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End the epidemic of mass incarceration of women!

Once again, the celebration of Thanksgiving, in the United States, coincides with the 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women. One way to acknowledge that intersection could be to address the place of mass incarceration of women. The New York Times lead editorial today, “Mass Imprisonment and Public Health”, argues that incarceration has reached epidemic proportions, and, they insist, when they say “epidemic”, they mean that as literal, not figurative. Nebraska legislators this week heard that, in their state, prisons and jails have become the leading institutions for health care provision for those living with mental illness: “In Nebraska, the Douglas County Jail holds the most mentally ill people.” The legislators heard of the mental illness of people as they enter prison and jail, and they heard of the mental health crises engendered by rampant use of solitary confinement. In Boston, on Tuesday, when over a thousand people marched in solidarity with Ferguson residents and protesters, they marched to the South Bay House of Corrections, chanting, “Black lives matter!” and “We see you!”

We see you. Where are the women in this vision?

On Tuesday, inmates at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women reached a settlement with the Virginia women’s prison. In 2012, five prisoners, represented by the Legal Aid Justice Center, sued the prison, claiming that the medical care was so bad that it violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Last week, a Federal judge extended the suit to a class action suit, covering all 1200 prisoners. The judge also ruled that hiring a contractor doesn’t absolve state prison officials of their responsibility to provide adequate health care. He further ruled that the women had serious medical needs. When the State heard that, they caved, and the settlement ensued.

What’s going on here? A Vera Institute report issued last week gives one version, under the title GREATER HEALTH DISPARITIES FOR WOMEN: “The number of women imprisoned in the U.S. increased nearly 6.5-fold from 1980 to 2010. Today, women comprise about 7 percent of all prisoners and 13 percent of all local jail populations, and face a greater burden of disease than incarcerated men, which is partly explained by disturbingly high rates of sexual victimization, substance use, and trauma. An estimated 6 percent are preg­nant, with the majority having conceived within 3 months of release from a prior incarceration. A significant percentage of these women have not seen an obstetrician on a regular basis prior to incarceration and are in unhealthy states due to substance use and malnutrition prior to entering custody. While a structured environment, regular meals, and access to care can improve birth outcomes, according to a recent survey, state prisons often fail to use best prac­tices and established standards when caring for pregnant women.”

Additionally, “Today, about 14.5 percent of men and 31 percent of women in jails have a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder, compared to 3.2 and 4.9 percent respectively in the general population … Women experience higher rates of sexual victimization than men. A 2008 survey found three times as many females (13.7 percent) reported being sexually victimized by another prisoner than males (4.2 percent); and that twice as many women reported being sexually victimized by staff.”

All of this happens under the title of “correction.” What exactly is the State “correcting” when it violates women’s rights, bodies, lives, hopes and dreams, and does so without compunction? What is the public policy here that condemns women on the basis of their gender? Want to end violence against women? End the epidemic of mass incarceration of women. Do it now.

 

(Image Credit: Vera Institute of Justice)

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