The population of women in US prisons has skyrocketed in the past three decades. The criminal-justice system, designed to hold men, is struggling to keep up—harming some of its most vulnerable inmates in the process.
Conditions for women in American prisons are so inhumane that several Democratic senators have introduced legislation that would provide incarcerated women with some very basic rights: access to free tampons and sanitary pads, and a ban on shackling or placing pregnant women in solitary confinement. The bill would also mandate that prisons ensure victims of trauma get the appropriate treatment.
Many states already prohibit shackling pregnant prisoners, and in 2008, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) said it would ban the practice for women in labor. Free access to good-quality hygiene products is a widespread problem across the criminal-justice system, with women often forced to buy them from the prison’s commissary.
The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, first reported by the Huffington Post and introduced Tuesday (July 11), would cover federal prisons, which only house about 13% of the US inmate population— nearly 13,000 women, according to 2015 data.
Another 99,000 serve time in state facilities, which have separate regulations. Many, many more cycle through local jails. According to a 2015 report from the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, 25 states had a higher incarceration rate for women than any country in the world. Inmates are disproportionately women of color.
“A majority of women behind bars are mothers and nearly three-quarters have been the victims of trauma or abuse. We must take these circumstances into account when we place women in prison facilities,” says Cory Booker of New Jersey, one of the co-sponsors of the bill. He calls the changes proposed in the bill “common sense.” The other sponsors are Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Richard Durbin of Illinos, and Kamala Harris of California.
The legislation also focuses on improving how parents interact with their children while in prison, including parenting classes, ensuring free phone calls and video conferencing, and requiring the prisons bureau to implement better visitation policies. That would require things such as considering a child’s location when deciding on a parent’s prison placement.
More than five million American children will grow up with a parent in prison, which, according to research, is associated with increased rates of homelessness, drug abuse, poverty, and mental illness. Visitation often helps children better cope with the trauma of having a parent behind bars.