Incarcerated Women in the U.S.: An Overlooked Minority

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Jules Ozone

I’m an introverted feminist blogger. If you need me I’ll be in my room on my computer, laughing at my own jokes.

The United States’ obsession with incarceration has become what can only be described as an epidemic. The U.S. makes up only about 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of those incarcerated around the world reside here. As the popular Netflix documentary “13th” illustrates, mass incarceration in the U.S. developed as a tactic for white politicians to regain control over the black population, and in particular black men. As of January, 2017, 93.3% of the prison population was male (although the BOP’s statistics do not account for transgender inmates), and black folks, while making up only 6.5% of the general population, comprise 40.2% of inmates. The prison system is undeniably skewed towards punishing black men for non-violent crimes.

However, it is also undeniable that women and other marginalized populations that make up a much smaller percentage of those incarcerated face challenges specific to their identity that are often overlooked. Only about 7% of prisoners in the U.S. are women, and this minority status often serves to minimize the importance of their narrative in public discourse. It is also critical to note upfront that black women are incarcerated at twice the rate of white women, and Latinas are jailed 1.2 times as often as white women. Women of color in prisons absolutely experience the issues outlined in this article much more frequently and with more complexity than white women. The same can be said of queer women compared to straight women. 

Incarcerated women are far more likely than their male counterparts to have experienced trauma and abuse in their lives leading up to incarceration, with the ACLU estimating that 92% of women in California’s prisons have been physically or sexually abused in their lifetimes. Sickeningly, women also disproportionately experience rape and assault within the criminal justice system (about 46% of victims of sexual assault in prisons are female). Most prison guards in women’s prisons are men, and when a prison guard wishes to violate or assault an inmate it is horrifyingly easy for him to do so, as inmates do not have the freedom, agency, or ability to protect themselves adequately under such vulnerable and oppressive conditions. Additionally, in a “perverse twist of justice”, many women find themselves in the prison system in the first place because of their trauma histories; examples include drug use and possession in response to PTSD symptoms, victims of sex trafficking being arrested on prostitution charges, and survivors of domestic violence facing imprisonment after harming or killing their abusive partnersWomen’s experiences behind bars often replicate the abusive relationships and trauma that they’ve suffered throughout their lives.

Reproductive health and giving birth are major concerns of those incarcerated, and very little attention is paid to these issues. Tampons and pads are often not freely available to menstruating inmates, and when they are they are of subpar quality and inmates must pay for them on their own under many circumstances. Even worse, many inmates who give birth while in prison are shackled (despite a law banning this practice in 2009), receive inadequate medical care during and after pregnancy, and have their babies removed from them within 48 hours. This blatant disregard for the specific rights of inmates related to reproduction again speaks to the vulnerability of this population and begs inclusion of issues like these in the mainstream narrative around prisons. Additionally, women are much more likely than men to have been the primary caregiver of a child before incarceration, meaning that women prisoners often struggle with finding someone to care for their children when they are inducted into the prison system. More often than not, the father is not the person stepping in to take responsibility, and if the mother can not find a relative or friend able to care for her child she may be forced to turn them over to child services. 

As I mentioned above, most agencies reporting on prison demographics do not even account for transgender inmates in reporting statistics, exemplifying the general trend of ignoring trans experiences in the prison system. Trans folks are often misgendered in society at large; in prisons, this refusal to accept a person’s chosen gender identity results in uncomfortable and often dangerous sentences for trans individuals in prisons. Transwomen are likely to end up in all-male prisons, leaving them especially vulnerable to sexual assault: one study reported that 60% of transgender women in men’s prisons reported being sexually assaulted during their incarceration (compared to only 4% of cisgender inmates). Transwomen are often punished for acting like the women that they are (for example, for wearing women’s underwear), meaning that they are much more likely to spend time in solitary confinement. Trans inmates are  refused the medical treatment that they need to maintain their preferred gender identity (such as hormone replacement therapy), resulting in emotional and physical distress. In general, the placement of transwomen in men’s prisons creates an experience even more disempowering and harmful than that of cisgendered women, and too little research has been done on this practice.

The prison system in the U.S. is one that needs to be dismantled at its core in order to address the fact that we place our citizens behind bars at a staggeringly higher rate than anywhere else in the world. The conditions behind these bars are atrocious, and as the movement to protect our most vulnerable citizens grows, we need to place special attention on those who have been excluded from participating in society. We can be cognizant and infuriated by the blatantly racist motivations of incarcerating predominantly black men, but special consideration must also be paid to the minority populations in prisons whose experiences don’t fit into the mainstream narrative.