How to Send Ms. to Women in Prisons and Domestic Violence Shelters

Updated Dec. 7 at 11:41 a.m. PT.

Currently, 23 U.S. states do not have laws against shackling of incarcerated pregnant women, despite a 2010 United Nations rule that “instruments of restraint shall never be used … during labour, during birth and immediately after birth.” (No Kids In Prison)

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:

  • Over half, 58 percent, of women in prison are mothers.
  • Eighty percent of women in jails are mothers.
  • About 5 percent are pregnant and give birth in prison.
  • In 23 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 60 percent have been convicted of non-violent crimes. Often, they are suffering unfairly harsh consequences even for non-violent crimes, like possessing or selling illegal drugs. And many of the women convicted of so-called murder have actually killed a violent partner in self-defense, yet not been allowed to plead self-defense—this real motive that would have been allowed in a non-“domestic” setting.

This is part of the reason 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 by 100 percent.

Once in prison, women also suffer significantly higher rates of sexual victimization and violence by the staff who are supposed to protect them. At the less visible end of the spectrum, prisoners’ mental and physical health often deteriorates, their most basic hygiene and reproductive needs—even access to tampons or pads—are frequently ignored.

Knowledge is power. Learning such facts is a first step to action for us, and feeling seen is a first step toward hope and sanity for those inside. We at Ms. magazine want women in prison to know they are seen and valued. And because domestic violence shelters can be almost as isolating as prisons—and often lack reading material, just as many prisons do—we decided to include women in those shelters in this program 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 Ms. community members who buy an extra membership and subscription for a friend they don’t know.

One in four women will experience physical and sexual violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime, according to CDC data. (The Owl Feed / Creative Commons)

And now, we send Ms. to 5,256 federal, state and county prisoners. That’s a fraction of the total, but it’s a number we’re very proud of and hope to keep growing.

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. And this past year has been particularly devastating with the COVID pandemic sweeping through prisons, further isolating women from their families.

Over the 17 years since this program’s birth, we’ve discovered that even this small gesture of recognition, support and information means a lot.

Here’s what Elena H. wrote to us from prison in Muncy, Pennsylvania, after Ms. published a feature on the rates of COVID infections in women’s prisons: 

“The hardest aspects of COVID in prison were the unknowing and the isolation. It was hard to feel heard, to feel like my personhood mattered to anyone. A change began when I participated in Victoria Law’s article in Ms. The article was a spark of dignity. As ‘Prison Outbreak’ restored my idea of dignity, dignity sharpened into indignation. Prison itself is founded on unknowing and isolation and I am not content to consent to its dehumanization.” 

 We also heard from Tiona Rodriguez and Kim Brown, both of whom are incarcerated in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, N.Y.:

“It was exciting to see my name printed in one of Ms. magazine’s articles. I walked into our facility’s library and was stopped by another inmate. She asked me, “You’re Tiona Rodriguez, right? I saw your name in the magazine speaking about COVID.” I felt like I had accomplished something remarkable, something not only beneficial for myself but for all men/women who are in the same position as I am.”  

—Tiona Rodriguez

“Thank you for carrying my voice beyond DOCCS’ bureaucratic boundaries. It is so important that the outside world know what is actually going on in prisons. The bureaucrats tell our story and it’s not always quite accurate. You used my exact words.” 

—Kim Brown

It’s stories like Elena’s, Tiona’s and Kim’s that inspire us to build our Prison and Domestic Violence Program bigger, to reach even more women. And to reflect their reality in our pages.

For instance, Ms. has been reporting on one of the driving forces behind increasing incarceration rates among women: the cash bail system. Sixty-six percent of jailed women who cannot afford bail are mothers of minor children, and the majority are primary caregivers for their families. They 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.

Also, 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. Reading and working out are my two periods of sanity every day. Keep up the good work of informing women about important issues.”

And our program lets 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 women know they’re not alone, please make a tax-deductible contribution to the Ms. Prison and Domestic Violence Shelter Program.

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.

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Gloria Steinem is a writer, speaker and organizer and the co-founder of Ms. She is also active with the Women’s Media Center, Equality Now and Donor Direct Action.