3 Ways We Can Treat Women In Prison Better

Legislation put forward this week highlights the alarming ways female prisoners have been stripped of their humanity.

This week, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker introduced legislation targeted at improving the lives of the almost 13,000 women currently incarcerated across the United States. Despite being the fastest growing segment of the prison population, females in jail are often left out of conversations pertaining to prison reform and conditions. 

Called the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, the bill includes provisions that would require female inmates in federal prisons be provided free, quality sanitary products; would bar federal prisons from shackling or placing female inmates in solitary confinement while pregnant and would set guidelines that would make it easier for women to maintain ties to their family during the length of their sentence. 



"We need to create a prison that, yes, is holding people accountable, and yes, is allowing people to pay their debt to society for mistakes they have made, but also is about the dignity of humanity," Booker said in a press conference announcing the bill. "We've got to be a better society than this."

The legislation is a major step forward to creating more humane circumstances for female inmates. Below are three additional measures studies have shown should be taken into consideration when talking about reform in women's prisons.  

1. Make female sanitation products freely available.

Booker and Warren's bill calls for pads and tampons to be provided for women in prison at no cost to the prisoner. Writing in the New York Times, Jennifer Weiss-Wolf and Chandra Bozelko suggest that in addition to sanitary products being free of charge, they should also be placed out in the open so prisoners do not have to ask a guard in order to obtain them. They note that pads and tampons have been known previously to be used as another way guards can control prisoners. 

"The availability of sanitary products isn't simply a matter of budget lines and purchasing orders," they write. "It has little to do with stock, supply, or actual need. Rather, it has everything to do with power."

When it is considered that sanitary pads and tampons are used in response to a biological function that female prisoners have no control over, this seems like a simple measure that could make a huge difference. 

2. Adjust prison practices to account for prior traumatizing situations.

An overwhelming 86 percent of women in prison have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, a study on women in prisons published last year found. But, in addition to intake services that rarely identify this trauma unless it is apparent, common prison practices such as strip searches, usage of restraints and solitary confinement do not take these histories into account and can be retraumatizing for inmates. 

"Trauma survivors are likely to perceive the often invasive nature of many daily correctional procedures as profoundly threatening," the study states. "In turn, the way survivors typically respond to perceived threats can lead to punishment, particularly if jail authorities do not know how to detect or respond to the common symptoms of trauma."

3. End solitary confinement.

While understood to be an extreme punishment in any case, solitary confinement when used as a means of punishment for female prisoners was found to result in a unique set of consequences, a report by the ACLU found last year. High rates of mental illness and a history of sexual violence amongst female prison populations result in prisoners who are likely to be debilitatingly affected by time spent in solitary confinement. Cases of prisoners not receiving medications and not being granted visitation days with family (nearly 80 percent of women in prison are mothers) have all been reported. 

"After just two months in solitary confinement, my mind began to slip," Sarah Shourd, who spent 410 days in solitary confinement, told the ACLU. "I started to realize that there was a slow disintegration, really, of my personality, my sense of who I was."

Since its introduction, California Sen. Kamala Harris and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. Several prison reform advocates as well have come out in support of the legislation. 

"I believe that means that every one of us has an investment in these women," Warren said. "An investment in making sure that during the time they are incarcerated, that we do our best to make sure they are treated with basic dignity and they have a chance to emerge from their incarceration as intact human beings who are ready to come back to their communities, ready to come back to their families, and ready to make a real contribution."

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