A day without a woman? What about two weeks? What about three months - a year even? These are the lengths of time that families go without a woman in their lives because she is incarcerated in a U.S. jail, often not even convicted of a crime. Today on International Women’s Day, and also a national day of protest, “A Day Without a Woman,” a moment of action for equity, justice and human rights, I hold up the overlooked, forgotten and disappeared - the mothers, sisters, daughters, all 110,000 of them, who are surviving behind bars.
The Vera Institute of Justice recently released a report, “Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” that reveals a stark picture of a criminal justice system that is broken, inhumane and in need of drastic and immediate reforms, especially in the area of women’s incarceration.
Since 1970, due to a drug war dragnet and ‘broken windows policing’, the number of women in jail has increased 14-fold, or from 8,000 to 110,000. The vast majority of women in jail, or 82%, are charged with low-level and nonviolent offenses, mostly property and drug-related. They are disproportionately people of color, poor, survivors of sexual violence and trauma and have high rates of mental illness and substance use. Two thirds of these woman are Black, Latinx or other racial and ethnic backgrounds. And nearly 80% of women in jail are mothers and single parents who are solely responsible for their young children.
As former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in her remarks at the White House Women and the Criminal Justice System Convening in 2016, “Put simply, we know that when we incarcerate a woman we often are truly incarcerating a family, in terms of the far-reaching effect on her children, her community, and her entire family network.” Even incarcerating a woman for a short period of time can break up a family, increase hardships and destabilize her income and ability to provide for her family.
Moreover, incarceration can be a deeply traumatizing experience as women are more likely than men to experience sexual victimization in jail. Jails also fail to provide women with basic reproductive health needs like menstrual hygiene products, contraceptive care and abortion services. Pregnant women receive little to no obstetric care, experience shackling during childbirth and endure post-delivery separation within 48 hours.
Women must grapple with systems, practices and policies designed for men. The current push to end mass incarceration focuses its research on men and then applied to women populations as an afterthought. Evidence-based programs to end the ballooned arrest and incarceration of women and supporting them after their release are simply unavailable.
A foundation for reform exists. The Drug Policy Alliance and others have been furiously working to transform the criminal justice system in ways that put people first. These efforts and coalitions can potentially set the stage for further, well-crafted programs and practices to stem the flow of women cycling through the nation’s local jails. But first, however, justice systems, legislators and criminal justice reform advocates must commit to bringing women into the discussion. Deftly stated by the Vera Institute’s report, we must “move beyond an almost solely male-focused criminal justice reform landscape into a future in which women are brought more centrally into frame.”
On this International Women’s Day, I strongly urge fellow activists to resist and remember, to protest in the names of those that can’t, to honor the courage and struggle of all women, especially those that are unjustly and inhumanely behind bars.
Melissa Franqui is the manager of communications and marketing for the Drug Policy Alliance.