Women: the forgotten face of incarceration

Women: the forgotten face of incarceration

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Nadine was 19 years old when she was first incarcerated. After that, she spent most of her life in and out of Pennsylvania state prisons on drug-related charges. Today, she’s been clean for seven years and is now out on parole, looking to rebuild her life with the help of Sisters Returning Home, a non-profit service organization in Philadelphia’s Germantown section.

“It’s hard to get a job, but I am not a failure,” Nadine said during a recent panel discussion at La Salle University. “Just because I made some bad decisions doesn’t mean I have to keep giving up on myself.”

Nadine, who did not want her last name used, represents the forgotten face of incarceration in America. While public attention has focused on the large number of African-American men who have been imprisoned on drug charges, the plight of African-American women like Nadine has received relatively little attention.

Except for a scattering of programs such as Sisters Returning Home, the criminal justice system lacks gender-responsive treatment for women, experts told the La Salle audience. There are fewer services inside and outside of prison for women. Prison programs, even in female prisons, were designed for men, and after prison, many women are immediately forced to care for their families, often without support for employment or housing.

“Most women who are in prison don’t need to be incarcerated,” said Jill McCorkel, a sociologist at Villanova University. “They need resources.”

More women in jail

Although men – particularly African American men – constitute the majority of those who are incarcerated, female incarceration is on the rise.

The number of incarcerated women in the United States in 2014 was over eight times greater than it was in 1980, a growth rate one and a half times greater than that for men who are incarcerated, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The graph shows how female incarceration rates have risen since 1980, increasing by over 700 percent.

Since 1980, female incarceration rates have been steeply rising. (Sources: U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and The Sentencing Project.)

In 1980, there were just 26,378 women in jails and prisons. By 2014, the figure had jumped to 215,332, almost a 10-fold increase. The reason, said McCorkel, is not that women are committing more crimes. Rather, she said, courts are imposing harsher sentences for drug-related crimes.

In 1986, for example, just 12 percent of incarcerated women were in jail or prison because they had been convicted of a drug offense. By 2014, the figure had jumped to 24 percent.

In the 1980s, women who were convicted of nonviolent crimes, primarily drug offenses, were more likely to be given lighter or community-based sentences, especially if they claimed caretaker status, according to McCorkel. Now, due to mandatory minimum laws, which require convicted people to serve a certain prison sentence based on their crime, more women and mothers are forced to serve sentences in prison.

Currently, more than 5,200 women are now incarcerated in Pennsylvania, according to The Sentencing Project, a national advocacy group. And like prisons for men, the two state prisons for women are overcrowded. Cambridge Springs in northwestern Pennsylvania, for example, is operating at 117.8 percent of capacity, according to a 2016 report of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

Sisters offers resources

Sisters Returning Home, located at 304 W. Schoolhouse Lane, is one of the few organizations in the Philadelphia area that helps women after they have been released from prison. The program runs three days a week for four hours. Most women are brought there from halfway houses. “Coming to Sisters changed my whole pattern of negativity,” Nadine said. “My whole thinking is changed. I know today I have a choice.”

Peggy Sims, director of the Sisters program, said it aims to provide the resources that returning women desperately need. The women take classes to learn budgeting, finance and computer skills. They get help writing cover letters, resumes, applying for jobs, applying for housing and getting in touch with their families. Last year, they went to the circus and had Thanksgiving dinner together.

Director of Sisters Returning Home, Peggy Sims, works at her desk.

Director of Sisters Returning Home, Peggy Sims, works to provide women returning with resources they need.

“It just makes me so happy to come here,” said Carol, a 48-year-old woman who has been with the program for three months. “Sisters is a safe haven for women. If I didn’t come here, I don’t know what I would do.” Like others, she did not want to disclose her last name for fear of stigma.

Carol said she was incarcerated for child endangerment because she, her husband and her children were living in a condemned house in South Philadelphia. “I couldn’t afford nothing else,” she explained. Her children were put in foster care while she and her husband served their sentences. Carol said she has not seen her children since she was arrested, and she will not be able to see them until she has a stable home.

“I hear them in my mind. I see them. I dream about them,” she said wistfully. When she thinks about losing her children, she said she sometimes has panic attacks. “But, when I come here,” she said of the Sisters program, “they make me feel better. I wish it was five days instead of three days.”

The Sisters program also provides recently released women with resources to meet immediate needs –toiletries, feminine products and clothes, for example. Recently, a woman came to the program with only her prison jumpsuit. Sisters gave her clothes and arranged for her to have a room to herself in a half-way house, Sims said.

“They need more facilities for women like this. The women are always way in the back (when getting services),” Nadine said. Once she graduates from the program she hopes to be able to give back to Sisters by donating clothes and toiletries like those that have been donated to her.

Despite the need it fills, Sisters Returning Home has limited openings. The program can only take about eight to 10 women at a time in order to give each woman the attention she needs, Sims said. And for every woman the program serves, there are many more that it can’t serve, most of whom are women of color.

Racial disparities

According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, black women outnumber white women in prison by nearly three to one despite the fact that the rate of illicit drug use is the same for both races. McCorkel blames biased sentencing. “You can’t logically draw any other conclusion,” she said.

As the incarceration rate for women continues to rise, more and more children are left without both their fathers and their mothers, Sims said. Often, they live with extended family or, like Carol’s children, go into foster care.

When incarcerated women re-enter society, many are barred from receiving welfare. Women returning from prison have difficulty reapplying for programs such as Medicaid and SNAP (food stamps). Most released women cannot get federal housing and other types of government assistance that they need to get back on their feet and avoid re-incarceration.

“When we return home, it’s always a hassle to get funding,” Nadine complained.

Research by the National Institute of Justice indicates that released prisons need programs and services to prevent them from returning to harmful habits. More than 75 percent of released drug offenders, for instance, will be re-arrested within five years of their release, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In order to prevent such recidivism, Sims said the government needs to step up and provide funding to support women make the transition from prison to civilian life. “They are still valuable to our society,” she said. “We sit up here and recycle our trash and throw out our people.”

Carol stands in the Director's office at Sisters Returning home. She has been part of the program for 3 months.

Carol, who was released from prison in 2015, is hopeful of being reunited with her children.

Still optimistic

 Despite the challenges, Nadine and Carol are optimistic about their futures. Nadine has recently entered phase four of her release plan with the State Intermediate Punishment program. One recent weekend, she went home to see her family on her first furlough from the halfway house.

With help from Sisters Returning Home, Carol has put in a “home plan” with her parole officer. Once Carol’s plan is approved she can move out of the halfway house and into her own place where she can finally see her kids again.