Over the last few years, our broken criminal justice system has become a national issue as horrific stories of victims of mass incarceration have made their way into the mainstream media.
The dominant narrative around this issue is usually that it disproportionately affects people of color, particularly men.
Many folks have heard of Kalief Browder, a New York teenager who took his own life after suffering nearly three years in solitary confinement, all for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was never tried.
Fewer people know Maria Elena Hernandez, a retired California housecleaner who was jailed after police rejected her (accurate) protests that they’d mistaken her for someone else.
Although women represent a small portion of it, they are currently the fastest growing segment of our prison population.
There are 219,000 women currently incarcerated in the United States. A new report by the Prison Policy Initiative and the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice found that “a staggering number” of them haven’t even been convicted. “More than a quarter of women who are behind bars have not yet had a trial,” they found.
Worse still, there are a number of public health and economic consequences for the conditions that women suffer in prison.
Firstly, many prisons and jails are ill equipped to support the health needs of women, including basic hygiene and reproductive health.
According to the ACLU, pregnant women who are incarcerated are still being shackled during childbirth. Shackling makes the already painful process of childbirth and postpartum recovery even worse.
The American Medical Association and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) have spoken out against this, deeming it medically unsafe. Yet there are at least eight states that have yet to propose legislation to ban this inhumane practice.
Secondly, incarcerating women also has long lasting economic effects, further exasperating the gender pay gap — and endangering children.