Women's Prison Population Growing

By Hazley, Donna | National NOW Times, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Women's Prison Population Growing


Hazley, Donna, National NOW Times


The population of women in prison in the United States is growing at a remarkable rate, and the rate of increase of women has grown faster than that of men each year since 1981.

At the end of 1988, more than 32,000 women were in state and federal prisons; the number has jumped 244 percent in the past eight years. The number of male prisoners has increased only 188 percent during the same period.

According to Amnesty International, one out of three women in prison or jail is being held for drug offenses rather than for violent crimes. Many are charged as accessories to crimes committed by men. The minor crimes that carry long prison sentences (mandatory minimums) involve drug conspiracy.

Take the case of Kemba Smith, who was sentenced to 24 years for being what the federal prosecutor described as a "minor player" in a drug conspiracy case. The judge who sentenced Kemba did not believe that the Battered Women Syndrome existed. The judge decided that the 20-year-old college student should have been able to think rationally despite the beatings and mental abuse by her violent batter/boyfriend. After she spent six years in prison, the overwhelming support of people from around the world led to a presidential pardon and the release of Kemba Smith in January 2001. The struggle is not over, however. Countless numbers of Kembas remain in the prison system

Imprisoned Women Face Poor Conditions, Abuse

Women are confined in a system designed, built and run by men for men, according to a 1990 issue of Time magazine. Women's prisons are frequently ill-equipped and poorly financed. Medical treatment is often unavailable, and inconsistent. Women suffer filthy conditions, overcrowding and harsh treatment.

According to Human Rights Watch(HRW), women incarcerated in the 170 state prison facilities across the United States are, more often than not, guarded by men. Under the United Nations' Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, guards are precluded from holding contact positions in which they are in constant physical proximity to prisoners of the opposite sex. However, since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, U.S. employers have been prohibited from denying a person a job solely on the basis of sex unless the person's sex is reasonably necessary to the performance of the specific job. Male officers working in women's prisons outnumber their female counterparts by at least two to one and in some facilities, three to one.

In interviews with HRW, women charged that male correctional employees rape female prisoners and sexually assault and abuse them. Male officers not only threaten and use physical force, but also use their authority to withhold goods and privileges from female prisoners to compel them to have sex. In some instances, women are impregnated as a result of prison employees' sexual misconduct. These women sometimes face additional abuses in the forms of inappropriate segregation, denial of adequate healthcare, and pressure to seek an abortion.

Some women enter correctional facilities pregnant and give birth while incarcerated, andonly a handful of states allows them to keep their children with them for even limited periods of time. In most situations, the infant is removed soon after birth.

When women are imprisoned, they and their families suffer tremendously. Forced separation from their children is for some women the most painful punishment they endure. Amnesty International reports that some children go to live with relatives in the hope that they might stay in touch with their mothers. Others are sent to foster care where parental rights may be terminated. …

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