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Women Behind Bars Are Deprived of Their Basic Rights

For incarcerated women, there is little justice to be found.

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But for that bit of progress, we may soon have "Cherry Hill" (a spin-off of Prison Break), as well as Robert Rodriguez’ "Women in Chains", which promises "hot" female-on-female action in prison, including predatory lesbian wardens and mud-wrestling behind bars.

Just as cinematic and televised portrayals have tended to sensationalize and sexualize the plight of women behind bars, so, too, have the fields of journalism and criminology traditionally ignored or simplified the complexity of women’s experiences behind bars. It’s time for criminologists and journalists alike to help the public understand the extent to which antiquated notions about what it means to be a "proper" woman inform the way we treat a person who deviates from the norm or commits a crime. In particular, I refer to women who engage in sex work and women who sell or use drugs.

Susan Boyd, author of From Witches to Crack Moms: Women, Drug Law, and Policy, points out that women have alternately been respected, tolerated or castigated for their drug use throughout history. Attitudes have varied wildly from one generation to the next, and have always been skewed by a woman’s ethnic and class status. Of particular significance, Boyd notes, is the 18th and 19th centuries’ upper- and middle-class women’s use of opiates, cocaine or marijuana in medicinal tinctures, which was viewed as a matter of sophistication and high social standing. But all that began to change with the temperance movement of the late 1800s: "Contrary to early Christian views that women were inherently evil, the new temperance movement depicted women as naturally moral," Boyd writes. "However, some women were constructed as more moral than others. Poor women and women of color, immigrants, and ‘fallen women’ were viewed as immoral and deviant."

In essence, some women were considered "redeemable," while others were dismissed as hopeless. Since that time, the religiously based concept of "fallen women" has marred the American psyche, informing current attitudes, laws, prison programs and media portrayals of women who use illicit drugs. While drug- and alcohol-using boys and men have a certain amount of latitude to indulge their pleasure-seeking proclivities, women who are similarly inclined are more commonly viewed with disdain and disgust, which they, themselves, often internalize.

Researchers and social workers in the field of drug and addiction treatment have long understood that women’s substance abuse tends to be interrelated with serious and unresolved life traumas and the societal imperative that women not act out their discontent, anger or aggression in the public sphere. Knowing what we know about women in prison with histories of substance abuse -- including the fact that the majority of all women in prison have a mental illness, much more so if substance abuse is also involved -- imprisonment has increasingly become the nonsensical American reaction to drug crimes of any kind.

Simply put, the war on drugs is the main reason for the explosive growth in women’s imprisonment, and New Mexico is no exception. Here, the vast majority of women doing time don’t just have substance abuse histories (at 85 percent) but have a nonviolent drug-related violation as their primary sentencing offense.

We know, without a doubt, that the overwhelming majority of women in New Mexico’s jails and prisons -- and in cities across the U.S. -- come from backgrounds of poverty and abuse, typically entering the prison system with chronic medical and/or psychiatric problems. (Women in prison also have higher rates of HIV, hepatitis C and MRSA than their male counterparts.) This situation would be difficult even if it were not regularly compounded by humiliating cavity searches, callous disregard for the needs of the mentally ill and indifference to providing the tools women need to re-enter society. Many women go straight to their cells from the streets, fleeing abusive homes, or from marginal housing situations. (One-third of women in jail were homeless before they were arrested.)

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