Girls, Women, and Mass Incarceration: The Problem Nobody’s Talking About

Content note: The following article includes a description of a child’s death.

Last Tuesday, I attended an understated congressional briefing centered on an issue that greatly impacts a considerable chunk of the population. Too often the injustice of mass incarceration is framed as a male problem. What’s often erased from the narrative and the collective consciousness is the toll this epidemic plays on girls and women.

Michele Goodwin, panel organizer and professor of law at University of California, Irvine, opened the discussion with the fact that the United States incarcerates more women than any other nation in the world. This shouldn’t be surprising seeing as we’re also globally ranked number one in size of prison population, which can largely be attributed to the failed drug war, a trillion-dollar sunk-cost approach that only results in bloated juvenile and adult detention facilities.

Goodwin is no stranger to excoriating the gratuitous culture of mass incarceration that is politically romanticized, legally reinforced, and socially accepted without critique. While this issue affects men—particularly of racial minorities at astounding rates—focus on this appalling trend usually ignores the plight of girls and women who are also jailed at extremely high rates.

She noted that healthcare behind bars is “extraordinarily absent from a public discourse,” listing some of the dehumanizing ways women are neglected when it comes to sexual abuse, breast and ovarian cancer, and raising children behind bars.

Many women who are incarcerated in the US are mothers who were once the primary caregivers of their children, leading to the placement of children in an ever-expanding foster care system. Unable to bear the demands, foster homes then resort to an “aging out” process which produces underprepared eighteen-year-olds who end up unemployed, homeless, pregnant, or incarcerated.

Mass incarceration also has a profound negative impact on children not in foster homes, Goodwin added, citing the research of her sociologist collaborator Kristin Turney. The negative psychological and physical consequences of this rinse-and-repeat and “tough-on-crime” system exacerbate problems rather than provide solutions.

Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, focused on the inhumane practice of solitary confinement, a cruel form of punishment characterized by extreme social isolation and environmental deprivation leading to social atrophy and even mental breakdowns.

While stories like that of Albert Woodfox—a man unconscionably subjected to forty-three years of solitary confinement—grace the media every so often, what’s often lost in news reports is that in some states, women are placed in solitary confinement at equal or even higher rates than men despite that most women are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes and that it’s extremely rare for them to commit violent acts while imprisoned. Often, women are subject to this horrific treatment for trivial disciplinary reasons, mental health issues, or retaliation from prison guards for reporting abuse or rape.

Fettig explains that the criminal justice system is being misused as an ill-equipped mental ward. Since over 50 percent of incarcerated women suffer from mental illness, and prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers aren’t equipped to be mental health hospitals, officials often deal with women exhibiting the symptoms of mental illness by placing them in solitary confinement.

Panelist Carolyn Sufrin, assistant professor and physician at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, presented shocking information about the gross deficiencies and neglect of gender-specific health needs. Sufrin spoke to how criminal justice system officials continually neglect the well-known medical risks of shackling women while they’re in labor. Despite the fact that the United Nations, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and other professional medical organizations have called it dangerous and inhumane, pregnant women continue to be shackled during labor, even in states that have laws against it.

Incarcerated women routinely experience injustice when it comes to reproductive services and poor access to healthcare. While institutionalized, some women have been coerced to undergo unlawful sterilizations. Many want to start birth control before they get released and think of their reentry into society as a new opportunity, but very few jails and prisons offer this possibility. Likewise, there are those who do want to get pregnant and focus on motherhood when released. Even so, there’s very little preconception counseling available to educate them about healthy nutrition and the risks of drug addiction.

Sufrin also cited the case of Nicole Guerrero, a pregnant inmate who was knowingly ignored for eighteen hours who ended up delivering the baby in her jail cell. Sadly, her baby was strangulated by the umbilical cord and didn’t survive.

ACLU racial justice staff attorney Nusrat Choudhury wrapped up the panel discussion with an explanation of the bureaucratic pipeline that has funneled tens of thousands of people into prison for their inability to pay fines or fees, not because they’ve done things society has determined should be punished by incarceration—a phenomenon encouraged by the economic decline.

Since the economic recession, what we’ve seen throughout the country are declining state and local budgets. This shortfall in public funding for government has motivated a move towards trying to fund public government by collecting fines and fees from people who are too poor to pay. A report published by the ACLU titled “In For a Penny” documents how jurisdictions around the country jail people because they can’t pay fines.

It’s the drive for municipal income that transforms policing in places like Ferguson into a revenue production agency rather than an organization actually focused on protecting the public. And this revenue seems to come mainly from people of color who are disproportionately incarcerated due to the deep-seated racial biases present in our culture and systematized in our criminal justice policies. Based on decades of empirical evidence, Choudhury stated, “There are clear metrics that show people of color are stopped [far out of] disproportion to their numbers of the population.”

Despite studies showing people of color don’t offend at rates that are dramatically disproportionate to that of whites, they’re ticketed, fined, and arrested at rates that simply aren’t justified by statistics.

A tendency to view poor people of color as cash registers has become more common nationwide. Choudhury shared the story of Qumotria Kennedy, a mother struggling to survive and provide for her children in post-Katrina Biloxi, Mississippi. Unable to pay traffic tickets, Kennedy was placed under the supervision of a for-profit probation company operating at no charge to the city with all expenses paid by its destitute probationers. She was soon sucked into the cycle of fines, debt collection probation, and jail time, and in the process, she lost her job.

Those caught in this tangle of injustice endure devastating consequences to their employment, family life, mental health, and their potential to contribute positively to society. Lawsuits have been filed across the country challenging these practices, yet it continues.

The perverse, exploitative schemes of the prison industrial complex blatantly disregard the humanity of many who are just trying to survive. For far too long we as a society have been indoctrinated to hold warped views about what does and doesn’t make someone a “criminal.” It’s time we scrutinize these beliefs as well as the specious justifications for our jail-happy legal system.


For more on this subject, the ACLU has published findings related to the over-incarceration of women as well as a comprehensive look at women in solitary confinement (aptly named “Worse Than Second-Class”).

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