13 Seriously F--ked Up Things About Women And Girls In Prison
Did you know that approximately 67 out of every 100,000 women in the US are in prison?
The United States has the highest prison population in the world, and the number of women in prison in this country increased by 646% between 1980 and 2010, making women the fastest-growing population of prisoners.
Watching "Orange is the New Black" might make us all collectively think we know what life is like for women in prison. But since the show began, several actual former prisoners and experts in the field have have written about the differences between OITNB and prison IRL. As it turns out, life for women in prison is even harder---and way more dangerous---than the show might lead us to believe.
And it isn’t just hard for adults---according to the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention, hundreds of thousands of girls are arrested in the U.S. annually. Over 70,000 juveniles live in residential detention centers at any given time, and teenage girls in the justice system face a unique set of dangers and challenges.
Here are 13 seriously f--ked up things you probably didn’t know about the experiences of the hundreds of thousands of women and girls living locked up in the US.
Most girls and women are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes.
Most girls in juvenile detention centers are there for non-violent and “status” offenses. These offensives are crimes for minors but wouldn’t be crimes for adults---like truancy, running away, incorrigibility, or underage drinking. According to the US Department of Justice, only 7% of adult women in federal prisons are there for committing violent offenses.
Sexual assault is not uncommon in juvenile detention centers.
According to a national survey conducted in 2012, an estimated 10% of young people in juvenile facilities reported sexual victimization by staff members or a peer---with the majority reporting that they were assaulted by a staff member. 20% of those victimized reported being violated on more than 10 occasions. The worst states are Georgia, Illinois, Ohio and South Carolina, which had victimization rates as high as 15%.
The majority of women and girls in prison were victims of physical or sexual assault prior to entering the system.
Up to 90% of girls in juvenile detention, and nearly 60% of adult women in prison experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse before entering the system. We often hear about the “school-to-prison pipeline” for boys, but for girls, there seems to be a “sexual-violence-to-prison pipeline.” For minors, the abuse is often the thing that prompts truancy or running away, initiating their engagement with the juvenile justice system to begin with.
Female prisoners are more likely to get sick.
Women in prison are more likely than men to have chronic and/or communicable medical problems, including HIV, Hepatitis C, and sexually transmitted diseases. According to the National Girls Health and Justice Institute, 41% of girls in detention have signs of vaginal injury consistent with sexual assault, eight percent have had positive skin tests for tuberculosis and 30% need glasses but do not have them.
They often don’t receive adequate health care.
Prenatal and postnatal care is notoriously atrocious in prisons. A woman in an Arizona prison almost died last year after receiving a C-section against her will and then having her open wounds "treated” with sugar. A 2004 study in the journal Pediatrics found that fewer than half of juvenile detention facilities surveyed were compliant with recommended health screening and assessments, and few met even minimum levels of care.
A fifteen year old girl can become pregnant and miscarry all while living in a juvenile detention center.
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It happened just last year. The New Orleans teen allegedly had sex with a 17-year-old male inmate while in custody. Further investigation was called for after the girl miscarried when she was just ten weeks pregnant. The girl’s mother was quoted as saying, "I'm upset, angry and I want answers," and, "It should never have happened...period."
Women and girls in prison are also more likely to suffer from mental illness.
Estimates for the prevalence of mental illness among girls in juvenile detention facilities are as high as 80 percent, compared with 20 percent among the total adolescent population. Suicide rates in juvenile detention facilities are more than four times higher than for adolescents overall. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of women in state prisons in 2004 had symptoms of a current mental health problem, compared to 55% of men, and most of these problems go untreated or are dealt with inappropriately.
Female prisoners have reported being put into solitary confinement for unfair reasons.
Though the vast majority of girls in juvenile detention have been sexually/physically abused, they are routinely denied access to mental health care and subjected to strip searches. Worst of all though, they’re also subjected to punitive solitary confinement--which has been found to re-traumatize prisoners, dramatically increase the likelihood of mental health illness, and make prisoners a danger to themselves. Someone who interviewed girls in a juvenile prison in Texas asked, “What is the silliest reason that has gotten you sent to solitary confinement?” Their responses:
“I was sent to solitary confinement for giving my crying friend a hug. They called it 'inappropriate sexual contact.'”
“I was sent to solitary confinement for singing happy birthday to my best friend.”
“I was sent to solitary confinement for picking a flower.”
“I was sent to solitary confinement for saving a cricket.”
The deck is stacked against women and girls of color in a major way.
Recently a black business woman from Long Island was drugged and locked in a hospital psych ward for eight days because police refused to believe her high-powered career was real. Doctors demanded she deny that President Obama followed her on Twitter (He does.) before they would release her. Black women represent only 13% of the female population in the US, but 30% of incarcerated women are black. Hispanic women represent only 11% of the female population in the US, but 16% of incarcerated women are hispanic. Minority youth are also disproportionately represented in incarcerated populations, and a report from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency found that minority youth are treated more severely than white youth at every point of contact with the system—from arrest, to detention, to adjudication, to incarceration—even when charged with the same crime.
Pregnant women are regularly restrained while while they give birth.
Despite the fact that numerous international treaties prohibit the shackling of pregnant women on the grounds that it’s inhumane, it’s still legal in many states. Last month a report found that in New York, the practice is still common even though the state banned it in 2009. The report also found that pregnant prisoners were routinely denied access to gynecologists, and that their housing areas often lacked proper heat and ventilation and were infested with pests. When prisoners give birth, their babies are taken away from them within minutes of delivery.
When women are imprisoned, their whole families suffer.
From the series "Locked Apart: Impact of Incarceration on Family" from gabriela bulisova on Vimeo.
Among female state prisoners, two-thirds are mothers of a minor. One study found that more than half of mothers in state prison nationwide have never had a visit with their children. While most fathers in prison report that their children are living with their non-incarcerated parent, mothers in prison are more likely than fathers to have children living in foster care--which leads many mothers to lose custody of their children while imprisoned. Women convicted of felony drug crimes can be permanently denied the welfare benefits and food stamps many families depend on to survive.
When women finally get out of prison, it’s nearly impossible for them to go to college or find employment.
Employment options for someone convicted of a crime are extremely limited. Most states allow employers to deny jobs to anyone with a criminal record, regardless of how much time has passed or the individual's work history or personal circumstances. Students convicted of drug-related offenses are ineligible for any federal grant, loan, or work-study assistance.
Imprisonment isn’t effective at preventing crime or stopping teenagers who are imprisoned from committing further crimes.
Studies have found that delinquency is linked to higher crime rates in adulthood and other negative outcomes. One estimate suggests that between 50 and 75 percent of adolescents who have spent time in juvenile detention centers are incarcerated later in life. About 60% of adult women who are imprisoned are re-arrested for something following their release.
Want to do something to help? The Women’s Prison Association helps women rebuild their lives after incarceration. An index of prison reform organizations and list of resources for prisoners by state are available on Piper Kerman’s website. To get involved with juvenile justice advocacy, check out Youth Advocate Programs.