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New Study Sheds Light on Challenges for Women Behind Bars

August 31st, 2016

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The number of women behind bars in the United States has grown to nearly 110,000—fourteen times the size of the population of women in jails and prisons forty years ago, says a new study from the Vera Institute of Justice, an organization that examines the country’s criminal justice system. The growth rate for women behind bars also outpaces the overall prison population growth, which is five times larger than it was in 1970.

Much like incarcerated men, women in prison tend to be overwhelmingly minority, poorly educated and low-income. Approximately 64 percent of women in jail are women of color: 44 percent are African American, 15 percent are Latino and 5 percent are of another racial identity. Only 36 percent of the women behind bars are white. Prior to their arrests, six out of ten women reported that they did not have full-time employment.

Women in jail are also likely to suffer from substance abuse or mental illness, and they are frequently survivors of violence and trauma. The Vera Institute noted that 86 percent of women in jails had experienced sexual violence, 77 percent had experienced intimate partner violence and 60 percent had experienced caregiver violence. Moreover, 82 percent of women in jail suffer from drug or alcohol abuse/ dependence, 53 percent suffer from medical problems, and 32 percent suffer from a serious mental illness.

The medical treatment offered to women in jails and prisons is dismal and inadequate, especially given the limited resources and overcrowding of many county-run jails. As the Vera Institute report explains, “When women do receive care in jail, it is often both inappropriate and inadequate, leading to undetected illnesses, under or over treatment, and potentially worsening overall health for jailed women. Stretched resources can result in dangerous outcomes, including overuse of psychotropic drugs to treat all women experiencing symptoms of mental illness, even where such treatment is not warranted, and lack of evidence-based detoxification therapies, increasing the risk of drug- or alcohol-related death.”

Most of these women have been charged with non-violent crimes, such as drug possession and property crimes. Thirty-two percent of women are incarcerated for property offenses, 29 percent for drug offenses, and 21 percent for public disorder offenses. The report notes that the number of women arrested for drug possession or use tripled between 1980 and 2009, while the arrest rate for men for these crimes only doubled during this time.

Seventy-nine percent of women in jail have young children, and roughly five percent are pregnant. Most of these women are single mothers. As a result, jail time can cause major disruptions for the family unit. As the report notes, “Given that many [women in jail] come from communities blighted by high rates of poverty, crime and low educational attainment, even a short stay in jail may do more than temporarily break up their families. Without the financial means to support their families for the length of their detention and upon their release, these women are very likely to be separated from their children, especially those who are in foster care, for longer than necessary.”

(For further reading on the effects of parental incarceration, see the Guinn Center’s blog, “Mass Incarceration Wreaks Havoc on Families” and the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s report, “A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities.”)

The researchers say that charging for low-level offenses disproportionately affects women for several reasons. Because women are often the primary caregivers for their children, they are likely to accept plea deals that secure the fastest route to release, regardless of whether they are guilty. Second, women who are involved in complex cases often committed crimes on the periphery of a larger case, which gives them less negotiating power to secure a favorable plea deal.

What is especially troubling about the Vera Institute’s findings is that, while the population of women in jail has grown exponentially, the jail system is typically designed for men because they comprise the majority of the incarcerated population. This exacerbates the dismal outcomes for women, including negative effects on their physical and mental health, their finances and their families. Furthermore, little data has been collected on the effects of incarceration on women, despite the explosion in the number of women in jails.

Incarcerated Women in Nevada

In Nevada, 13,941 people are currently behind bars, and of those 1,258, or 9.0 percent are women, according to statistical facts released by the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) on June 20, 2016. Nationally, slightly less than 15 percent of all people in prisons are women, a higher rate than Nevada.

An August 2015 profile of inmates in Nevada’s prisons found that 77.6 percent of women who were new prison intakes had committed drug or property crimes. Less than 20 percent had committed a violent crime. During 2016 and 2017, 85.6 percent of incarcerated women in Nevada are serving their sentences in a minimum or medium security facility.

Approximately 0.09 percent of the women living in Nevada are in prison, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 population estimates. This figure is somewhat higher than the 0.07 percent nationally. The number of women behind bars is expected to increase by 1 percent every year for the next ten years, according to a 2015 study commissioned by the NDOC.

The NDOC includes 18 inmate facilities, including three for women: Casa Grande Transitional Housing, Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center, and Jean Conservation Camp. All three of these sites are located in Clark County.

All 17 of Nevada’s counties also have their own jail or detention center, and the above data only reflects the state-run prisons, which suggests that the number of women in the state who are currently behind bars may be actually larger.

Nevada Women Behind Bars Blog

Key Policy Considerations:

Policy-makers in Nevada may want to consider addressing the following critical issues facing women in the state’s jails and prisons:

  1. Separation from family: As the Vera Institute noted, incarcerated women are often parents, and the separation from children often creates financial and emotional hardships for the families. All three of the state’s prison facilities for women are located in the Southern part of the state and Northern Nevada families may face difficulties in traveling to visit their incarcerated female family members. Many states have adopted policies that take children and families into consideration when choosing a prison assignment for a parent. For example, the director of public safety in Hawaii is bound by law to take children and families into consideration when assigning an inmate to a prison. This option would afford children the opportunity to maintain contact with a parent while he or she is incarcerated.
  1. Better responses to mental health crises outside of prison: One study by a group of mental health professionals found that there are more people with mental illnesses in prisons than in hospitals in the United States. Another report from the Vera Institute outlined several interventions that can help keep people with mental illness out of prisons and in doing so, can save the money:
    • Specialized crisis response teams within police departments that are trained to de-escalate situations without arrests and that help connect people with mental illness to community interventions and programs without arresting them.
    • Jail diversion and specialized court programs that allow people with mental illness to receive needed treatment without sending them through the criminal justice system, where they are likely to become repeat offenders.
    • Community re-entry planning for prison inmates that help connect them with substance abuse and mental health treatment programs immediately upon their release to help reduce the likelihood of recidivism.

In addition, increasing the number of mental healthcare providers in Nevada could benefit not only the state’s incarcerated population but it could also help patients outside of prison walls. The Community Mental Health Forum sponsored by UNLV recently discussed ways Nevada can better help and protect children in crisis, including increasing the number of qualified mental healthcare providers for children and a more streamlined system of providing referrals.

  1. Community re-entry planning for all inmates: Both men and women behind bars are often not given appropriate and adequate mental healthcare resources, and they are not leaving prisons equipped with the tools and resources to manage mental illness and emotional well-being. Because 77 percent of prisoners are likely to be arrested again within five years of release, more programs that provide coping skills for reentry are needed to prepare inmates for a successful life after incarceration. One such program that has seen success here in Nevada is Hope for Prisoners, which partners with inmates and their families to ensure a smooth, positive transition upon release. Other states have created more comprehensive programs to help inmates to transition to life on the outside. For example, the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) has created nineteen task forces throughout the state that seek to build community supports and interventions for recently-released prisoners and to help reduce recidivism. The DCJS has also built an online database, net/ny that provides former inmates with a plethora of resources and answers to questions they may have about things like criminal proceedings, employment, housing, education, and family reunification.
  1. Access to physical healthcare: While incarcerated people of both genders do need to be able to have their physical health needs addressed, the Vera Institute notes that women’s reproductive health needs also need taken care of. Some jurisdictions in the U.S. have recently come under fire for not providing feminine hygiene products, toilet paper, and clean underwear to women. A county jail in Michigan now faces a lawsuit from the ACLU for failing to provide these products to women. Nevada may want to consider the model in New York City, where a number of city council representatives are hoping to make feminine hygiene products free in prisons, public schools, and homeless shelters.
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