In the midst of our overpopulated prison system, the growth rate for women going to prison is higher than men
We’ve all heard by now about the Prison Industrial Complex in the United States, and how it’s completely out of control. It got me thinking about female prisons, their history and how they contribute to the complex, the female prison industrial complex if you will.
Of course, men’s prisons have been around forever. The first women’s prison in the United States wasn’t built until 1873 in Indiana. Before then, women and men were held in the same prison. Imagine that! The first all women’s Federal Prison was opened in 1927 in Alderson, West Virginia. In the 1930’s, 34 prisons were built to house female convicts. By 1990, sixty years later, there were 71 women’s prisons in the country. It took only five years for that to double again to 150.
Back in the day, the major difference between men’s and women’s prisons was that men were generally in prison for felonies, whereas women were usually in jail for misdemeanors. In 1895, there were a total of 336 female prisoners in the United States. Only 39 of them were convicted of crimes against a person or property (larceny accounted for 26 of these). 83 women were convicted of “crimes against chastity”. Six were convicted of fornication and 23 were in for “lewd cohabitation.” These crimes were considered “public order” offences. Those were the days…
Most of the jurors were men back then and the double standard was in full bloom. By 1930, during the Great Depression, funding was cut for reforming and rehabilitating and it got worse from there. Women’s prisons started being built to look more like men’s prisons, and fell way below men’s prisons in quality of care and activities.
Women prisoners have less access to lawyers, family and friends. Much of this is due to the fact that there are fewer female prisons, so women are housed hours away from their home and families compared to men. The men’s prison system often includes specialized institutions for the mentally ill, elderly, inmates nearing release and so on. Women are generally housed together.
Before the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, women were seen as mothers and caretakers, therefore the penal system was lenient on them. Women were less likely to be arrested and convicted of petty crimes. After the ERA, law enforcement, the courts and jurors had to look at every case as gender neutral. Since the ERA, women’s crime and incarceration statistics have mushroomed dramatically. From the early 1970’s to the end of the century, the number of women in jail has increased by over 800%.
At the beginning of 2002, there was just over 93,000 female inmates in the United States, or 6.6% of the total incarcerated population. By 2010, there was over 200,000, or 7.5% of the prison population. A far cry from the 336 female inmates a hundred years ago. The annual growth rate for female incarceration is still 7.5% compared to 5.7% for men.
Just like men, most of these women are imprisoned as a result of drug-related charges. Other leading causes of incarceration are immigration status issues. One of the main factors contributing to the prison industrial complex (other than the drug war) is private prisons, a cancer on society that woman are also exposed to.
In the past 20 years, women have started fighting for equal rights in prisons. They have sued and demanded better programs, pre-release programs, and an end to certain forms of discipline. They also require facilities more equipped for female hygiene issues and medical care.
Recently, the California penal system was found to have illegally sterilized 148 female prisoners without informed consent or were coerced. Nearly 8 in 10 female mentally ill inmates reported physical or sexual abuse. Human Rights groups have cited documented incidents showing that prison staff tolerate rape as a means of controlling the prison population in general. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is also involved in fighting for the rights of female prisoners.