National NOW Times >> Summer, 2001 >> Article
Women's Prison Population
by Donna Hazley, NOW Foundation - Womenís Health
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
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 batterer/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.
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. Womenís prisons are frequently ill-equipped and poorly financed.
Medical treatment is often unavailable, and inconsistent. Women suffer
filthy conditions, overcrowding and harsh treatment.
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 Nationsí 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 personís sex is reasonably necessary to the performance of
the specific job. Male officers working in womenís prisons outnumber their
female counterparts by at least two to one and in some facilities, three
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 employeesí sexual misconduct. These
women sometimes face additional abuses in the forms of inappropriate
segregation, denial of adequate health care, and pressure to seek an
Some women enter correctional facilities pregnant and
give birth while incarcerated, and only 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
Womenís Violent Crimes Fundamentally Different From
Although women are less likely to be involved in homicide
than men, they tend to receive longer sentences for that crime, even if
committed in self-defense. Women are more likely to harm their male
partners than to kill anyone else. Men are more likely to perpetrate
homicides against individuals outside their own relationships. Still,
menís rate of murder against female partners is nearly double the rate of
women murdering male partners. According to several authors on the issue
of violence against women, homicide by women is often a response to
preceding years of abuse from men.
Annually, more than two million
women are battered by male partners. Battered women who attempt to leave
abusive relationships are often attacked and threatened with murder or
more violence. Battered women who resort to homicide have often tried
repeatedly to obtain protection from their abusers. The same legal system
that fails or refuses to protect battered women, prosecutes them
vigorously when they fight back.
Angela Brown, a social
psychologist who has conducted research in this area, concludes, "Women
often face harsher penalties than men who kill their partners." According
to Shelly Bannister, over one-third of all female children have been or
will be abused by men inside and outside the family. She argues in a
current criminal justice journal that "women who kill or attempt to kill
their abusers are incarcerated for several reasons... to deter other women
from believing that they can similarly resist... to reinforce in women the
belief that they have no right to defend against or resist male attacks...
to protect and assert power over women."
NOW Chapters, Activists
Make a Difference
For several years, the Lansing Area (MI) NOW
chapter had a Women in Prison Task Force, spearheaded by an advocate who
originally came to the chapter on behalf of one woman she believed was
unjustly imprisoned, but soon took on the rights of all women in prison.
Conditions for the women improved slightly simply by the fact that someone
was watching and advocating for them. But the Task Force did more,
organizing pickets across from the prison that involved activists from
other chapters. The Lansing Area chapter also started a defense fund and a
petition drive that raised community awareness.
Chair of the Task Force found a powerful attorney who took the case of the
woman who had first come to her attention, and the woman, who was wrongly
imprisoned for life without parole, was eventually freed.
1970s Westchester (NY) NOW connected with the Bedford Hills Correctional
Facility and helped form a chapter still existing there.
wasnít easy trying to get prison officials to cooperate. But we had an
insider, an advisor to the women, who would coordinate meetings, pass out
literature and help promote wellness within the facility," says Gerri
Miller of Bronx NOW.
NOW Vice President Karen Johnson met with the
women in Bedford Hills a few years ago at a Special Event Day that
involved activists from several chapters getting together at the facility.
"Unless you have the opportunity to visit them in prison, unless
you have a relative there, itís easy to forget women in prison. And few
programs help them make the transition when they leave," says Miller.
"There is so much we could do."
Some facts on domestic violence provided by the
California Coalition for Battered Women:
Six million women are
beaten by their husbands or boyfriends each year in the United States;
1500 of them die.
In the United States, a woman is more likely to
be assaulted, injured, raped, or killed by a male partner than any other
According to the Surgeon General Report, battering is
the number one cause of injury to women in the U.S. Attacks by husbands on
wives result in more injuries requiring medical treatment than rapes,
muggings and auto accidents combined.
Violence will occur in at
least two-thirds of all marriages.
Thirty percent of female
homicide victims are killed by their husbands or boyfriends.
million children are affected by domestic violence each
Domestic violence occurs among all races and socioeconomic
Almost 90% of the hostage-taking in the U.S. is domestic
violence. Most hostages are the wives or female partners of hostage-takers
although children too are frequently taken hostage.
that battered women receive are at least as serious as injuries suffered
in 90% of violent felony crimes; yet under the state law, they are most
often classified as misdemeanors.