How Long Must Incarcerated Women Wait for Dignity?

It’s been fits and starts for the FIRST STEP Act, the prison reform bill that’s been resurrected in the news after the Senate drafted its own version including modest sentencing reform. In a matter of five days, the President signaled his approval of the bill, the Majority Leader rejected the notion and the incoming Senate Judiciary Committee Chair said to press that he would push it forward. The religious right and the ACLU, in a unique partnership, have been lobbying for the legislation for the past two weeks.

What will happen now with the FIRST STEP Act is anyone’s guess. But even if it stumbles, meaningful prison reform is imminently achievable in this Congress. Protecting women, the fastest-growing prison population, should be a priority—but instead, The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act has been stalled in Congress since it was introduced in 2017.

Women in U.S. prisons are routinely denied free tampons and sanitary pads, and pregnant women are shackled and housed in solitary confinement. About 80 percent of women in prison are mothers, and their incarceration—through distance, high phone rates and suboptimal visiting policies—separates them from their children in multiple ways; about 94 percent have a history of physical or sexual abuse, and can’t get the appropriate treatment they need on the inside.

The Dignity Act, introduced in July 2017 to much fanfare by Senators Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Richard Durbin, would remedy these maladies, giving women in prison the lives they’re already entitled to under the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners.

Within just a week of its introduction alone, the bill spurred the Bureau of Prisons to implement new procedures. In Congress, it was quickly referred to the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Chuck Grassley, a relatively recent convert to belief that our prisons are in crisis who likely would have wrangled the Republicans on the committee to getting it to the floor—and its passage was never likely to be a partisan war.

When similar “dignity acts” were presented this year in the state legislatures of California, Connecticut, Kentucky, Louisiana and Virginia, not one opposing vote was cast. That’s not surprising: The various “dignity acts” are each a referendum on human rights, and voting against them is hard. Who would vote to shackle pregnant women? Hopefully no one.

Yet, despite its momentum, there’s been no significant movement for the Act. Instead, drafters of the FIRST STEP Act borrowed its ban on shackling, as well as the mandate for access to personal hygiene supplies. In September, a House bill that would ban the shackling of pregnant women also popped up.

Altogether, it seems like someone simply gave up on the Dignity Act long ago and didn’t bother to tell anyone—which is rather undignified. In its place, the FIRST STEP Act has become the sole focus of reform efforts, eclipsing holistic dignity without good reason, since we know from similar successes that the provisions in the Dignity Act have broad support from lawmakers of all persuasions.

Undoubtedly, there will be people who think the Dignity Act shouldn’t have priority in the midst of prison reform efforts in Congress, precisely because of its focus on women. But the reality is that the Dignity Act would be impactful across the system—and might even achieve more than the FIRST STEP Act even could.

The Vera Institute of Justice released a report last month calling for grounding correctional practice on human dignity and fostering respect for incarcerated persons within the prison system, and urged officials to “elevate and support personal relationships” and “respect a person’s capacity to grow and change.”

The recommendations from the Vera Institute are only partially enshrined in the FIRST STEP Act. FIRST STEP contains carve-outs that prevent people convicted of certain crimes from participating in certain programs—exceptions that don’t respect a person’s capacity to rehabilitate themselves. Close reading of the bill also reveals that there are specific populations which lawmakers don’t think deserve the dignity of inclusion and investment of government resources.

The Dignity Act, on the other hand, would establish an ombudsman and a mentoring program by formerly incarcerated people for all people held in federal custody—recognizing the standing that any inmate has to demand human treatment and rehabilitation. And because it addresses the rights of primary caregivers, it uplifts men and women serving time with family waiting on the outside.

This isn’t to say that the FiRST STEP Act isn’t a good bill. (It is.) And the approximately 4,000 people who will feel relief immediately if it passes into law will also include some female federal prisoners, including changes to mandatory minimum sentencing laws that could impact the more than half of women in prisons charged with non-violent property and drug crimes that carried grotesque mandatory sentences, sometimes for life in prison. Alice Marie Johnson, whose life sentence was commuted by President Trump this summer, was one of those women—sentenced to life without parole for selling drugs to make ends meet, her first offense.

It doesn’t matter which statute prevents men from snapping metal clasps and chains around the ankles of a pregnant woman or denying them a maxi-pad during a heavy flow day. As long as it gets done in this country, it’s a win. But we can’t let would-be victories siphon our attention away from the revised prioritization of the Dignity Act.

How women’s dignity got downgraded is just a replay of what happens routinely when we focus on the needs of incarcerated women. We hail efforts to help women in prison when they’re announced, but if our interest in this change doesn’t endure, the energy behind them inevitably gets redirected the needs of male prisoners.

The FIRST STEP Act doesn’t need to be the first step. There’s no good reason why the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act hasn’t already been made law or been brought to the floor for the vote it deserves.

If we don’t center women, they often get left behind. If we don’t continue fighting for them, there will be no victories for them. The well-being of women in prison should not need to be sacrificed for the “greater good” of the men serving time alongside them—men whose needs are entirely different than theirs.

Dignity for women is reform for all.

Every year, Ms. sends thousands of magazines to women in prisons and domestic violence shelters. To support our efforts and help us expand our reach—and to show women in prisons that they aren’t alone—please give to our Women in Prisons and Domestic Violence Shelters program today.


Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries  She's a 2018 "Leading with Conviction" Fellow with JustLeadership USA and a 2018 Pretrial Innovation Leader with the Pretrial Justice Institute. You can follow her on Twitter at @aprisondiary.