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The Hidden Bearers of Mass Incarceration: Women

Mass incarceration is a racial justice issue — and an economic one, too. But it also poses a growing threat to women and families. Today, there are 1.2 million women behind bars, or on probation or parole — 730 percent more than in 1980.

  • Inimai M. Chettiar
July 18, 2017

Image: CLINTON, NJ – JUNE 1: A family enters the Edna Mahan women’s prison in New Jersey to visit their mother, who has been sentenced to twenty years on a drug conviction, June 1, 2003. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images) .  [Article Cross-posted on HuffPost.]

On the face of it, Oklahoma GOP Gov. Mary Fallin and California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris have little in common. Fallin opposes abortion, dismisses the problem of climate change, and supports the death penalty. By contrast, Harris opposes the death penalty, made headlines calling for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ resignation, and has even been mentioned as a Democratic presidential candidate in 2020.

So what could these two politicians, miles apart in ideology, possibly have to say to each other? Quite a bit, actually. As a governor and a former state attorney general, they both understand the devastating consequences of putting women in prison.

Women make up a small but growing portion of the national prison population. Given our central roles in families and communities, incarcerating women creates profound ripple effects throughout society. This week, Fallin and Harris will join other leaders in Washington, D.C., at a large event to discuss this too-often overlooked crisis, along with its consequences and solutions. Policymakers nationwide should listen up.

We know that mass incarceration is a racial justice issue — and an economic one, too. But it’s long past time to acknowledge the threat prison poses to women and families. Since 1980, the number of women in prison has grown by 730 percenttwice the rate of the total prison population (363 percent). And the problem is getting worse. While the prison population has declined by 3 percent since 2012, the number of female prisoners has actually risen by about the same amount. Today, there are 1.2 million women behind bars, or on probation or parole.

How did this happen so fast? Draconian sentencing laws that over-punish nonviolent crimes are one factor. At both the federal and state levels, women are slightly more likely than men to be incarcerated for a nonviolent offense. Between 1986 and 2015, drug crimes alone accounted for 29 percent of the growth in the female prison population. In the first half of this period (1986 to 1999), the number of women incarcerated in state facilities for drug-related offenses increased by 888 percent.

Women are also more likely to be swept up by overly broad conspiracy or accomplice laws. In demanding that anyone caught in proximity to a known drug trafficker suffer similar consequences, these laws have helped ensnare women who were only minimally involved in criminal drug activity themselves. Moreover, while women rarely occupy leadership roles in the drug trade, they tend to take the fall when a partner gets caught. As Annessa Rabbit, who faced a 26-year sentence for her boyfriend’s crime, explained in a recent New York Times article, “He always put me in a position of doing the dirty work.” Similar stories are all too common.

Worse, many women are caregivers, meaning they don’t suffer alone. Approximately 60 percent of women in prison are mothers of a child under the age of 18. Three-quarters of those mothers were the primary or sole caretaker.

Even when women escape the criminal justice system themselves, they may bear the brunt of a loved one’s incarceration. A new Brennan Center estimate finds that prison has produced approximately 200,000 single mothers. Between missing mothers and fathers, there are more than 2.7 million children with an incarcerated parent. That’s 1 in 28 children nationwide. It’s difficult to calculate the long-term consequences of parental incarceration on these kids, but it appears to “make an important contribution to the racial achievement gap.”

Incarceration always strains family bonds, but it doesn’t have to break them. Unfortunately, governments and the private sector have conspired to make it harder, not easier, to maintain contact with an incarcerated parent. According to the Sentencing Project, a majority of parents in state and federal prisons are held more than 100 miles from their prior residence; in federal prisons 43 percent of parents are held more than 500 miles away. Many prisons and jails also have limited visitation hours and charge an exorbitant amount to call home. Now that the Supreme Court has struck down Obama-era caps on prison phone fees, that’s only going to get worse. Simply put, that means more mothers will be isolated from their kids.

So how can we help these women and children? First, we need to acknowledge that incarceration is very much a women’s issue. That’s what Fallin and Harris will agree on when they take the stage at this week’s event, titled “Women Unshackled.” The event will also highlight some commonsense reforms, such as a bill introduced by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) this week that would make it easier for incarcerated women to stay in touch with their families.

But we need to go much further than that. We need to stop needlessly sending so many women to prison. Mass incarceration is a problem that touches all aspects of our society. We need to start recognizing that, for the sake of all of us — including women and children.