The female prison population is more than 14 times the size it was in 1970, according to a study by the Vera Institute. Women and girls are the fastest growing incarcerated population in the U.S.
Despite the dramatic increase in female inmates nationwide, federal prisons have yet to adapt to the unique needs of an all-female population. Rather than creating an environment conducive to reducing recidivism rates, women’s prisons are often hostile facilities rampant with corruption and shady practices.
“Women are entering prisons that are programmed for men even though their needs are entirely different,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network.
In many states, male prison guards have the ability to strip search female inmates and supervise their showers. Two-thirds of all staff-on-inmate sexual victimization is reported by female inmates, despite women comprising less than a fifth of the overall prison population. In the midst of the powerful #MeToo movement, it’s important we remember the thousands of incarcerated women whose stories of sexual assault and abuse remain untold.
Unenforced rules and an uneven power structure lead to a toxic prison environment where abuses of power go largely unchecked and inmates leave in worse condition than they entered. Sexual assault, abuse and manipulation by prison staff are just some of the offenses reported by inmates.
More than 85 percent of women in jail are victims of past sexual violence, and nearly 40 percent suffer from serious mental health problems. Prison staff and guards are ill-equipped to handle such trauma and often fall horribly short in providing appropriate treatment.
“Many women leave jail with diminished prospects for physical and behavioral health recovery, with greater parental stress and strain, and even more financially precarious than they were before becoming caught up in the justice system,” reported the Vera Institute in their study of female incarceration.
Essentials like menstrual products and basic toiletries may seem like necessities to non-inmates. For the over 220,000 female inmates in the U.S., items as simple as these are far from a guarantee. Women are often forced to pay inflated commissary rates just to buy necessities, forcing many women to go without.
In 2017, the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act was introduced to improve conditions for female inmates. Provisions include providing female inmates easier access to child visits, prohibiting the shackling of pregnant women and ensuring menstrual products are provided. The Dignity Act is a crucial first step in improving conditions for the thousands of female inmates across the country.
In a country with 22 percent of the world’s prison population, such inadequate, exploitative and abusive conditions are unacceptable. We can do better than locking thousands of women in facilities so ineffective and void of rehabilitation that reincarceration seems inevitable.
Hannah Kleinpeter is a 20-year-old mass communication senior from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.