of women in prison grew by 832% in the period between 1977-2007—nearly twice the rate as men during that same period. More conservative estimates suggest that the rate of incarceration of women grew by over 750% during the past three decades. This staggering increase now results in more than one million incarcerated in prison, jail, or tethered to the criminal justice system as a parolee or probationer in the U.S. The Bureau of Justice Statistics underscores the problem, explaining in a “Special Report” that “[s]ince 1991, the number of children with a mother in prison has more than doubled, up 131%,” while “[t]he number of children with a father in prison has grown [only] by 77%.”

Who knew?  Unfortunately, much about mass incarceration is framed as a male issue–a concern for which the government has attempted to address thankfully through bi-partisan efforts.  Sorely missing is an analysis about what happens to girls and women–such as coercive plea-bargaining that leverages their children against them, the brutality of rape behind bars, forced sterilizations, infected water, solitary confinement, physical brutality, and even managing breast, cervical, and ovarian cancers while locked away.  Too many women  die behind bars due to medical neglect, but no one talks about it, because too few people know about it. And nobody talks about children being raised with their mothers in prisons and jails.  But that too is a new normal.

These costs are extreme to human life and health.  Moreover, much of this is inhumane and economically inefficient.  Two-thirds of those incarcerated are for non-violent offenses–much of it related to drug use.  However, these women and girls suffer in the most degrading fashion that costs taxpayers and enormous load.  In 2010, the U.S. federal government planned to expend $15 billion dollars in its War on Drugs, at a rate of $30,000 per minute and $1,800,000 per hour.  By 2012 the White House revised its drug budget structure, increasing its National Drug Control Budget to $26.2 billion—a dramatic increase from two years prior.   

Fortunately, on Tuesday, February 23, 2016, there will be a Congressional Briefing on Women, Girls, and Mass Incarceration.  The briefing will be chaired by me and feature Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, one of the world’s leading experts on the health care of women behind bars, as well as Nusrat Choudhury, whose legal advocacy exposes modern day debtors prisons operating in states across the country and how they uniquely harm women, and Amy Fettig whose investigations on solitary confinement reveals a hidden system of women being confined 22 hours per day for days, weeks, and months on end.  For those who would like to attend the briefing, it will be at: CAPITOL VISITORS CENTER, HVC-201 AB from noon to 1pm.

Ultimately, we must all recognize responsibility to overhaul our criminal justice system and the policies that drive it.  The Drug War is a failed effort and the collateral consequences reach a level of absurdity, including children being raised in foster care and exiting that system into homelessness, poverty, and incarceration.  It’s time to end the cycle.

Michele Goodwin is the Chancellor’s Professor of Law at the University of California, Irvine.  You can follow Michele on Twitter @michelebgoodwin or at the Huffington Post

Michele Goodwin

Michele Bratcher Goodwin is a renowned scholar, advocate, and author who has devoted her career to uplifting the voices, social conditions, and rights of women and children around the globe. A widely cited legal authority in constitutional law, health law, and women’s rights, her writings have been consulted by courts, legislators, government agencies, and civil society organizations. She has advised or given testimony before Congress and state governments as well as the United States’ Uniform Law Commission on privacy, the regulation of the human body, and reproductive health.

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