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Fewer than 5% of those incarcerated in the prisons of New York State are women. Therefore, our movement for justice in the criminal justice system should devote less than 5% of its time, energy, and resources to issues of incarceration and women — right? Wrong. But it often seems like that’s what we do. Here are some reasons why we should do it differently, and some thoughts about how.
“Women hold up half the sky” is like “Black lives matter.” Your first thought is, well duh. And your second is, Wait, there must be a reason why there is an urgent need to say something that should be so obvious. If we are not looking at the full range of the criminal justice system’s impact on women, then we are seriously not understanding its disastrous effects on public wellbeing – and we will not be able to challenge it effectively.
Approximately 2300 women are incarcerated in New York State prisons on any given day, 4000 over the course of a year – a substantial and growing number. Women in local jails are about another 1500. Women, particularly women of color, are the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population.  But the issue of incarceration and women goes beyond numbers. It encompasses the  particularity of suffering experienced by women in the criminal justice system, the multiple negative effects of the criminal justice system on women who are not incarcerated, and the resulting destabilization of  entire families and communities.
Women in the criminal justice system suffer the same deprivations, injustices, cruelties, and humiliations as men do, plus many others specific to their situation as women.  A report released this year by the Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York is  entitled, “Reproductive Injustice: The State of Reproductive Health Care for Women in New York State Prisons.” Its 200+ pages detail some of those special horrors — from shackling during pregnancy, to lack of sanitary napkins (a majority of women do not receive enough each month), to a single gynecologist for a 1000-bed women’s prison, to re-traumatizing experiences for survivors of sexual abuse (9 out of 10 women in prison are survivors).

Nearly 75% of women in prison were primary or sole caregivers of a minor child prior to their arrest.

Some of the heart-wrenching, long-term consequences of that separation on both mothers and children are recounted firsthand by children of incarcerated parents via videos made by the children themselves in a group called Echoes of Incarceration (echoesofincarceration.org). Women’s role as caregivers of children, elders, and other dependent family and community members is even more important in low income, disadvantaged, and people of color communities – those most disproportionately incarcerated —  than in more privileged communities. So the incarceration of women reverberates far beyond the prison walls.
And what of the rest of the women who come from the same targeted communities as those who are incarcerated? Prison impacts those outside as well as those inside. Family members often say, “We are doing time too.” On any given day in the visitor room at any given New York State men’s prison, the overwhelming majority of visitors are women, and the overwhelming majority of those are women of color. Your reporter has seen days when all the visitors were women. And who are  the visitors in women’s prisons? Also women. Women of all ages and relationships to prisoners make the long trek to visit their loved ones, at great cost – financial, psychological, and physical – and often with small children in tow.  Many live in communities and families where incarceration has left a profound void of youth, elders, parents, partners, teachers, and wage-earners. These are some of the impacts of prisons on women which will help to better understand the role of the criminal justice system in the destabilization, impoverishment, and disempowerment of communities.

The powerful forces that created and maintain mass incarceration claim the criminal justice system exists to protect society from harm. By examining its impact on women we can better understand how far from the truth that claim is.
In Part II we will look more carefully at all forms of violence against women, one of the leading indicators of the status of women and perhaps the greatest threat to their wellbeing. We will look at the ways sexual assault and domestic violence are increased by the criminal justice system; how the criminal justice system itself perpetrates violence against women; and the multiple forms that violence against women takes in addition to direct physical violence – poverty, lack of health care, poor education, neighborhood deterioration, urban neglect, gentrification, environmental destruction, joblessness, homelessness – all factors that degrade the quality – and quantity — of life for women. How does the prison system fit into this grim picture?  And what can we do about it? Tune in next month.

From NetWORKS, the monthly column of the New York State Prisoner Justice Network

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