In 1977, more than 11,200 women were incarcerated in the U.S. By 2013, that number rose 900 percent to approximately 111,300 women behind bars, according to the Women In Prison Project. These incarceration rates are unparalleled by any other country in the world: Just five percent of women in the world live in the U.S., but the U.S. accounts for nearly 30 percent of the world's incarcerated women.
On July 18, Republicans and Democrats spoke to a packed house of advocates at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., about the best ways to respond to the alarming explosion of incarcerated women in the United States.
The conference, “Women Unshackled,” centered on the controversial practice in many prisons of shackling incarcerated pregnant women as they give birth.
“Anyone who thinks you can escape while giving birth has never given birth,” explained Susan Molinari, Vice President of Public Policy and Government Affairs for Google, a sponsor of the event.
A new bill proposed by two of the senators in attendance — the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act — would abolish the practice of shackling women during child birth, and seek to restore the humanity of women behind bars by giving them free access to phone calls and tampons and protecting them from sexual exploitation within the prison — by restricting, for instance, opposite-sex strip searches.
The bill would also expand trauma-informed care for prisoners by providing trainings to every correctional officer and Bureau of Prisons employee who regularly interacts with prisoners.
The vast majority of incarcerated women have a history of trauma. According to the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, 75 percent of incarcerated women have suffered severe physical abuse by an intimate partner during adulthood, and 82 percent have endured serious physical or sexual abuse as children.
Though eighty percent of incarcerated women are mothers, and though women are the fastest-growing incarcerated population, advocates and politicians have often overlooked the specific realities for incarcerated women in reform efforts. The “Women Unshackled” conference sought to change that by bringing together a myriad of advocates — from entrepreneurs and politicians to nonprofit leaders and formerly incarcerated women.
During her speech, Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California, encouraged attendees to push through the polarizing rhetoric that insists politicians are either “tough” on crime or “soft” on crime. “I want to be smart on crime,” she said, explaining that a “smart” on crime approach means less incarceration and more rehabilitation, especially given that the majority of incarcerated women are nonviolent offenders. It costs taxpayers $33,000, on average, to lock one person up in a maximum-security prison for a year. Alternately, drug treatment costs $4,700 and community mental health treatments cost $10,000.
Harris directed the hundreds of attendees to look out the window, at the American flags in front of the Capitol, as she segued into a story about her recent visit to California’s Chowchilla prison, the largest facility for women in the world. During her visit, Harris learned that the women of Chowchilla prison produce many of the flags we wave across the country. She said she walked away from the prison workshop thinking, “Isn’t it part of who we are as Americans that we believe in second chances… and redemption?”
Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican from Georgia, echoed Harris’ sentiments on redemption, referencing his own Christian faith as a pastor and former military chaplain. He advocated for restoring hope to incarcerated women by improving life-skills training within prisons.
He also encouraged the audience to see the God-given humanity of incarcerated people.
“This is about M&M’s to me: Money and morals,” he said. “It’s about saving money and seeing people as I believe they were created — with infinite worth. And if I don’t believe that, then something’s wrong with me.”