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Mass Incarceration is a Women’s Issue, Too

by Jessicah Pierre, OtherWords

Over the last few years, our broken criminal justice system has become a national issue as horrific stories of victims of mass incarceration have made their way into the mainstream media.

The dominant narrative around this issue is usually that it disproportionately affects people of color, particularly men.

Many folks have heard of Kalief Browder, a New York teenager who took his own life after suffering nearly three years in solitary confinement, all for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was never tried.

Fewer people know about Maria Elena Hernandez, a retired California housecleaner who was jailed after police rejected her (accurate) protests that they’d mistaken her for someone else.

Although women represent a small portion of it, they are currently the fastest-growing segment of our prison population.

There are 219,000 women currently incarcerated in the United States. A new report by the Prison Policy Initiative and the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice found that “a staggering number” of them haven’t even been convicted. “More than a quarter of women who are behind bars have not yet had a trial,” they found.

Worse still, there are a number of public health and economic consequences for the conditions that women suffer in prison.

Firstly, many prisons and jails are ill equipped to support the health needs of women, including basic hygiene and reproductive health.

According to the ACLU, pregnant women who are incarcerated are still being shackled during childbirth. Shackling makes the already painful process of childbirth and postpartum recovery even worse.

The American Medical Association and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) have spoken out against this, deeming it medically unsafe. Yet there are at least eight states that have yet to propose legislation to ban this inhumane practice.

Secondly, incarcerating women also has long-lasting economic effects, further exasperating the gender pay gap – and endangering children.

Pretrial detention disproportionately affects women because incarcerated women tend to have lower incomes than incarcerated men, making it even harder to afford cash bail. The Prison Policy Initiative found that the annual median income of women who cannot make bail is $11,071 – and “among those women, black women had a median annual income of only $9,083.”

Since 80 percent of women in jails are mothers and primary caretakers of their children, this can mean incredible hardship for their families.

Criminal justice reform groups are spreading awareness about this system’s devastating impact on women and families. And lawmakers in both major parties are starting to pay attention.

In the summer of 2017, Democratic Senator Kamala Harris from California and Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky introduced the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act, a bill designed to empower states to replace the use of the cash bail system with something fairer. That wouldn’t just be better for families, they wrote in a New York Times op-ed – it could also save American taxpayers roughly $78 billion a year.

It’s important that we keep women at the center of criminal justice reform. As we continue to push for gender equity in this country, we cannot ignore the devastating effects that mass incarceration has on women and their families. 

Ed. Note: There has been no action taken on the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act of 2017 (S.1593) since it was introduced on July 20, 2017 and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary; both that bill and a companion bill in the House (H.R. 4019) remain pending.

This piece was originally published by OtherWords ( on November 1, 2017; it is reprinted with permission, with minor edits.


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