Out of sight should not mean out of mind—and heart. But the tragedy for women in prison is that it often does. For the rest of us, this invisibility keeps us from realizing how much women in prison may resemble you and me.
For example: 80 percent are mothers, and this year alone, incarceration will separate 2.3 million mothers from their children. About five percent are pregnant and give birth in prison. And in 28 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; about 82 percent have been convicted of non-violent crimes. Often, they are suffering unfairly harsh consequences, even for nonviolent crimes—for example, possessing or selling illegal drugs. Even many of the women convicted of murder have actually killed a violent partner in self-defense, yet not been allowed to plead self-defense.
Two women prisoners in New York State’s maximum security facility summed it up this way: “There are no big-time gangsters here, no serial killers, no Godmothers running drug empires, no Enron or WorldCom executives.” Yet women and girls are the fastest growing incarcerated population in the United States today.
Over the course of the past four decades, women’s state prison populations have grown more than 834 percent—more than doubling the rate of growth in men’s prisons. And the incarceration rates for women of color outpace their white counterparts: black women are twice as likely as white women to be incarcerated.
Once in prison, women also suffer significantly higher rates of sexual victimization and violence by staff. Often, prisoners’ mental and physical health deteriorate, as their most basic hygiene and reproductive needs—even access to tampons or pads—go unmet.
Learning such facts is a first step to action. We at Ms. magazine want women in prison to know they are seen and valued. Because domestic violence shelters can be almost as isolating as prisons—and often lack libraries or any reading material, just as many prisons do—we decided to include women in those shelters, too.
That’s why we started the Ms. Magazine Prison and Domestic Violence Shelter Program. It is funded by charitable contributions earmarked for this purpose, and also by Ms. Community Members who buy an extra membership and subscription for a friend they don’t know.
Over the 14 years since this program’s birth, we’ve discovered that even a small gesture means a lot. Women in prison often 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’re reaching 8,242 federal, state and county prisoners with Ms. and women in hundreds of shelters. That’s a fraction of the total, but it’s a number we’re proud of and hope to keep growing.
Ms. also has been reporting on one of the driving forces behind increasing incarceration rates among women: the cash bail system. Sixty percent of jailed women—often primary caregivers for their families—remain locked up before their trial simply because they cannot afford to pay bail, a median cost of $11,700 in the U.S. This is a form of the debtor’s prisons that were eliminated in the 19th century.
Data has shown that when a woman is unable to afford bail, she is more likely to be convicted, more likely to receive a longer sentence and more likely to end up with a lifelong criminal record. Many women also tend not to benefit from plea-bargaining simply because they cannot afford a lawyer.
That’s exactly what happened to Deborah Burlingham, of Las Vegas, Nevada, who wrote to us after receiving Ms. in prison:
“I recently read your Summer issue and thoroughly enjoyed every article. I especially was impressed with “Held for Ransom” by Sarah Willets. I too was a victim of this practice. I am currently incarcerated for a DUI—no injuries, no property damage. My bail was set at $100,000 cash only! I remained there until my initial court date 33 days later. I was then transferred to prison. I was wondering if you are still offering a free subscription to women in prison? Reading and working out are my two periods of sanity every day. Keep up the good work of informing women about important issues. Thank you.”
Let women on the inside know they are not alone. Every American should be ashamed that this country puts a greater proportion of its citizens in prison than any other nation on earth, because of racism, sexism and also because in many states, the Prison Industrial Complex allows corporations to build and run prisons for profit.
And let survivors of domestic violence who are now in shelters know it’s unfair for them to be deprived of home while the criminal is free. We must all work together against notions of “masculinity” and “femininity” that have turned the home into the single most dangerous place for women and children in this country.
Nothing can replace systematic remedies, and nothing can replace reaching out to women in prisons and shelters right now. If you would like the deep satisfaction of knowing you’re part of letting them know they’re not alone, please make a tax-deductible contribution to the Ms. Prison and Domestic Violence Shelter Program.
Nine-year-old Anabel, from Los Angeles, CA, explains it best:
“I am nine and my daddy got me a subscription (in my name) to Ms. magazine. I read my copy once I get it. My daddy and I have enclosed $12, $2 from me and the rest from my daddy. I think it’s sad that women go to jail for no reason and I want to help. Please enjoy the picture I’ve drawn.”
If you send a friend you don’t know a copy of Ms., it will have her name on it, and be something she knows will keep coming—hundreds of pages of words and images that link her to the world of women.
On the outside, the women’s movement brings us support, facts, creativity, humor and a sense of community. Pass it on.