Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Women Behind Bars

It's the kind of statistic that deserves repeated mention: America's prisons and jails now hold just under two million persons, or 1 in every 142 U.S. residents.

To put America's incarceration rates into perspective, it's worth bearing in mind from 1990 to 2000, U.S. prisons and jails grew by almost 800,000 prisoners, or nearly 1,600 new prisoners per week.

More Americans went to prison or jail during the Clinton administration than during any other past presidential administration, and there are no indications that current President George W. Bush, whose own home state relies heavily on incarceration as a popular method of punishment, would want to change the "tough on crime" approach his predecessors began.

As it continues in its upward climb, America's imprisonment phenomenon is both astonishing and unparalleled. And it's taken on dimensions and produced societal ripple effects that citizens are only beginning to understand.

One of the relatively downplayed dimensions of the incarceration craze has been the high annual growth rate of women behind bars. It's a higher average annual growth rate than that of male prisoners _ 8.1 to 6.2% according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

And what is it, exactly, that the American criminal justice system hopes to accomplish by locking away nonviolent female offenders for multiyear (and sometimes multidecade) sentences, far from their kids, their families and their communities? And precisely what kind of life is it that prosecutors, juries and judges are sending these women off to lead, behind bars and steel doors, under the watchful eyes of mostly male guards who monitor their every move?

It's a question that Amy Ralston, a tall, poised 41yearold woman with visceral memories of a hard decade spent behind bars, thinks about every day.

Ralston's unwitting journey toward incarceration began in 1989, when her husband Sandy Pofahl was arrested by German federal agents on charges of smuggling the popular rave drug, Ecstasy.

A wealthy Dallas businessman whose ownership of numerous successful computer, realestate and mortgage lending companies covered for what was his most profitable venturea major international Ecstasy manufacturing and distribution ringSandy's arrest came as an enormous shock to Amy.

Not that she professed innocence when it came to the drug. She had taken ecstasy with Sandy. She liked the warm, enveloping high, and, as a vivacious 20 something, she enjoyed a good time and the occasional, mindaltering trip. But, says Amy, she knew absolutely nothing about his drug dealing operation.

Amy's complete lack of involvement in her husband's drugdealing is something that the federal agents appear to have known, too. As the joint GermanU.S. DEA operation to bust up the MDMA ring unfolded and Sandy's actual business partners began to be rounded up, Amy was initially left alone.

But then the faxes started coming. From his prison in Germany, Sandy was writing letters that were sent to his wife, pleading with her in coded language to assist in the process of recovering and hiding his Ecstasy profits so that he could post bail.

It was wishful thinking on his part. Sandy was never granted bail. But Amy hoped for the best, and, in an unfortunate move that was to end up costing her freedom, she went about locating the cash to procure bail money.

The feds were quickly onto her. Eventually arrested for recovering and spending some of that money, Amy refused to roll over and incriminate her husband. Snitching might have won her freedom, but she wouldn't allow herself to say anything against Sandy. And there was, quite simply, no one else for her to tattle on.

But "snitching" is what the rules of the American drug war are all about, and when Amy didn't play by the rules, she got hit hard. Thanks to the triplewhammy of mandatory minimum sentencing and a "conspiracy" charge amendment to the original 1986 AntiDrug Abuse Act (which allows federal prosecutors to go after spouses and lovers for all the crimes their honeys committed, as long as they somehow "conspired" in the committing of that crime), Amy was sentenced to a staggering 24year term in federal prison.

Other spouses have ended up in prison for far lesser forms of `conspiracy' than Amy's after the fact money recovering activities: a conspiracy charge can result from taking down a phone message, driving your man to the bank, or signing for a FedEx package containing drugs.

Unlike her husband, who informed enough to earn a lenient sentence in a German prison (and, most notably, no prison time in the U.S.), Amy was locked away as if she had masterminded the entire Ecstasy operation.

Once she got to FCI Dublin in California, Amy found that she had plenty of company, as she had joined the swelling ranks of women incarcerated in the U.S. on drugrelated charges.

Today, of the two million prisoners in the U.S., roughly a quarter are serving time for drug convictions. All totaled, there are now almost 93,000 women incarcerated in state and federal prisons. In 1997, 34.4 percent of female state prisoners had a drug charge as their most serious offense. That figure was 10.5% in 1979. And another 71,000 women sit in local jails, awaiting sentencing or doing time for shorter sentences. Taken together, most of these women are African American and Latino.

But prison welcomes "criminals" of all colors and cultures; poverty, histories of abuse and low literacy levels are the common denominators that often conspire together to put a prison cell in the path of a woman's life.

In some ways, Amy was an anomalous addition to the picture of female incarceration. And it may have been her smarts, her education, her persistence, and maybe even her fairhaired, sophisticated look that helped in getting a 1999 story written in Glamour Magazine that, in turn, generated enough public outrage to get her out.

In total, former President Clinton ordered the release of six women locked up in federal prison on drug charges in 2000. Amy was one of them. After losing her entire thirties to the federal prison system, she walked out of prison a free woman in July 2000.

Yet Amy's jubilation was tempered by the anguish she felt for the women she left behind, and the trauma inflicted by the "degradation of incarceration."

Amy spent a quiet several months on the outside trying to rebuild her life, grappling with a kind of prisoner's survivor's guilt at leaving her cellmate and her prison friends behind.

"I'm free," she says. "But a huge piece of me is still in there."

Her friends behind bars still plead with her to help them get out. Most are locked up on drug charges, many on the kind of "conspiracy" charge that put Amy away for ten years. Most are mothers, which isn't surprising considering that 60 percent of female prisoners in federal prisons and twothirds of women in state prisons have at least one child under 18.

In August last year, the Justice Department reported that nearly 1.5 million kids have a parent in prison, a sixty percent increase since 1991. A majority of those kids are under 10. And a majority of parents locked up in the state system reported never having a personal visit with their offspring since being locked up.

Amy was able to help one woman, an immigrant mother of several children, get out. But there's only so much that she can do, she says in a tired voice. She's one person. She admits she feels overwhelmed. She's grieving, both for herself and for the women she's left behind.

While she was at FCI Dublin, Amy knew of two women who aborted their own fetuses in the showers of the facility. The fathers were prison employees, probably guards. The sexual contact was undoubtedly anything but consensual.

Sexual abuse in prisons is indeed one the biggest and most persistent problems facing female prisoners across the country. It's a big enough problem to have warranted several Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports, the most recent of which, Abuse of Women in Custody, is a 332page tome that breaks down statebystate policies and practices pertaining to sexual abuse and rape in women's prisons. (See p.6 for details.)

Just two years ago, 14 states had no law prohibiting sexual relations between prisoners and guards. Today, six states, including Alabama, Minnesota, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Wisconsin, still have no such law.

In eight states and the federal prison system, sexual misconduct on the part of guards isn't considered a felony. In 19 others, sexual abuse laws pertaining to female prisoners do not cover all forms of sexual abuse, including oral sex and sexual threats.

Back at FCI Dublin, Amy remembers, there were the signs informing prisoners to stop defecating in the shower. Why, I wondered, would the incarcerated women do this? Drugs.

Women would ingest drugs smuggled in plastic baggies during visits, and later defecate to produce the product for use or for sale.

"There are plenty of drugs in prison," Amy affirms. "If you can't even stop drugs from coming into the prison, how can you stop them from coming into the U.S.?"

The easy flow of drugs in and throughout our country, as any drug policy expert or prison warden will tell you, is the thing that's keeping our prisons filled to capacity. Largely due to strict drug sentencing laws including mandatory minimums for possession of certain types of drugs, the number of female prisoners has increased 110% since 1990. In 1998 alone, there were some 3.2 million arrests of women.

And women who enter the prison system are not usually in the best of health. They come in manifesting moderate to chronic health problems, ranging from asthma to heart disease, and finding that the quality of care available to them is often substandard. (The consistent lack of access to quality care has formed the basis for numerous lawsuits across the country while in California, the largestever class action lawsuit filed over prison conditions in April accuses the state of systematically ignoring the medical needs of prisoners. The lawsuit comes after the death of eight female inmates late last year in one California prison.)

Incarcerated women are, in fact, three times more likely to be infected with HIV than incarcerated men, and the proportion of women prisoners with HIV is 30 times higher than the proportion of HIV+ women in the general population. Most of those women are also coinfected with hepatitis C (HCV), a chronic and infectious disease that can lead to serious liver disease and death.

Anne S. De Groot, MD, the cochair of the HIV Education Prison Project at Brown University's AIDS Program, has written that the linkages between childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, drug use and sex work explain the prevalence of HIV (and HCV) infection among incarcerated women.

Consider that almost half of the women in the nation's jails and interviews told BJS interviewers in 1999 that they had been physically or sexually abused before their imprisonment, compared with 10% of incarcerated men.

It's impossible to generalize about any population of people, but when we talk about female prisoners, many criminologists agree that women in prison are often battered women. Drug addicted women. Sexually abused women. Uneducated women. Mentally ill women.

Here's where things get truly disturbing. If the average person had the opportunity, like I've had, to walk through a women's prison and, specifically, a supermax security housing unit where women are locked up for 23 hours a day in tiny, concrete cells, they'd frankly be disturbed by what they would see.

Depressed faces are turned toward TV sets blaring daytime talk shows and pent-up anger wound up into tiny, 5'3" frames. Worse yet, women staring out, unblinking, from their isolation cells, doped up on heavy doses of psychotropics, or else engaged in nonstop blathering and screaming. Women with clear and apparent mental illnesses, wasting away in prison settings totally illequipped for the kind of psychiatric care these women need and deserve.

There are women behind bars who are mentally healthy, too. Women with resilient spirits and relatively strong selfesteem. And women who have done serious and violent crimes for which they should be doing time. There's no need to paint the picture with one brush stroke.

But there's a need to examine the picture closely. In 1999, the BJS released another one of its invaluable reports, this one concerning mentally ill offenders. With its disclosure that 283,800 mentally ill prisoners were locked behind bars in 1998, it was certainly something worth reporting on.

Yet the most interesting parts of the report remained largely unexamined. The highest rates of mental illness actually manifested among EuroAmerican females in state prisons (29% of that particular ethnic/ gender demographic). Stunning a finding as it was then, it is now: almost 40% of EuroAmerican female state prisoners age 24 or younger were further identified as mentally ill.

African American women and Latinos were not that far behind, and across the board, incarcerated women demonstrated more mental illness than men. Altogether, 78% of mentally ill females reported prior physical or sexual abuse.

Once behind bars, women (and men) with mental illness don't tend to get better. It's something that Dr. Terry Kupers, the psychiatrist and author of Prison Madness [see p.34 to purchase], has been making the point about for many years. The prison experience and all of its attendant stressors won't make mentally ill people healthy, and it won't make American society safer or better in the long run.

Most prisoners do get out, eventually. Most prisoners want to live normal, healthy, productive lives. Is the American criminal justice system trying its hardest to give them the skills to do so? Not by a longshot.

"There are complex pathways that shape women's criminality," says Barbara Owen, a sociologist in the department of criminology at CSU Fresno. "[Our] society has an unwillingness to look at the real problems of women ... and prisons are illequipped to see to these problems. We expect prisons to do too much."

There's no need to romanticize the lives or the plight of prisoners of either gender in order to understand this concept. Things won't get better, for them or for us, until we put more of our resources and attention into education, job skills, drug treatment on demand, universally accessible mental and physical health care. Decriminalizing sex work and drugs would also go a long way toward diverting criminal justice dollars and prison resources toward more useful purposes, and some states, including New Mexico (under Republican Governor Gary Johnson), have finally begun taking steps in that direction, at least insofar as drug use and the treatment of addiction are concerned.

Are these truly radical suggestions? Numerous Scandinavian and Western European countries seem to have figured out key components of this formula many decades ago, and their nations are hardly overrun with crazed, violent, dope smoking prostitutes.

Nor is crime anything that any of us should have to live with. But how we define crime and how we treat people whose primary crime is against themselvesis another matter altogether.

[Silja J.A. Talvi is a Seattlebased freelance journalist and essayist who writes frequently on prison and criminal justice issues for publications including In These Times, The Progressive and High Times. This essay first appeared on AlterNet, the alternative syndication service for weekly and progressive publications nationwide.]

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login