Women, Prison, and the Disruption of the Family System

To:Presidential Candidate Elizabeth Warren
Subject:October 31, 2019, “Women, Prison, and the Disruption of the Family System”


This memorandum is intended to shed light on the mental health epidemic that plagues our criminal justice system. In particular I will explore the effects caused by separating incarcerated women from their children and families and subsequent adverse mental health outcomes.

Mass Incarceration

Mass incarceration has been touted as “the new Jim Crow” and the statistics are devastating.[1] The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. As of this year, there are 2.3 million people in federal, state, and local prisons and jails, as well as other forms of correctional facilities.[2] This does not include the millions of people on parole and in alternative-to-incarceration situations. There has been a rise in women’s incarceration as well. In 2017, there were 225,060 incarcerated women in the U.S., which is 30% of the world female prison population.[3] Since 1978, the number of women in state prisons has increased by 834% and roughly 2,879,000 women are jailed every year.[4] This indicates that state and local policies have played a huge role in this growth.[5] Disproportionate sentencing, a result of The War on Drugs, and the persecution of the mentally ill have also affected the numbers of women involved in the justice system. A study by the US Department of Justice in 2006 estimated that approximately half of prisoners in the US had some type of serious mental illness.[6]

Pathways to Prison

Women are most often charged with low-level crimes like drug possession rather than violent crimes. Said crimes are typically based on “survival (of abuse and poverty) and substance abuse.”[7] Justice involved women are often victims of sexual and other forms of abuse and, in addition to substance abuse, they experience co-occurring disorders linked to trauma or mental illness.[8] In general incarcerated women experience mental illness differently than male inmates and are more prone to disorders like PTSD, anxiety, and depression.[9] One study from 1996 indicated that at least 80% of incarcerated women suffered from a lifetime mental illness.[10] These women deserve higher quality and more frequent psychiatric care. Quality of staff and required accreditations should be considered. Additionally, we need preventative community actions, such as increased access to mental healthcare and substance abuse treatment. Alternative-to-incarceration programs could offer both types of care, while allowing women to stay at home.                                      

Separation of the Family

Women cited separation from family as the most difficult aspect of incarceration.[11] 80% of women who are jailed each year are mothers and about 150,000 women are pregnant at the time of their incarceration.[12] Separation from children has tremendous adverse effects on the mental health of female inmates, in part because about 64% of women tend to be the primary caregivers of their children, so the separation weighs more heavily on them.[13] Being incarcerated can lead to losing at least temporary custody of one’s children. Both separation from and losing custody of children can be traumatic, and likely to be a precursor to mental health events.[14] This explains why negative news from the “outside” can trigger self-harm.[15] Thus, I believe coping with separation from the family ought to be aided by offering more services to connect incarcerated women with their children.[16] We should allow all minors visitation rights throughout the US. “As of 2004, 62% of female state prisoners and 56% of females incarcerated in federal prisons in the United States were mothers of minor children.”[17] Increasing the ability to communicate with family by phone and computer and lower bail costs might help assuage or prevent the trauma caused by separation from family. Additionally, I recommend increasing funding of educational programming, as education has been proven to reduce recidivism rates significantly.  Inmates have a 16% chance of recidivism with literacy education, and a 70% chance of recidivism with no literacy education.[18]

[1] Alexander, Michelle, The New Jim Crow, The New Press (2012).         

[2] Mass Incarceration, The Whole Pie 2019, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2019.html, (March 19, 2019).

[3] World Female Imprisonment Listhttps://www.prisonstudies.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/wfil_2nd_edition.pdf.

[4] The Gender Divide: Tracking Women’s State Prison Growthhttps://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/women_overtime.html, (January 9, 2018).

[5] The Gender Divide: Tracking Women’s State Prison Growth, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/women_overtime.html#statelevel, (January 9, 2018). 

[6] Powers, Ron, No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America, Hachette Book Group, (2017).

[7] Bloom, Barbara E. Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Women Offenders 

 https://www.stephaniecovington.com/assets/files/FinalAddressingtheMentalHealthNeeds.pdf, (2008).

[8] Ney, Becki, et al. Ten Truths that Matter when Working with Justice Involved Women,

http://www.ncdsv.org/images/NRCJIW_TenTruthsThatMatterWHenWorkingWithJusticeInvolvedWomen_4-2012.pdf , (April, 2012).

[9] Ibid. 

[10] Bloom, B.

[11] Tartaro, Christine.

[12] Jail will separate 2.3 million mothers from their children this year, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2018/05/13/mothers-day-2018/ ), (May 13, 2018). 

[13] Tartaro, Christine, Suicide and Self-Harm in Prisons and Jails, Lexington Books (2019).

[14] Roth, Alisa, Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness, Hachette Book Group, (April, 2018).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Tartaro, Christine.

[18]Literacy Statistics, http://www.begintoread.com/research/literacystatistics.html, (2018).

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