Should We Stop Putting Women in Prison?


As of 2010, there were around 205,000 women in prison in the United States, and a million more under some kind of criminal justice supervision, counting those on probation and parole. But would the country benefit from not incarcerating women? At all? Ever?

That argument, while it’s sure to drive men’s rights activists and fans of the penal system into a crimson-faced rage, was put forth with surprising persuasiveness in the Washington Post today by Patricia O’Brien, an associate professor at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at University of Illinois at Chicago.

O’Brien writes that some members of Britan’s House of Lords are advocating that the U.K. do just that: stop imprisoning women, full stop. It’s a move mainly supported by the House’s female members, including Baroness Jean Corston, who in 2007 put out a report on the ways that English women are made especially vulnerable by the penal system. She didn’t exactly argue that no woman should be in prison, but pointed out that in a system designed by and mostly stocked with men, women’s needs weren’t really being considered.

“We must find better ways to keep out of prison those women who pose no threat to society and to improve the prison experience for those who do,” Corston wrote in her executive summary. “One example is the regular, repetitive, unnecessary overuse of strip-searching in women’s prisons which is humiliating, degrading and undignified and a dreadful invasion of privacy. For women who have suffered past abuse, particularly sexual abuse, it is an appalling introduction to prison life and an unwelcome reminder of previous victimisation.”

This summer, another House of Lords “peer,” Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill, took up the cry, arguing in a June floor debate that women make up only 5 percent of the prison population, and serve, generally, very short terms for largely non-violent crimes. “It is now accepted that short sentences have the worst reoffending outcomes,” she said in her written remarks. “More than half of all women leaving prison are reconvicted within 12 months. Of those serving sentences of less than 12 months, the reconviction rate rises to 62%.” She argued that fewer custodial sentences—the kind where you get locked up—and more community-based rehabilitation would save money as well as allow women to make their amends to society without disrupting the lives of the families: six out of 10 women in prison in the U.K. have dependent children.

Let’s pause right here to acknowledge that—although many of the issues are the same for women in U.S. prisons—this will never, ever happen here. The U.S. penal system, combined with the parole and probation industries, is an enormous cash cow, tripling in size since 1980 and making up much of the $200 billion we spend annually on public safety. The extent to which the prison-industrial complex has its hands jammed in the pockets of our nation’s lawmakers is profound: the three major prison corporations—Corrections Corporation of America, The GEO Group, and Management and Training Corp.—have spent $45 million on lobbying in the last decade, a report by the Associated Press found.

And yet, if we were ready to have a clearer, less greed- and fear-driven conversation about prison’s grip on society, there are any number of reasons to think harder about the way we lock up women, because something—or more like many things—are seriously wrong. For one, as a study from the Sentencing Project found, women’s incarceration rates have risen by 646 percent between 1980 and 2010, suggesting not an increase in the number of lady criminals, but the criminalization of things like drug addiction and the new imposition of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. Latino and black women are imprisoned at higher rates than white women. And women are much less likely to be in prison for violent crimes than men, as the Sentencing Project study found, and more likely to be there for drug and property crimes.

There’s also the fact that three quarters of sexual misconduct reported in prison involves women being assaulted by correctional officers. (And that’s just what’s reported.) All that’s without even touching the especially serious problems that transgender people, especially trans women, face in prison: increased risk of sexual assault, for starters, lack of appropriate housing settings, ill-informed prison staff, and, too often, a lack of appropriate medical care.

So yes, in a saner country, we’d be talking about ways to keep more women—and men with non-violent offenses—out of prison and in the community. In her op-ed in the Post, O’Brien has a lot of suggestions for how that might look: better diversion programs and community sentences, or, at the very least, slowing the expansion of women’s prisons. But here in America, where we’re still fighting about whether it’s okay to shackle incarcerated women in labor by their hands and feet, that conversation is still probably, and sadly, a long way off.

Correction, Nov. 11: Professor O’Brien’s column was originally printed on The Conversation and re-printed in the Washington Post.

Orange is the New Black screengrab via Netflix/YouTube

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