This week RH Reality, a daily publication providing news, commentary, and analysis on reproductive health and reproductive justice issues, began a series titled Women, Incarcerated an on-going investigation into the abuses women face in prisons and jails across the country. The series is a great reminder of why, in order to end mass incarceration and build a more humane prison system, criminal justice advocates must address women in our justice system. 

While the majority of prisoners are men, women have become the fastest growing incarcerated population. Even as nationwide incarceration rates have begun to slow and even decline, the number of women in prison continues to skyrocket. Between 1980 and 2012 the number of women imprisoned in the United States increased from 25,000 to 200,000. Even here in Maine – the state with the lowest incarceration rate in the country – the number of women in prison has increased six-fold since 2002.

Rather than address complex issues like addiction, mental health and economic instability, policymakers have attempted to instead “Band-Aid” the problem through use of our criminal justice system. This misuse of our criminal justice system has had a particularly harmful impact on women. Today, 84 percent of incarcerated women are imprisoned for non-violent offenses, mostly drug offenses or crimes related to poverty. In other words, women are being punished and imprisoned for failed social policy.

Of the minority of women who are incarcerated for violent crimes, most are survivors of domestic violence or abuse who, paradoxically, are prosecuted under the very laws purporting to protect victims of violence. Take for example the case of Marissa Alexander, a domestic violence survivor and mother, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her husband, a man with an admitted history of violence against Alexander and other women. In New York State, 67 percent of women sent to prison for killing someone close to them had been abused by that person. In California, a similar study found that 93 percent of the women who killed their significant others had been abused by them and 67 percent of those women reported they were attempting to protect themselves or their children. Far from protecting survivors of violence, in these circumstances our criminal justice system criminalized and further victimized them.

Furthermore, while women make up just seven percent of the prisoner population, according to a report by the Bureau of Justice statistics 33 percent of victims of sexual assault perpetrated by corrections staff are women.   

For women in our prison system, the conditions of confinement are particularly inhumane. A staggering 73 percent of incarcerated women have some form of mental illness and some 85-90 percent self report a history of physical and sexual abuse. The experience of incarceration can be destabilizing, re-traumatizing and re-victimizing. Medical and mental health services in prisons and jails, while guaranteed by the Eight Amendment, are minimal, often provided by private companies whose interests are primarily geared towards increasing profit margins. Solitary confinement and prolonged isolation, which has been shown to cause and exacerbate existing mental illness, has a particularly harmful impact on women

62 percent of women in prison are mothers. Incarceration strains womens relationships with their children and often leads to termination of parental rights even just for minor crimes. As the number of women in prison has risen, so too has the number of pregnant women in prison. The conditions for pregnant women in prison are terrible. Medical care is truly minimal and nutrition often wholly inadequate. Across the country, pregnant women are also routinely shackled - during transport to and from medical facilities, during labor and post-partum recovery. Shackling pregnant women poses a huge risk to the health and safety for both the woman and her pregnancy and has been widely condemned by the medical community and corrections administrators. Shackling pregnant women has been found to violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Finally, our criminal justice system is also being used increasingly as a tool to further a policy agenda - namely, lawmakers seeking to limit women's reproductive freedom have turned to criminalizing pregnancy - funneling more women into our criminal justice system who absolutely should not be there.

For criminal justice reform advocates, decreasing the number of woman going to prison and ensuring our prisons and jails are more humane places for women must be a priority. This legislative session, the ACLU of Maine has made three criminal justice reform bills - all of which will impact women - our priority. Both LD 113, a bill downgrading current criminal penalties for drug violations, and LD 951, a bill prohibiting incarceration for failure to pay fines, will significantly decrease the number of women coming in contact with the criminal justice system due to drug addiction and poverty - both significant drivers of why women in Maine are in prison and jail.

Lastly, LD 1013 will prohibit the practice of shackling pregnant women. All women, regardless of whether they are incarcerated or not, deserve basic human dignity and the right to a safe and healthy pregnancy. No woman should be shackled at any point during her pregnancy, whether it be just in transport to medical facilities, labor or during postpartum recovery. This bill - co-sponsored by every woman currently serving in the Maine legislature - will be a huge step to making Maine's prisons and jails safer and more humane places for pregnant women.