Between 1980 and 2010, the number of incarcerated women rose by 646 percent—making the U.S. the country with the most women behind bars. In fact, one in three of the world’s incarcerated women is in prison in the United States.
Yet about 70 percent have been convicted of non-violent crimes.
The majority of those non-violence offenders—women convicted mostly of drug crimes—have dependent children. And about five percent are pregnant and give birth in prison. In many states, women give birth in chains because we have not yet succeeded in even passing anti-shackling laws.
Most women in prison are not a danger to society. They are often suffering harsh consequences for nonviolent crimes; for example, the mandatory drug sentencing laws for possessing or selling illegal drugs—even for first time offenders. Women also tend not to benefit from plea-bargaining because they can’t afford a lawyer, or are reluctant to testify against male partners they either love or fear. Even many women convicted of murder have killed in self-defense against a battering partner, yet haven’t been allowed to plead self-defense.
The most common situation was summed up very dramatically by two women prisoners in New York State’s maximum security facility in Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood Is Forever. As they wrote: “Lack of education plus responsibility for children plus poverty moves some women into illegal activities for money, often through relationships with men on whom they are dependent economically—which makes them more vulnerable to tolerating abuse. There are no big-time gangsters here, no serial killers, no Godmothers running drug empires, no Enron or WorldCom executives.”
Knowing such facts is a first step to action. That’s why we at Ms. decided that reporting was not enough. We started the Ms. Magazine Prison and Domestic Violence Shelter Program to respond to requests and to initiate reading programs. It is funded by raising charitable contributions, and asking Ms. Community Members to buy an extra membership for a friend they don’t know.
We wanted to let women in prison to know they are seen and valued, that we are in touch with each other. And because domestic violence shelters can almost be as isolating—and also often lack libraries or any reading material—we decided to include women in those shelters too.
Over the 12 years of this program’s existence, we’ve discovered that this small gesture means a lot. Women in prison may spend 17 hours a day isolated in their cells, with no reading material except the Bible, or with only books and magazines they must share with hundreds of other women.
Now, we send Ms. to hundreds of shelters, and 5,233 federal, state and county prisoners—a fraction of the total, but a number we’re proud of. And we get letters like these that inspire us to keep this program going and growing:
“The prison distributes Ms. publications to the inmates here at Muncy, and we look forward to getting your publications. The articles are enlightening, empowering and inspirational. I have learned so many new things from reading Ms. I can’t begin to tell them all to you. But one thing that has been ‘etched’ into my soul is, ‘I may be a woman, but I can fight too! I’m not alone!!’ Thank you Ms.”
– Wanda S., Pennsylvania
“I’m thrilled at the thought because I could never afford it at $.30 an hour [for work in prison factories]. Thank you for such a generous gesture.”
– Sue Ellen A., Arizona
“We receive your magazine here and I wanted to let the writers and the staff know just how much this magazine gives hope and stir[s] my heart to read the amazing strides women are making. One fight and victory at a time we as women are breaking the stereotypes and discrimination our gender has fought against for so long.”
– Michelle M., Tennessee
We need your help to keep the program running. If you would like the deep satisfaction of inspiring letters like these, please make a tax-deductible donation to the program today to ensure women in prisons and domestic violence shelters continue to feel supported and acknowledged.