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The high cost of incarcerating women

“My oldest daughter was 12 when I started my incarceration, on the brink of adolescence. And I just wasn’t there,” said Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice as Healing, an advocacy organization for incarcerated women. “I was breast-feeding my five-month-old baby boy, and you can’t do that when you are in prison. It was a six-hour round trip drive for them to come visit me.

“But I was lucky because I had a husband who cared and made sure I got to see my children. There were so many women I knew who never saw their kids. When I got out, I had my family and resources and a home to go back to. And still I was totally depressed and barely functioning for months. Some women are really scared when it’s time to leave because they have nowhere to go, and no one to go home to.”

The number of incarcerated women in the United States increased by 800 percent from 1977 to 2007. Like James, a majority are mothers serving sentences for a nonviolent offense; often they’re the sole caretakers, and 52 percent in state prisons were the primary financial support for the family prior to conviction. “Separating mothers from their children and newborns is denying human rights,” said Marianne Bullock, founder of the Prison Birth Project, which advocates for and provides health services to incarcerated pregnant women and mothers.

Advocates point to the hidden costs associated with incarcerating women, such as the economic implications for the entire family, the emotional toll on their children, and the impediments to successful reentry once their sentences are complete. Recent legislation in several cities and states intends to provide alternatives and keep families together. For example, in Massachusetts, a proposed law would provide “community-based sentencing alternatives for primary caretakers of dependent children convicted of non-violent crimes.” The bill, still in the judiciary committee at press time, is similar to the 2010 Washington State law that created sentencing alternatives—community supervision or partial confinement—for parents who meet certain criteria.. The pilot initiatives have resulted in low rates of recidivism; similar legislation is being implemented in five Oregon counties early next year. Oklahoma City and Tulsa also have diversion programs for mothers to remain at home while receiving treatment and counseling.

Even as proponents of criminal justice reform are starting to see some positive movement, such as the Justice Department's recent release of 6,000 nonviolent offenders, current and formerly incarcerated women and their families still face a multitude of problems. Women are more likely than men to be incarcerated far from their home, making it even harder for families to visit. “Some local facilities do not allow contact visits,” said Erika Kates, project director of the Massachusetts Women’s Justice Network at the Wellesley Centers for Women. “Visiting areas leave a lot to be desired, no books or toys. Generally it is a difficult experience.” If a mother doesn’t demonstrate an “active connection to her children for twelve out of fifteen months,” explained Kates, the children can be placed for adoption.

According to Who Pays?: The True Cost of Incarceration on Families, a recent report by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design, surveyed families paid out an average of $13,607 in court-related expenses, and 83 percent of those responsible for taking care of the costs are women. One out of five families had to take out a loan and more than a third went into debt over the expenses associated with visitations and phone calls, explained Azadeh Zohrabi, national campaigner for the Ella Baker Center and co-author of the report.

Once they are out of prison, women face economic hurdles that can impact their ability for successful reentry. “Despite having finished their sentences, women coming home from prison continue to be punished,” said Zohrabi. “They face discrimination when applying for housing, employment, educational loans, professional licensing, and other federal benefits, including nutritional assistance. These barriers and restrictions come at a time when these women are most vulnerable and need all the support they can get. Preventing someone from meeting their basic needs like food and shelter doesn't make anyone safer and makes it extremely difficult for anyone to rebuild their life and create economic stability for themselves and their families.” 

Women are more likely to be convicted of drug felonies, according to Bias Behind Bars, a report by the Women’s Foundation of California. A felony drug conviction can block access to public benefits. A provision of President Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform legislation imposed a lifetime ban on receiving food stamps and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families funds for people with a felony drug conviction. This ban applied to all states unless they acted to opt out. Five years later, eight states and the District of Columbia had entirely opted out and another 20 had modified the provision, according to the Sentencing Project’s A Lifetime of Punishment. The report estimated that 180,000 women and their families were affected by the provision between 1996 and 2011. A felony drug conviction can also mean losing the right to vote, the inability to get a student loan or access public housing, and lack of access to employment.

“Formerly incarcerated women are more likely [than men] to be primary caregivers, and they must find jobs that permit them the time and flexibility necessary to raise young children,” said Jolene Forman, staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance. “In addition, formerly incarcerated women have higher rates [than men and women who have never been incarcerated] of HIV, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancer, which impedes their ability to work and find jobs conducive to their physical limitations.”

Some women face financial and personal hardship before they have even been convicted of a crime. Women held in pre-trial detention are often unable to make bail of very small amounts, and may end up losing their job as well as temporary custody of their children. If a woman lives in public housing and has been accused of a substance abuse offense, she and her family may face eviction and loss of their possessions.

“Why are we sending people to jail and prison for drug- and poverty-related offenses which are arguably public health and social problems, not criminal justice issues?” asked Forman.

Recent efforts to reform the criminal justice system, such as the pending Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, have the support of both Democrats and Republicans. So does the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which enables states to explore ways to cut spending while maintaining public safety and rolling back mandatory minimums. Even though there is a growing concern about mass incarceration, actual change will take time.

“The United States has spent over 40 years and billions of dollars to increase our capacity to imprison people and to justify this kind of punishment as one that will keep us safer,” said Zohrabi of the Ella Baker Center. “Now that we are seeing what a waste of resources this has been and how much damage it has done to millions of American families, we are being forced to reconsider its effectiveness. Sometimes it's difficult to imagine alternatives or to figure out what to do with all these prisons that have been built if we are not going to use them to cage human beings anymore.”




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