How many women are forced to give birth in solitary confinement?

We the people must be persuaded that no child should be born in a solitary confinement cell. We the people must be persuaded that no woman should have to give birth while in solitary confinement. Who are we? We are the United States of America. In this man’s land, pregnant women prisoners have less than no reproductive justice or rights. Instead of care, they receive neglect and abuse that crosses over into torture.

Last week, Nicole Guerrero filed a lawsuit against the Wichita County Jail, in Texas, and others for having forced her to give birth in solitary. The baby died. It’s a terrible story, and it’s an increasingly common one. While much of the focus has been, and will be, on the details of the case, consider as well the larger, national framework. Nicole Guerrero is not an exception. She is the face of the everyday violence against women, and in particular against pregnant women, in the prisons and jails of the United States.

Last year, in response to the Pelican Bay hunger strike in California, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E. Méndez, found nearly 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement, although the numbers are difficult to determine. He urged the United States to suspend prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement and to consider the rights and needs of the vulnerable: “I urge the US Government to adopt concrete measures to eliminate the use of prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement under all circumstances, including an absolute ban of solitary confinement of any duration for juveniles, persons with psychosocial disabilities or other disabilities or health conditions, pregnant women, women with infants and breastfeeding mothers as well as those serving a life sentence and prisoners on death row.”

Pregnant women, women with infants, breastfeeding mothers: these are the most recent targets of mass incarceration, those charged with “fetal endangerment.” As charges against pregnant women both rise and intensify, more and more pregnant women are going into the prison system, and the vast majority end up in local and county jails, or in State prisons, like the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama. Inevitably, more women will undergo childbirth in solitary, and more children will be born in solitary.

When Delegate Mary Washington, of Baltimore, first heard of a pregnant woman prisoner, en route to the hospital, being shackled, she said, “Wait. What? What do you mean … shackled?” The woman telling herthe story explained she meant exactly what she said. Pregnant women prisoners, women prisoners in childbirth, are routinely shackled. It’s part of the new normal.

Nicole Guerrero is a signature of the next phase of that new normal. She is neither anomaly nor exception, and despite her pain, anguish and suffering, she is not the stuff of high drama. The national history of infamy is not made up of tragedy, but rather an endless series of ordinary episodes that combine to form normalcy. Our normalcy. We are the people who demand to be persuaded that there’s something wrong with a system that forces women to go through childbirth while in solitary confinement. We are the people who demand to be persuaded that the destruction of women is a bad thing. Remember that.


(Photo Credit:

The growth of women’s incarceration in the United States

Yesterday, the National Research Council released The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. It’s a useful, long, exhaustive, not particularly surprising, review of the literature on mass incarceration in the United States over the past four decades. Media discussions have managed to avoid the report’s sections on women. Here’s a summary of what the report says about women’s incarceration:

For four decades, women have been the fastest growing prison population. The United States has one third of the world’s female prison population. The majority of women in prison are mothers. Women’s prisons are historically `under resourced’ and it’s only getting worse. Women prisoners face particularly high rates of sexual violence from prison staff. Women prisoners have exceptionally high rates of PTSD, mental illness, and alcohol and drug dependence. Women prisoners have astronomically, shockingly high rates of abnormal pap smears.

Here are excerpts from the report:

“25-40 percent of female inmates have abnormal pap smears, compared with 7 percent of women in the general population.”

“More than 200,000 women are in jails or prisons in the United States, representing nearly one-third of incarcerated females worldwide. The past three to four decades have seen rapid growth in women’s incarceration rates—a rise of 646 percent since 1980 compared with a 419 percent rise for men”

“Incarceration rates have increased more rapidly for females than for males since the early 1970s. In 1972, the prison and jail incarceration rate for men was estimated to be 24 times higher than that for women. By 2010, men’s incarceration rate was about 11 times higher. Women’s incarceration rate had thus risen twice as rapidly as men’s in the period of growing incarceration rates.”

“Approximately 1 of every 14 prisoners in the United States is female. In fact, the incarceration rates of white and Hispanic women in particular are growing more rapidly than those of other demographic groups. Compared with men, women are sentenced more often to prison for nonviolent crimes: about 55 percent of women sentenced to prison have committed property or drug crimes as compared with about 35 percent of male prisoners. Women also are more likely than men to enter prison with mental health problems or to develop them while incarcerated: about three-quarters of women in state prisons in 2004 had symptoms of a current mental health problem, as opposed to 55 percent of men.

“Women’s prisons historically have been under resourced and underserved in correctional systems, so that women prisoners have had less access to programming and treatment than their male counterparts. Women prisoners also are more likely to be the targets of sexual abuse by staff.”

“A majority of women prisoners are mothers, who must grapple with the burden of being separated from their children during incarceration. In 2004, 62 percent of female state and federal inmates (compared with 51 percent of male inmates) were parents. Of those female inmates, 55 percent reported living with their minor children in the month before arrest, 42 percent in single-parent households; for male inmates who were parents, the corresponding figures were 36 and 17 percent.”

“Although female inmates make up only about 10 percent of the correctional population, they have higher rates of disease than male inmates and additional reproductive health issues. Rates of mental illness are substantially higher among female than male inmates, particularly because they have high rates of childhood sexual abuse and PTSD … 18-30 percent of male prison inmates exhibited alcohol dependence/abuse, only slightly in excess of figures for the U.S. general public, while at 10-29 percent prevalence, female prisoners were two to four times as likely as nonincarcerated women to have alcohol dependence/abuse.”

“As the rate of women’s incarceration has grown, so has the risk of maternal imprisonment. One in 30 children born in 1990 had a mother incarcerated by age 14, compared with 1 in 60 born in 1978… Nearly two-thirds of mothers in state prisons were living with their child(ren) prior to their incarceration, many in single-parent households.”

As you watch, listen to, or read discussions about this report, remember the women prisoners. They’re in the report, as much as they’re absent in the press coverage. The report says they matter. And they do.

(Photo Credit: IRETA)

The United States built a special hell for women: prison

According to a recent infographic, from 1978 to 2012, the United States went from whitish pink to deep purple. These shades represent the number of prisoners under state or federal jurisdiction with a sentence of more than 1 year per 100,000 U.S. residents. At one end, whitish pink, the rate is 0 – 260 per 100,000. That was then. At the other end, the deep purple represents 770 – 900 per 100,000. That is now.

According to an ACLU report, Worse Than Second Class: Solitary Confinement of Women in the United States, released yesterday, “More than 200,000 women are locked in jails and prisons in the United States. These prisoners are routinely subjected to solitary confinement, spending at least 22 hours a day without human interaction for days, weeks, or months at a time. And yet, the solitary confinement of women is often overlooked.”

The report suggests that women suffer “unique harms and dangers”. These include the needs of pregnant women, of women living with past trauma, of women living with disabilities and illnesses, of mothers, of anyone living as a woman. The report highlights the experiences of Meghan, who was pregnant when placed in extended solitary; Melanie H., a rape survivor who at 15 years old was placed in extended solitary; a 73-year-old living with cancer placed in solitary for five weeks for complaining about the quality of medical care, and of Maria Benita Santamaria, a transgender woman prisoner.

The report recommends severe reduction of use of solitary confinement, and provision of alternative and decent services to women in need, which pretty much defines most women in prison. But it doesn’t address the contradiction of women’s imprisonment. Women are primarily in prison for status offenses, if they’re juveniles, and for the adult version of status offenses, minor and nonviolent and more often than not a function of poverty, mental illness or both. Women suffer more for committing nonviolent offenses than do men, and it’s all done in the name in of protecting women. Women are in prison for next to nothing and then end up disproportionately disappeared into, and deeply damaged by, solitary confinement.

Remember that when you read that the federal government is launching a clemency initiative. Closing down the prison house does not end the age of mass incarceration. Neither does releasing the prisoners, although both would be an improvement.

Mass incarceration did not target individuals; it targeted communities and, even more, neighborhoods. And now whole neighborhoods will receive women who have spent time, long time, deep in the hole. Who will pay for that? Who will pay for the suffering and the years lost? Who will pay for the consequences? Will the State expunge `criminal’ records, so that women might be able to apply for jobs with some modicum of hope, or for school loans, or for housing, or for public assistance?

Prison doesn’t work. Prison especially doesn’t work for women. But for 40 years, it’s worked `for America’. Who will pay to remove and replace the wounds and scars on the soul of the country? Who will pay that debt?


(Infographic Credit: Forbes)

Boys will be boys, and girls will be jailed

Girls are entering into the juvenile `justice’ system at an alarmingly increasing rate. One reason is that girls are arrested more often than boys for status offenses and are more severely punished for those offenses. The thing is those `offenses’ are not crimes. That’s what makes them `status’ offenses. If the girls were older, there would be no offense, no crime.

But they are girls, and they must be protected from themselves. This is the vicious cycle that has been constructed in exactly the same period that has witnessed girl power on the rise: “In a 2010 national census of youth in custody, girls comprised 16% of all detained youth but 40% of those were detained for a status offense. At one time and in some states, girls comprised more than 70% of youth detained for status offenses.” This is the United States’ program of no girl left behind. This is girls’ educational program in the United States.

Why are girls so lucky, when it comes to prison? One answer is paternalism, which expresses itself as a need to protect girls from themselves and the world; a curious comfort with “with using locked confinement to access services for girls with significant needs”; and intolerance towards “girls who are non-cooperative and non-compliant.” Boys will be boys, and girls will be jailed.

At the same time, “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are twice as likely as other youngsters to be detained in a juvenile detention facility for status offenses.” Why? LGBTQ youth often run away from home or, more precisely, from family rejection. According to one report, 40 percent of homeless youth self-identify as LGBTQ. Living on the streets means engaging in “survival crimes”, like theft. But it also involves an expanding and intensifying universe of so-called status offenses. Once again, LGBTQ youth are jailed to protect them from themselves.

This program for LGBTQ kids is the United States national education program. In schools LGBTQ children suffer harsher punishment, both formal and informal, for truancy, absenteeism, and dress code violations. A vicious school-to-prison pipeline drives the “non-cooperative and non-compliant” further and further into the ground … or else.

Today, the Treatment Advocacy Center released The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails: A State Survey. Here are the numbers: “In 2012, there were estimated to be 356,268 inmates with severe mental illness in prisons and jails. There were also approximately 35,000 patients with severe mental illness in state psychiatric hospitals. Thus, the number of mentally ill persons in prisons and jails was 10 times the number remaining in state hospitals.” Since 2008, the situation has worsened.

From girls to LGBTQ youth to those living with severe mental illness, the crime committed is that of living, of being alive. And what of those at the crossroads of this nightmare, what of young lesbians who are living with severe mental illness? They are marked as non-cooperative and non-compliant, many times over. They were never meant to survive.


(Photo Credit:

Devyani Vs. Sangeeta: Domestic Workers’ Rights

Sangeeta Richard

The recent strip search, including cavity search, of a female Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, in New York, raised a hue and cry in India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, including much of the administration and the public, denounced the U.S. act as demeaning, primarily because a body search of a female is considered dishonorable by Indians for it brings shame upon the woman, her family and the country, and secondly the Indian court would not consider a salary issue between an employer and her maid tantamount to a crime that necessitated a strip search.

But we need to look at some underlying blind spots this issue glaringly reveals:

1. While Devyani’s experience of undergoing a strip search is demeaning, I believe that such a treatment of any woman in the U.S. who is in police custody or in customs/immigration, whether the crime is unremarkable or severe, as unacceptable. We have not protested enough about strip searches of women especially since such searches are now placed within the umbrella of security and anti-terrorism jurisdiction.

2. While there is now a history of protest to raise minimum wage in the U.S. and the pay discrepancy between men and women is a hot button issue, brought to light by the Lilly Ledbetter bill signed by President Obama in 2009, enforcing this in reality has been tough. But many grassroots movements, such as Working Families and Occupy, are making their mark in trying to make employers conscious of pay gaps and inequities. While Devyani’s lawyer may argue that she has done everything legal under the contract with the maid, Sangeeta Richard, nevertheless, the reaction of the Indian government and a mortified public brings up the fact that Indians have internalized the notion that since most of middle class has maids and there are no unions to protect their wages or their treatment, that there is nothing shocking in the continuation of this practice when domestic workers work in Indian households locally or abroad. The protest about wages and treatment of domestic workers both local and migrant is heard loudest only among feminist organizations. Governments have not taken it seriously; there is no proper jurisdiction regarding wages for domestic work, therefore the issue prevails in the shadows.

3. The irony of the Devyani case is that Devyani is Dalit herself—the oppressed class in India’s caste system. The Dalit movement began during the time of India’s nationalist movement for Independence from British rule. Although the reservation system (similar to Affirmative Action) was put in place to address the rights of the underprivileged castes in the caste hierarchy, nevertheless the oppression of Dalits continues. Devyani’s family is Dalit, but well to do, and she is a diplomat employed by the Indian government. It is indeed a lesson in the nature of oppression to see one who has risen to a privileged position in terms of economic class and status to pay a low wage to a woman she hired to work in her household. Of course, since this act is an allegation until proven, and Devyani may after all be innocent, nevertheless this case brings to light two questions: Should foreign diplomats be allowed to get away with anything because they have diplomatic immunity? Should the U.S. use cavity search and strip search on women in immigration violation cases? How can we separate wage issues from labor trafficking cases, since labor trafficking is another charge brought against Devyani? How can we take personal responsibility to make sure someone we know is not being paid below minimum wage?


(Photo Credit: Times of India)

Prison means business … for real

A report came out yesterday suggesting that probation in the United States is big, predatory business. The report opens: “The United States Supreme Court has ruled that a person sentenced to probation cannot then be incarcerated simply for failing to pay a fine that they genuinely cannot afford. Yet many misdemeanor courts routinely jail probationers who say they cannot afford to pay what they owe—and they do so in reliance on the assurances of for-profit companies with a financial stake in every single one of those cases.”

Women figure prominently among the lists of the abused and caged. Here’s a typical story. Judge James Straight, a Justice Court judge in Bolivar County, Mississippi, remembers a woman who called his court, weeping. She claimed probation officers, who worked for Judicial Correction Services or JCS, had threatened to have her jailed for a bill of $500. Working a low-paying job, she had struggled to keep up with her payments. When she offered to pay $200, the probation officer said she had to pay it all. So the woman, frantic, called the Judge. His clerk looked into the matter and found that originally the woman had been fined $377, for driving without a valid license. More to the point, she had paid off the entire amount, but still owed JCS about $500 in fees.

Four years ago, a major report came out detailing the rise of the modern debtors’ prison. Across the country, people would end up in prison because they couldn’t pay minor fines or fees, `legal financial obligations’, or LFOs … in the business. Some jails charge prisoners $12 entry fee, $60 a day for room and board, and then reimbursement for medical and other services. You have to pay to play. The Saginaw County Jail, in Michigan, charged people $12 to get out of jail. It was called an “administrative fee.” Women in Michigan have been charged as much as $10,000 in “tether fees”, the price of parole supervision. At a little under $100 a week, and that was in 2010, it was a bargain. Of course, nonpayment of these fees went straight to credit bureaus, and so the vicious circle, or noose, wound ever tighter around each woman.

Eight years ago, in 2006, there was the case of Ora Lee Hurley, who owed $705 in fines, a fine she had incurred in 1990. Hurley was sentenced to 120 days in jail, and then to more jail. The Judge ruled that Hurley had to stay in confinement until she paid her fine. So, Ora Lee Hurley stayed in custody at the Gateway Diversion Center, which is neither a gateway nor a diversion and not much of a center. Five days a week, Hurley left the center and went to work. She earned about $700 a month, of which she paid $600 a month, to the State of Georgia, for room and board, and $52 a month for public transportation. As a result, Ora Lee Hurley stayed a prisoner for at least eight months beyond her sentence. During that time, she earned over $7000, almost all of which went to pay for `room and board.’ If it hadn’t been for the Southern Center for Human Rights, who petitioned for her release, Ora Lee Hurley would probably still be confined today.

Prison means business, yesterday, four years ago, eight years ago. While reports are useful, it’s time. Across the United States, women face new structures of debt designed to send them into cages that then turn them into walking ATMs. End that debt, open those cages.


(Image Credit: Southern Center for Human Rights)

Michigan: Demand clear standards that protect the rights and health of pregnant inmates!

In Maryland, incarcerated women are struggling for the right to safe and humane birthing conditions.  Currently, Maryland practices the shackling of pregnant inmates before, during, and after labor and the delivery of their babies.

But this isn’t the only state where that proverbial glow radiating from expectant mothers is dulled by the heavy chains habitually used to restrain them.  In fact, only 18 states have legislation limiting the use of shackles on pregnant women.  Michigan is one of those states.

Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti is the only women’s prison in Michigan.  According to the operating procedures at HVCF, pregnant prisoners are handcuffed during transport to the hospital, even if they are in active labor. At the hospital, the prisoner’s handcuffs are removed and no other form of restraint may be used during labor and delivery, with exceptions through authorization.  However, there is no state legislation mandating this practice.  Furthermore, not all incarcerated women are housed at Huron Valley; many serve their sentences in local jails throughout the state.  What are the operational procedures, if any, that protect pregnant and postpartum women there?  And how is HVCF held accountable to make sure they comply with operating procedures?

There are three main reasons why we should be concerned about the shackling of pregnant inmates: 1.) cruelty, trauma, and humiliation associated with shackling, 2.) the significant health risks they pose to pregnant women, and 3.) constitutionality. According to the ACLU, every single court that has consider the practice of shackling women during labor has found it to be unconstitutional.

On Tuesday January 28th, Maryland lawmakers will gather in Annapolis to decide on the fate of HB27, the “Healthy Births for Incarcerated Women Act.”  Michigan should follow Maryland’s lead by demanding clear standards that protect the rights and health of pregnant inmates.


(Photo Credit: Michigan Department of Corrections)

Life without parole: The staggering work of heartbreaking

Two recent reports, taken together, describe a United States in which the violence of mass and hyper incarceration has become an intrinsic part of the contemporary American project. As at least one writer noted years ago in a different context, the rule of law is the force of law. And that force is coming down on Black populations with particular intensity.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s report, A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses, has attracted attention and sparked conversation, although thus far not beyond the circle of usual participants. The ACLU findings, while horrible, are not all that surprising. The so-called War on Drugs has fueled the life without parole, or LWOP, economy. Pretty much any hint of `drug involvement’ can land a person in jail for life without parole. Most of the LWOP prisoners are first-time drug offenders.

Here’s the heart of living-death: “There is a staggering racial disparity in life-without-parole sentencing for nonviolent offenses. Blacks are disproportionately represented in the nationwide prison and jail population, but the disparities are even worse among the nationwide LWOP population and worse still among the nonviolent LWOP population. Based on data provided by the United States Sentencing Commission and state Departments of Corrections, the ACLU estimates that nationwide, 65.4 percent of prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses are Black, 17.8 percent are white, and 15.7 percent are Latino. In the 646 cases examined for this report, the ACLU found that 72.9 percent of these documented prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses are Black, 19.8 percent are white, and 6.9 percent are Latino.”

Staggering? Yes. Surprising? Not at all.

According to the ACLU, 3, 279 people are serving life without parole for nonviolent crimes. Of that group, 2,074 are in federal prisons and jails. Of the 2074, 1757 are Black. That’s 60%. 91.4% of Louisiana’s LWOP prisoners are Black, and so Louisiana wins the Race Race to the Bottom.

The individual stories are heartbreaking… and not surprising. Life without parole is a death sentence. It emerges not only from the War on Drugs, but also from a national belief that rehabilitation does not work, that `criminals’ are not human and so must be caged.

As the Sentencing Project report, Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America, suggests, the initial impetus for the LWOP was the elimination of the death penalty. So, state-by-state, over twenty years, the `nation’ replaced the instant of death with a lifetime of dying.

The Sentencing Project findings, while useful, are also not surprising. Serious crime is down, and the number of LWOP prisoners, in the same period, has more than quadrupled. Last year, over 159,000 people were serving life sentences. Close to 50,000 were LWOP.

One in nine prisoners is in for life, and, as the Sentencing Projected documented earlier in the year, this includes an increasing number of juveniles, of children. Around 10,000 people have been sentenced to life in prison for nonviolent offenses. Almost half the `lifers’ are Black. Nearly 10,000 people have been sentenced to life behind bars for crimes that occurred before they turned 18. Around 2,500 of that 10,000 were sentenced to life without parole. Children waiting to die.

More than 5,300, or 3.4%, of prisoners sentenced to life are women.

According to the Sentencing Project, the United States boasts 5,361 women serving life sentences. That’s up 13.2% since 2008. Who are these women?

Women serving life sentences often have particularly tragic histories. Among the females serving LWOP for offenses committed in their teenage years, the vast majority experienced sexual abuse in their childhood. Among women convicted of intimate partner violence-related homicides, the majority have been battered. This is even more evident among women serving life sentences. Statistics from nationally representative inmate survey data show that 83.8% of life-sentenced women were sexually or physically abused and that abuse is significantly more common among female lifers than male lifers or female prisoners not serving life sentences.”

Who are the women serving life sentences, and even more those serving life without parole? They are the abandoned. Growing up in a period in which public and social services, caring services, were slashed, growing up in a time and place in which needing help was criminalized, as girls they were left to fend for themselves. Today, they are the fantastic products of a national social factory, one that stretches from `Welfare Queens’ to `Drug Mules’.

There is no surprise in this, and there is no `genius.’ There is only the staggering work of heartbreaking.


(Photo Credit: /

Shackling the birthing, dead and dying: All in a day’s work

Juana Villegas

Juana Villegas

Which is worse, the use of chains and shackles to confine the most vulnerable in times of crisis or the fact that the usage has become routine? Ask pregnant women prisoners across the United States. Ask terminally ill, hospitalized, disabled and even dead prisoners in the United Kingdom.

Last month the Nevada Prison Board voted to stop shackling and otherwise `restraining’ women prisoners in labor, in delivery, and in post-delivery recuperation. This decision resulted from a lawsuit brought by Valorie Nabors, with the ACLU. Nabors had been an inmate at the Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center. She went into labor and was placed in leg shackles in the ambulance. Ten minutes after giving birth to a daughter, Nabors was again placed in shackles. Valorie Nabors and her attorneys argued, apparently convincingly, that she suffered injury when doing doctor prescribed rehabilitative exercises while shackled.

Juana Villegas has lived a related story. In 2008, nine months pregnant, Mexican, undocumented, Villegas was picked up in a traffic stop in suburban Nashville. Under `an arrangement’ between Davidson County and Federal authorities, Villegas was detained for six days. Villegas went into labor, was taken to the hospital, where she was chained to a bed, during labor and during recovery. She has since sued for damages and recently won, not only financial compensation but also, possibly, a resident visa.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, prisoners literally at death’s door, prisoners living with paralyzing and debilitating disabilities, are shackled, not only when taken to hospital but also during their stay. Michael Tyrrell, dying from cancer and too weak to move; Kyal Gaffney, diagnosed with leukemia, unconscious due to a brain hemorrhage; Daniel Roque Hall, 30, in intensive care, wasting away, and barely able to use arms or legs: these are typical of the `security risks’ that required not only chains and shackles but three prison guards … each.

And then there’s `Lucy’. In 2007, Lucy was transported to hospital for a recurring and serious gynecological problem. Although Lucy had no history of violence and had actually just returned from a daylong release on license, she was handcuffed to a male and a female officer en route to the hospital and while at the hospital. During the interview with the doctor, Lucy was handcuffed to both officers. When the doctor said he would be doing an internal examination, the male prison guard said he would have to remain in the examination room. At last, the doctor convinced the male officer to handcuff Lucy to the examining table and wait outside. Throughout the entire internal examination, the female officer remained handcuffed to Lucy.

That the global prison has produced a boom niche market in chains and shackles is horrible enough. Worse is that the shackling has become routine. Prison guards routinely shackle women in childbirth and women and men on deathbeds, and then go home to their families and communities. Medical professionals routinely tend to shackled women in childbirth and shackled women and men on their deathbeds, and then go home to their families and communities. It’s all in a day’s work.


(Photo Credit: The New York Times / Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

Women bear the cost of federal prison overcrowding

The Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Danbury houses low security female offenders and also has an adjacent satellite camp that houses minimum security female offenders…Mission Change: After nearly 20 years of housing a female inmate population, the Federal Correctional Institution is being converted back to a low security male facility.” Welcome to the Danbury Correctional Institution. Welcome to America.

This week it has been discovered that the United States Federal Prison system is dangerously overcrowded. According to Attorney General Eric Holder, “There’s been a tendency in the past to mete out sentences that frankly are excessive.” The Urban Institute released a terrific report, Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System, that argues forcefully for alternative sentencing, more judicial discretion in sentencing, shorter sentencing, and, generally, common and human sense, which is to say uncommon sense. Today, Charles E. Samuels, Jr., Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, asked the United States Congress for help: “We are facing significant challenges that are ultimately putting our staff at risk, putting prisoners at risk, and the community at risk.” What exactly is “the community”?

According to Samuels, “Most federal inmates (50 percent) are serving sentences for drug trafficking offenses.” The so-called War on Drugs has ballooned the Federal Prison population from around 25,000 in 1980 to 219,000 in 2012, which puts the United States in first place in the Amazing (Global Incarceration) Race. Despite some increase in federal prison spaces, the current overcrowding results, predictably, in impossible living situations, violence, and generally something between bedlam and mayhem. Plus, the exponentially growing prison population eats up more and more of the Federal budget. It’s a perfect vicious circle.

Missing from the week’s `discoveries’ of the dangers and risks and costs of prison overcrowding are women. So, here’s the story of the Danbury Correctional Institution.

In order to `meet the needs’ of prison overcrowding, the Bureau of Prisons decided to take all of the women in Danbury and ship them off to Alabama. The women are all “minimum and low-security offenders”. No matter. For the Bureau, it made sense to ship these women, and ship is the word, far from their families, communities, and support networks, to make room for the `real prisoners’. Men.

It took two months of heavy lifting by four U.S. Senators – Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) – and others to finally persuade the Bureau of Prisons to rethink the plan. Apart from the general social justice issue, Gillibrand and Leahy understood that closing Danbury as a women’s facility would have “nearly eliminated federal prison beds for women in the Northeastern United States”. It’s not a local Danbury issue or a Connecticut issue. Closing Danbury would have affected women, women’s families, women’s communities, across the entire northeastern United States. As Senator Murphy noted, “Being sentenced to federal prison is punishment enough. These women shouldn’t be punished again by being removed from their families.”

85 percent of the women in Danbury are not there because of violent or weapons-related `offenses’. 57 percent are drug offenders. They are low to minimum-security prisoners. Why punish them, specifically, doubly and so cruelly in this way? Because, for the State, women prisoners don’t count. The State traffics in women prisoners’ bodies. The value of those women’s bodies is their vulnerability, their collective and individual capacity to be treated like another sack of potatoes. Need more space? Take the women and ship them off. What difference does it or will it make?


(Infographic Credit: Urban Institute)