As the nation wrestles with the weight of mass incarceration and its impact on individuals and communities, a study released Wednesday by the Vera Institute of Justice and Safety and Justice Challenge explores a growing epidemic: the steady rise of incarcerated women.
The report, titled Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform, shows that since 1970, the number of women held in local jails has increased from under 8,000 to nearly 110,000.
Poor women are affected the most, according to the study. Approximately two-thirds of women in jail are of color: 44 percent are Black, 15 percent are Hispanic, and five percent are of other racial/ethnic backgrounds. Thirty-six percent of women in jail identify as White.
So-called broken windows policing serves as one of the many probable causes leading to the significant hike of women in jail. In the 1990s, policing began to focus on responding to quality-of-life or low-level offenses, along with increased rates for drug possession. Today, 82 percent of women are in jail for nonviolent crimes.
Since women are more likely to commit non-violent crimes or minor offenses such as drug possession, the rate of women in jail dramatically increased. Affiliating with romantic partners, accused of committing some of the offenses, also helps to sweep women into the system, experts say.
Elizabeth Swavola, a senior program associate at Vera, and one of the authors of the study, spoke to NewsOne about why it was necessary to delve into research that explored this unfamiliar subject.
“Oftentimes when we talk about mass incarceration, we focus on prisons, not local jails,” she said. “When we looked at women, there was a 14-fold increase.”
Swavola said research for the study began more than a year ago. Most of the research and suggestions for reform that the team uncovered centered around men. “We felt they (women) had to be part of the conversation, or we would miss a real opportunity,” said Swavola.
Overlooked covers a multitude of issues regarding the disadvantages women face from a jail stay, including increased chronic trauma and illness. More than half of the women in jail report having a medical problem, in comparison to 35 percent of men. Serious mental illness affects about 32 percent of jailed women, double the number for jailed men and six times more than women in the general public, the study shows.
The female incarceration rate has far-reaching repercussions on women and their families, including weakened ties to children and lost economic opportunities. Nearly half of all single Black and Hispanic women have zero or negative net wealth, according to the study. Black women are five times more likely to live in poverty and receive public assistance, while three times more likely to be unemployed than White women.
Sandra Bland and Symone Marshall, whose case sparked a much-needed conversation regarding race and criminal justice, shined a spotlight on mental health treatment in jail and how financial constraints could lead to death. Bland had a history of mental illness and received inadequate care in jail regarding her condition, according to reports. Marshall was held for two weeks, unable to post a $5,000 bond. Both women died in jail.
Chris Peters, a licensed mental health counselor at the Mecklenburg County Jail in Charlotte, North Carolina, told NewsOne that he has an up close and personal view to the long-term effects of chronic mental health and poverty.
Peters, the only health counselor of color at the facility, says he sees about 8-12 male and female inmates everyday. Challenges in his day-to-day routine include long work days due to the fact that the facility is short-staffed and houses about 1,600 inmates.
After the recession, state agencies cut funding for mental health resources, leaving many people on the streets or in jail, he said. Swavola echoes that thought: “Oftentimes, they’re coming to the system for their mental health issues because the community lacks the resources.”
Many of the women who visit Peters come from a history of trauma and are holding down the fort as single parents, he said. According to the study, nearly 80 percent of women in jail are moms and most are single mothers.
“Unfortunately, usually they’ve been prostituted or in domestic abusive relationships,” Peters said about his female patients. “We’ll be there talking about depression and she’s worried about her kids or whether or not she’s going to lose her job. There are women who come in here and say, ‘My family is out there somewhere, I’m not sure where they are.’”
Language barriers also exist, providing another challenge in receiving adequate assistance and treatment. According to Peters, a rising number of Hispanic women have entered his facility and English is not their primary language. By using a translator, Peters says he is able to communicate with his non-English speaking patients.
Aside from his complications, Peters says that he “can’t give enough praise,” about his facility, which in his opinion, fares much better than others he’s familiar with. Not everyone is so lucky. “Women oftentimes leave jail worse than they entered,” Swavola said.
Gynnya McMillen, a 16-year-old Kentucky teen was found dead in her cell in January. Initially it was thought that a martial-arts like chokehold performed on her by one of the detention center employees contributed to her death, but it was later discovered she died of an irregular heartbeat. Controversy still surrounds her mysterious death.
More work will need to be done, including adding women to the conversation to examine reform policies centered on strategic, deliberate data.
The Vera Institute has gone to great lengths to produce recommendations that may reduce the number of women in jail, including changing policy that enforces the persecution of low-level crimes, assigning adequate legal counsel at the beginning stages of a case, and alternatives or diversion programs instead of prosecution.
“As we think about women in jail, we need to think about the impact on communities,” Swavola says. “We (Vera Institute) feel we must be a part of the conversation. We all see so many disparities across racial lines.”
SOURCE: The Vera Institute of Justice, Safety and Justice Challenge | PHOTO CREDIT: Getty