|Women in Prison: Seeking Justice Behind Bars|
|By U.S. Commission on Civil Rights|
The following is the Executive Summary to the report "Women in Prison: Seeking Justice Behind Bars" published on February 26, 2020 by The United States Commission on Civil Rights.
This report studies the civil rights of women in the United States prison system. The Constitution and federal statutes require that men and women in prison receive equal treatment. A 2011 report from the Commission’s New Hampshire Advisory Committee found that New Hampshire failed to meet the needs of incarcerated women in New Hampshire, which caused harm. Other investigations have demonstrated that women in U.S. prisons can face particular challenge in a prison system not designed for them. The population of women in prison has increased dramatically since the 1980's, and this growth has outpaced that of men in prison, yet there have been few national-level studies of the civil rights issues women experience.
On February 22, 2019, the Commission held a briefing focused on the civil rights of women in prison, including deprivations of women’s medical needs that may violate the constitutional requirement to provide adequate medical care for all prisoners; implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA); and the sufficiency of programs to meet women’s needs after release. The Commission also examined disparities in discipline practices for women in prison compared with men, and in impacts of women being placed far from home or having their parental rights terminated. Commissioners heard testimony from state and federal corrections officials, women who have experienced incarceration, academic and legal experts, and advocates. The Commission also sent Interrogatories and Document Requests to the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Justice and analyzed their responses. Commission staff provided quantitative and qualitative research about the main issues facing women in prison.
As discussed in greater depth throughout this report, data suggest that women in prison have some unique needs distinct from men. Women have health needs that differ from men, which many prison systems are ill-prepared to address. Data reflect that, compared with men, women entering prison are more likely to suffer from chronic or severe mental health issues, are more likely to be survivors of trauma and/or sexual violence, and have higher rates of substance abuse than their male counterparts. While incarcerated, women are significantly more likely to be sexually harassed and abused than are men. Pregnant women in prison risk practices such as shackling during birth (where lawful) or failure to provide adequate pre- and post-natal care, and they generally face abrupt separation from their newborn babies. The Commission heard bipartisan testimony decrying these practices. LGBT incarcerated women often face challenges in receiving the medical care they need, in addition to often being subjected to harassment, abuse, and discriminatory treatment at the hands of prison officials and other inmates, particularly if they are transgender women placed in men’s prisons.
Women who enter prison are also more likely than men who enter prison to be the primary caregiver to their children and are more likely to lose custody and parental rights upon incarceration. Incarcerated women, as a group, have less education and lower income levels than their male counterparts, and these data suggest that disparities are harsher for women of color in the criminal justice system. Once incarcerated, women often experience disparities in discipline, compared with male inmates, and have less access to rehabilitative programs that would address their needs and ability to successfully re-enter society and avoid recidivism. Our investigation illuminates the lack of opportunities to acquire a skill that would assist in post-incarceration employment opportunities for women versus men. For example, women in prison are often offered work or program opportunities such as cleaning, domestic work, and “female-coded” occupations, rather than the same chances as incarcerated men to learn new skills.
As discussed below, the vast majority—88 percent—of women in prison are serving time in state run facilities. Although states have significant police powers and run their own state and local prisons, the federal government not only runs federal prisons, but it is also the ultimate guarantor of constitutional rights of women institutionalized in the United States. It is charged with setting national standards and bringing enforcement actions when needed. Moreover, the federal government conditions federal grant monies and programs on compliance with basic civil rights laws. In that capacity, it also sets appropriate national standards, provides assistance in coming into compliance, and enforces the law.
Chapter 1 of this report provides background of critical data and research findings on the number of women in prison and demographic trends about their characteristics and place of incarceration. It also provides an overview of applicable civil rights law, including constitutional protections and relevant statutes such as the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) and the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), both of which the federal government enforces and may protect the rights of women in prison. This report then follows the path of women who are incarcerated and provides research about the obstacles they face. Chapter 2 discusses how women are classified upon entry into the prison system, how placement tools are being developed to address women’s needs while incarcerated, and the implications of placement on women’s roles in their family, and parenting. Chapter 3 provides an analysis of women’s health issues and challenges, access to care, the situation of pregnant women, and the problem of sexual abuse impacting women in prison. Chapter 4 discusses the problem of sexual abuse impacting women in prison. Chapter 5 analyzes disparities in discipline that may impact women in prison, emerging practices and trends in how staff are trained to work with women prisoners, and whether women staff are necessary to protect them. Chapter 6 then studies rehabilitation, educational, and vocational training programs for women in prison and their impacts on life after prison. After this report’s review of this broad swath of data, Chapter 7 analyzes and evaluates the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Justice’s efforts in protecting the rights of women in prison.
Finally, the Commission sets forth findings and recommendations, key components of which are summarized below:
Notwithstanding federal statutory legal protections such as the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) and the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), aimed at protecting incarcerated people, many incarcerated women continue to experience physical and psychological safety harms while incarcerated and insufficient satisfaction of their constitutional rights. Classification systems which are not calibrated for gender-specific characteristics have been shown to classify incarcerated women at higher security requirement levels than necessary for the safety and security of prisons. This classification results in some women serving time in more restrictive environments than is necessary and appropriate.
Incarcerated parents permanently lose parental rights at higher rates than parents whom courts find to have neglected or abused their children but are not incarcerated.
Incarcerated women generally have biological healthcare needs distinct from incarcerated men. They have a constitutional right to have these healthcare needs met.
Sexual abuse and rape remain prevalent against women in prison. This continuing prevalence has led to significant litigation involving several different institutions, at tremendous cost to taxpayers and providing strong evidence of the need for reform at the institutional level, even following passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003. Reports include abuse of incarcerated women by staff and other incarcerated women that is prevalent and pervasive.
Studies have shown incarcerated women are often given disproportionately harsh punishments for minor offenses while incarcerated compared to incarcerated men. This dissproportionality results in such outcomes as placing women in segregation for minor violations of prison regulations, which denies them good time credits which would shorten their sentences and denies them programming privileges, among other restrictions. Reports indicate women are disproportionately punished harshly for offenses such as “being disorderly” where men tend more often to be punished for violence.
Prison officials, supervisors, and correctional officers are inconsistently trained on the prevalence of disproportionate punishment of incarcerated women and evidence-based disciplinary practices.
Prison officials should adopt validated assessment tools, currently available, to avoid inaccurately classifying incarcerated women to a higher security level than appropriate.
Prison officials should enforce policies that support parental rights and familial contact except where inconsistent with safety concerns. Such policies include keeping incarcerated parents apprised of family court proceedings, providing transportation to those proceedings, and assisting in locating counsel. Institutions should implement visitation policies with the goal of maintaining familial relationships.
Prison officials should implement policies to address women’s specific healthcare needs, including gynecological and prenatal care, as is constitutionally required.
All prisons should prohibit shackling pregnant women and placing them in solitary confinement, as these practices represent serious physical and psychological health risks.
The Department of Justice should rigorously enforce the PREA standards, including training and certifying auditors and investigating whether facilities are in fact in compliance. Congress should provide more funds for investigations and audits.
Prisons should implement evidence-based discipline policies that are trauma-informed to avoid harsh punishments for minor infractions, recognizing significant harms that can result from placement in restrictive housing. Prisons should ensure restrictive housing is not used against people of color, LGBT people, and people with mental health challenges in a discriminatory manner based on these characteristics.
Prison officials should implement staff training to address the high rates of trauma among incarcerated women and adjust prison policies accordingly, including training on evidence-based discipline practices.
To view the full report, click here.
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