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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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Many women lack basic literacy skills, much less a GED or any substantive vocational training. Six in 10 women in our jails and prisons are women of color; persistent gender and ethnic discrimination, and racial profiling on the part of local police are such a regular part of life that many women I interviewed didn’t even think to comment on such experiences unless I specifically asked them, say, about an allegation of a police beating I came across in their records.

One of the most groundbreaking books to have ever been published on female incarceration was written by Kathryn Watterson. When Women in Prison: Inside the Concrete Womb was first published in 1973, there were 7,730 women nationwide in jails, and another 15,000 women in state and federal prison. Watterson had hoped that sounding an early alarm about the nascent trends in women’s imprisonment (and the accompanying constitutional and human rights violations) would spur enough prison reform to change the tide. When she had the chance to update her book two decades later, in 1996, she reported with dismay that the overall number of incarcerated women was nearly 110,000.

Watterson’s sense of outrage at a situation gotten so completely out of hand is understandable. It’s a feeling I share as a journalist who has watched these numbers increase so dramatically throughout my life; even as serious crime rates have decreased over the past decade, prisons are bursting at the seams and state coffers are running dry.

These days, I expect to come across outrageous statistics related to our criminal justice system, but even I wasn’t emotionally prepared for the statistics I dug up for this article. As it turns out, since I finished my book in May 2007, the number of girls and women under correctional supervision hasn’t just inched up, as I would have expected, it has taken a giant leap. At the time I turned in my manuscript, there were roughly 203,000 women in jails and prisons. Now, there are more than 208,000 females, and those statistics only bring us up to mid-2007. Overall, there are now 1.4 million women and girls under some form of correctional supervision, compared with 1.3 million at the time I finished my book.

All within the space of 18 months.

When I traveled to places like Valley State Prison for Women and the women’s section of the Los Angeles County Jail system (the nation’s largest), I saw, firsthand, what happens to prisoners and correctional employees alike when a system has spiraled so out of control it has begun to implode on itself. I saw cells designed for two women packed with eight bodies, women sleeping in corridors, and the rampant misery and aggression birthed by such inhumane conditions. I witnessed so many untreated mentally ill people that these environments felt more like Dickensian mental asylums than places designed to rehabilitate people and release them back to their communities.

While California’s chronic jail and prison overcrowding (at more than 200 percent in some prisons) and relentless prison expansion has resulted in an utter catastrophe that might soon force a federal takeover, New Mexico is currently experiencing a slight decrease in its prison population. Whereas California’s Legislature can’t seem to move forward coherently on any kind of prison reform or alternative sentencing, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s Task Force on Prison Reform released a comprehensive report earlier this year outlining numerous progressive, forward-thinking solutions to address the needs of women and men who end up in jail and prison.

And that’s great news. Unfortunately, the long-term predictions are still such that the New Mexico Corrections Department is preparing for substantial increases in both female and male prison populations in the years to come. All the while, New Mexico’s privatized prisons and prison services continue to generate controversy (and lawsuits), while its jails are rife with serious problems. A slate of recent (and forthcoming) lawsuits target numerous facilities for egregious abuses -- most recently, against the Grant County Detention Center for employing guards who forced inmates into human cage fighting. In addition, the Department of Justice released a report in June that found the CCA-run Torrance County jail had the highest sexual victimization rate of female and male inmates in the country (four times the national average).

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