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  November 23, 2015

Report: The Population of Women in Prison Has Tripled Since the '90s

A recently published report by the Prison Policy Initiative brings to light staggering statistics about incarcerated women.
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ANGEL ELLIOTT, TRNN: I'm Angel Elliott for the Real News Network in Baltimore.

A recently published report by the Prison Policy Initiative brings to light staggering statistics about women in prison. The growth of the women's prison population has nearly tripled since 1990, and accounts for nearly 30 percent of the world's incarcerated women. With us to discuss this report is its author, Aleks Kajstura, who's a legal director at Prison Policy Initiative, and director of health and wellness at Dignity and Power Now, Mark-Anthony Johnson. Thanks for joining us, guys.

ALEKS KAJSTURA: Thanks for having us on.


ELLIOTT: So Aleks, talk to me about the Prison Policy Initiative's new report on incarcerated women.

KAJSTURA: What we tried to analyze was looking at our incarcerated population. You know, women are often kind of left out of all the statistics and the data. So this was an attempt to quantify how many--how punitive, I guess, the United States is toward women, and how each state is different between each other on policies and incarcerating women, and then how the states compare to other countries.

So for example, you can say, well you know, our state is better than Louisiana, or at least we're not Texas. But when you take, when you kind of step out of that isolationist worldview and look outside of the United States, even some of the “better” states in the country are still, are some of the harshest incarcerators of women in the world.

ELLIOTT: That's right. And in your report you said that Rhode Island, if it were a country, would be the 15th highest in incarceration rate in the world. Talk to me about that.

KAJSTURA: Well, I think at some point--and we don't really have hard facts on historical data for other countries, so we're not exactly sure where the United States peeled away. But as you said, our incarceration rate has, starting in the 1980s, really just skyrocketed. I looked at historical data. And throughout all of the last century, really, we were around a rate of 20 women incarcerated for every 100,000 women we had in the US. So that accounts for our population growth in the US. We still kind of incarcerated the same percentage of women throughout. But starting in the 1980s it has now climbed to over 100 women incarcerated for every 100,000. And you know, just getting to a point where we can have those numbers was really an interesting struggle out of this report, and that's how buried women's incarceration data is in general. So as to the how did we get there and why, those are the next questions that need to be answered.

ELLIOTT: Right. And not only are we incarcerating women at a much higher rate than our international counterparts and other NATO countries, but we're incarcerating women at a much higher rate than we used to. You spoke to that a little bit. Talk to me about that and your research method for this study.

KAJSTURA: So in order to get the historical data we looked at about, I think, 12 different sources to cobble all that together. And you know, that again just speaks to the lack of data upon which our public policies are based. If you don't even know, you know, how many women we used to incarcerate--and this was looking at jails, prisons, and the federal system all together, it was just--you know, quite a scavenger hunt to get that all together. And in the end, I mean, I still don't have the number for 1981.

ELLIOTT: And while it was a scavenger hunt, my question is this: how many of the women who are incarcerated are women of color, and would we have to examine each state differently in relation to the report? What accounts for the overall disparity?

KAJSTURA: That's the crazy thing. We just don't know. And yeah, you pretty much have to go state by state to see what the breakdown of the population is, and a lot of times the race and ethnicity data on the state level isn't that dependable. Every state has a different way that, for example--a lot of jails, for example, don't even track the data. In terms of prisons, every Department of Corrections might have a different way of classifying people. And it's--yeah, it's just a whole hodgepodge. And that's, again, this report was just scraping the surface. And all these answers really need to be found in order to make better policy around incarceration, or choices around that.

ELLIOTT: Exactly. Especially when we know that people of color are disproportionately incarcerated in this country. Mark, this question is for you. What are some of the unique challenges women face in prison that current prison policy just doesn't address?

JOHNSON: Thank you. I think it's an important question. I think what you've already laid out in the discussion is really critical, in terms of the invisibility and the lack of data around what really is a crisis of incarcerating women and women of color in the United States. So I think a lot of what we see is a lot of the invisibility around conditions that women are facing, looking at everything from sexual assault to denial of medical care, denial of reproductive care. There's been a whole movement in California to stop the forced sterilization of women that has a long history in California. And organizations took on that struggle and won, and now there's some backlash from prison guards around that.

And so some of the specific, I would say, conditions are looking at reproductive health, are looking at access to basic needs and services, and also thinking about the role that women play or are expected to play in terms of the family unit, and the impact that women, the incarceration of women, has on families and their relationship to children and families. The shackling of women who are pregnant. We have stories that we've heard from a report that we did on the incarceration of women in the local Los Angeles jail system of women who were having abortions inside the jail system, and were being denied medical care during that process. And so I think those are some of the conditions that really need to be shed a light on.

But I think it's also important to not just focus on reproductive rights. I think it's important to broaden it and look at the impacts and intersections around things such as mental health, right. There's higher rates of mental health with women--mental health crises with women in the sense that there's such a denial of a mental health infrastructure in Los Angeles County. So when we start to see what happens to folks who have mental health crises or are going into mental health crises, there's very little data of how many of these folks are ending up inside.

We know that in Los Angeles County we have the largest jail system in the world. We have one of the largest mental health facilities in the world, which is the Twin Towers Jail. And we know that black folks are 9 percent of the county population, 30 percent of the county jail population, 43.7 percent of the county jail population that has a, quote, “serious mental illness”. But we don't know how many black women have a diagnosis, or have a mental health history, inside the county jail system. And that's, that's a serious oversight. And what was already named in terms of the lack of collection of data, it's really hard to really grasp the intersections that women and women of color are at in terms of state violence in the carceral setting if we're not looking at all the intersections that they're positioned in.

ELLIOTT: And Aleks, your thoughts on this?

KAJSTURA: Yeah. I mean, Mark spoke to it really well. Women have, for a myriad of reasons, we have a huge caretaker role in society. So it's really important in order to maintain a healthy society that women's incarceration needs to be looked at very carefully.

ELLIOTT: Right. And Mark, incarcerated women go largely unaccounted for when the conversation comes up about the prison-industrial complex. Not only in the media, but in the legislature. Why, in your opinion, does this persist?

JOHNSON: I mean, I think there's a valuing of men's experiences over women's. I think that's just the clear kind of cultural reality that we really have to push back on. I mean, we, in Los Angeles, there was about a whole year of work that was done specifically looking at excessive force inside the county jail system. And that's important, right, because in a carceral setting it's hard to monitor things like excessive force. It's not where, you know, in the last year we've seen folks videotape law enforcement brutality or excessive force on a patrol setting. And put it up on YouTube, and there's this whole growing awareness and courage that folks have around capturing those things. You can't do that in a carceral setting, right, we don't have that same access.

And so there was a year-long investigation done in 2011 around sheriff brutality. And the data that came out, 57 percent of use of force incidents in the jail settings were initiated by sheriffs. Not in response to any prisoner behavior. But not getting a sense of how many of those folks were women. Right, how many of those folks were black women. I think there's a lack of interest in really focusing on women.

And I think there's also, when you talk about women of color, there's a sense of describing women of color, in particular black women, as already deviant, as already needing to be controlled, as already aggressive, right. We can see this in the school-to-prison pipeline, where young, black women are only 12 percent of school populations, high school populations on the East Coast, New York, Boston. But they're six times more likely to be suspended, twelve times more likely to be disciplined than white girls. And so I think we really have to look at the full picture, and really push back against this narrative that really justifies the incarceration of women of color in particular.

ELLIOTT: And going back to the report, Aleks, we see that the highest incarceration rate in the United States and in the world is West Virginia. Why is this?

KAJSTURA: So West Virginia is kind of an interesting, is in an interesting spot. Because about 61 percent of their incarcerated women are actually held in federal facilities. So it's a combination of state policy to incarcerate their own residents, as well as a willingness on part of the state to work with the federal government to actually, you know, import incarcerated women from elsewhere to house in West Virginia.

ELLIOTT: Okay. And last question for you both. Have you seen an increase in the grassroots organizing within the prison, where addressing these issues are concerned? You can go first, Mark-Anthony.

JOHNSON: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think one thing that's really exciting about Los Angeles is that the movement around criminal justice is really being led by folks who have been formerly incarcerated. I think that's really exciting. One of our lead organizers and campaign directors, Jada, was incarcerated for six years. And now she is leading this work, and is very much a voice and connecting folks who have been incarcerated to the local struggle around jails. Which is critical here in California, where the prison population is being realigned, is what they're calling it, to the local jail population. So the jail is becoming an arena and we're protecting our rights, protecting our folks, and making sure they're having the resources and we're transforming the system on that level, as well, is really critical.

And that fight's being led by folks who are incarcerated. And I think that's where we have to be. I think we really have to center the voices of folks who have been incarcerated, center the voices of black and brown women, queer folks, as we are developing our analysis and sharpening our analysis of how to really change this system.

ELLIOTT: Absolutely. Aleks?

KAJSTURA: Yeah. I mean, definitely. In our corner of the woods we've had a push for anti-shackling legislation. And as Mark said earlier, you know, a focus on reproductive rights for women who are incarcerated is really just, just a place to start. There needs to be a much wider conversation, and any discussion of public policy surrounding incarceration needs to include women.

ELLIOTT: Well, Aleks and Mark-Anthony, thank you so much for joining me.

KAJSTURA: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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