Sen. Harris Calls for Reform on Policies that Hurt Incarcerated Women

On Tuesday, Senator Kamala D. Harris (CA) delivered a speech to the Justice Action Network’s “Women Unshackled” Conference, which was geared towards the substantial increase in the number of incarcerated women here in the United States. Most forward in her remarks was her emphasis on prevention and humane treatment for women before, during, and after their periods of service.

Cosponsored with Senator Cory Booker, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Senator Dick Durbin, The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act strives to address some of the issues discussed here, namely, that we should be trying to give people the tools they need to stay out of prison. It also addresses the need to take care of and rehabilitate the women who do end up in prison.

“Law enforcement has such a profound and direct impact on the most vulnerable among us,” says Harris. “It has a responsibility, then, to be a voice for the most vulnerable and voiceless. And in the process of giving safety, there is also a responsibility to give dignity.”

To begin, here are the numbers she cited:

  • 215,000 women are sitting in prisons and jails in the United States today.
  • The fastest growing group of incarcerated persons in the U.S. is women.
  • Nearly one-third of all female prisoners in the world are prisoners in the U.S.

That’s crazy. And a clear sign that, as Senator Harris says, we don’t need to be harder on crime, we need to be smarter.

Education, mental health services, and community building are the first of many options that Senator Harris spoke of yesterday.

During her time as DA in San Francisco, Harris noticed that there was a direct correlation between education and one’s likelihood of committing a crime.

“Out of twenty of our homicide victims who were under the age of twenty-five, 94% of them were high school dropouts.”

She continues.

“Eight out of ten women in the criminal justice system, the data tells us, have experienced some level of abuse. A large number have experienced abuse at the hands of someone who was in a position of trust, taking the form of child sexual abuse. A lot have faced abuse then and then later in life around domestic violence.”

And many turn to self medicating as an alternative to seeking professional help, making themselves susceptible to the hands of predators.

It is important for law enforcement to acknowledge harmful patterns and to introduce means of breaking these patterns, rather than supporting them with indifference.

And then there’s the downright questionable. 

Adverse conditions limit the ability of incarcerated women to live healthy lives and to transition back into society after they have served their time. Instead of learning valuable skills and treating past trauma, they learn shame, violence, and further trauma.

Many of the U.S. facilities do not provide basic hygiene or reproductive health, making it difficult for these women to stay healthy and positive.

Incarcerated women are subject to the possibility of encountering sexual violence by male guards who supervise them in the bathroom or in the shower.

Pregnant women in prisons or jails are often shackled, and in some states, they are to remain shackled even while giving birth.

“These are human costs to this system,” Senator Harris reminds us.

“But the impact does not stop there. An incarcerated woman means that a family will be impacted. And its effects can be generational. What impacts a mother, impacts a child.”

Nearly 80% of incarcerated women are mothers. Most, 65%, have children who are under 18 years old.

It affects how the children will grow up in more ways than one. Removing a parent not only affects the stasis of a home on a personal level, but it drastically affects the economics of the family, and possibly their ability even to travel to see their family member, which makes the whole thing that much worse.

“Half of the incarcerated women in our country are more than 100 miles away from their families. Let’s talk about what that means in terms of the ability to maintain the relationships with visitation and be clear about this, these prisons aren’t on the Acela line. They’re not on a commuter line, it’s not easy to get there.”

And then there’s the other money issue.

  • It costs tax payers an average of $33,000 a year to house and support one prisoner.
  • In the state of California, it costs about $75,000 a year.
  • Drug treatment on average is about $4,700
  • And $10,000 for community mental health services.

It just makes sense. Cut the waste, and take care of seemingly small issues before they become bigger issues.

Prevention, redemption, both possible.

“At the heart of that point is this. We will all make a mistake, and for some of us that mistake will rise to the level of being a crime,” says Harris. “And yes, there must be accountability and consequence. But is it not the sign of a civil society that we allow people the space and the ability and the resources to earn their way back?”

Is it not the sign of a civil society to believe in second chances, with justice and liberty for all?