As far as the national conversation about prison reform goes, one group that has been historically left out of the mix is — big surprise — women. That fact is something that Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren are trying to change with a new bill that demands not only basics for inmates, like sanitary supplies and the right to give birth without being handcuffed, but also that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) recognize women as human beings deserving of respect. And yep: Turns out, that is something we still have to legislate.
The bill, titled the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, is designed to protect the fastest-growing population of inmates in America today, and to help prevent women incarcerated in federal facilities from, say, having to make the devastating choice between calling their kids at night or buying a box of Tampax from the price-hiked commissary.
It also would put in place a laundry list of minor, seemingly common sense (or at least common decency) requirements that would make a world of difference for women behind bars and their families on the other side, including a guarantee that the BOP update its policies to ban the shackling and solitary confinement of pregnant women; train correctional officers on how to interact with victims of trauma; cease charging inmates for phone calls and require video conferencing at every facility, free of charge; as well as enable more contact between incarcerated women and their families, among other reforms.
"We are a nation whose most cherished principles and ideals involve having liberty and justice for all, and holding dear the concept of equal justice under the law," Senator Booker said in a phone call with Refinery29 Tuesday evening. "The criminal justice system as a whole erodes so many aspects of our society and our common values."
Andrea James, Executive Director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, as well as a former inmate herself, applauded the lawmakers' efforts to include the experiences of female prisoners themselves, who she says are typically excluded from the conversation, while drafting the language of the proposed law.
"Nothing about us without us," James said, who stood next to Sen. Booker during a press conference introducing the bill. She also aired that while it's direly necessary to discuss tangible reform, like requiring prisons to provide adequate menstrual products, what's most challenging — and perhaps most imperative — is to transform is the culture of emotional desperation in prison and its particular impact on women.
“What it’s like to lay in a prison bunk, listening to another woman who you know is dealing with a difficult situation with her children, who is inconsolable at 3 o’clock in the morning; to hear a mother, desperate, trying to parent from a pay phone — that is something you never forget,” James, who was sentenced to 24 months in federal prison after being convicted of misusing funds as a real estate attorney in 2009, told Refinery29.
Since 1980, the female prison population in America has grown by 716%: In 2015, the most recent year for which federal prison population statistics are available via the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 12,953 federal inmates were women. Nearly 80% of women incarcerated today are mothers — many of them primary caregivers and the last line of defense between their kids and the world. If passed, the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act would mandate that the BOP be required to consider the location of the children in the placement of the incarcerated parent, as well as put in place policies that make communication and visitation between mothers and families more accessible. That includes a pilot program which would allow for an overnight visitation program between parents and children.
"We have this very distorted perception of incarcerated women and who they are: they were bad mothers, they didn’t care about their children, they don’t love their children. We think that when we send women to prison that they lives of their children get better — but for the most part, particularly for our girls, their lives often become more challenged," says James.
"The daughters of incarcerated women are the most targeted for being trafficked, and for all these other things that happen in the lives of girls — that are a thread running through the lives of incarcerated women, like sexual violence — that often starts in the lives of these women as children." The facts back up that statement: In August 2016, a grim analysis from the Vera Institute of Justice found that 86% of women in jail report having experienced sexual violence in their lifetime.
"Data on women in jail suggest that their justice system involvement often stems from poverty, mental health and substance use challenges, and trauma," Elizabeth Swavola, the lead author of the Vera study, wrote to Refinery29 in an email. "Spending time in jail can further exacerbate these root causes of women's incarceration, and many of them would be better served in community-based alternatives, with better outcomes for them, their families, and their communities."
The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act also aims to interrupt cycles of incarceration in part by providing pregnant women and mothers with access to drug counseling programming, parenting education, and assistance with reentry into society. Lest we forget, says human rights attorney and Jessica Jackson, who is also the national director of the bipartisan prison reform organization #Cut50: Most of these women are coming home. "They're going to be back with their family members, and we've got to be teaching them how to interact, how to be a parent, how to function in that environment," she explains.
But Jackson also acknowledges that convincing people that incarcerated women deserve opportunities and resources to help them reenter society is part of the battle, too. "Right now, empathy is at such a long-time low," she said. "We need to share stories, to force people to recognize that nobody should be defined by their worst decision. Everybody is capable of rehabilitation. Everybody should be given a second chance to contribute to society."
Senator Booker echoed that same sentiment. "I know there's a lot going on right now," referring to the American political circus. "But you can always judge the greatness of a society by looking at who it imprisons and how it treats them: The United States of America doesn’t compare well to our industrial peers, doesn’t hold up well to the values we preach within our country and to the world."
But — considering the constant influx of breaking news and polarized political sphere — does he really expect the bill to move forward? In a word: Yes.
"There's been a lot of signs of bipartisan support, and you're also seeing a lot of conservative leaders, like Grover Norquist, Newt Gingrich, even the Koch brothers, Rand Paul, who have spoken out on these issues," he says. Next steps to move this bill forward more than likely require a Republican co-sponsor before it could wend its way to the Senate Judiciary Committee and, ultimately, the Senate Floor.
But, Sen. Booker adds, "There are already high-level Trump administration officials who are in dialog with senators on both sides of the aisle about pursuing criminal justice reform. I don’t want to tell you who they are. But even as of today, I was reviewing with some of my fellow senators on the democratic side, about ongoing conversations with the administration.
"I really do believe that this is an area that this administration — at least, I know for a fact that officials in the administration — see an opportunity to get something done that is in accordance with the values of the people on the right and the left, and really all Americans who believe in fairness and justice. This administration has a pathway, and an interest. Now we just need to get them to walk the walk."
As Sen. Booker, as well as every other source cited in this story, pointed out: Getting lawmakers to walk to walk and put policy into action is more urgent than its ever been.
"Once women are involved with the system, they can face disadvantages because policies and practices, which are often designed with men in mind, do not account for women's unique challenges and pathways to jail," Vera Institute's Swavola explained. "Even gender neutral practices, such as fines and fees and use of cash bail, can have a disparate impact on women — in this case, because they come to the system even more economically vulnerable than men — and keep them enmeshed with the system for longer than necessary. Finally, although we are in a moment of local justice system reform, jail incarceration of women continues to grow, while it's declining slightly for men, which suggests reform initiatives are not reaching women to the same extent."
It is for those reasons and more than Sen. Booker is determined to make prison reform a hallmark of his time in office. As for whether or not the dedication to human dignity is laddering up to a bid for the presidency in 2020, he had this to say: "My feeling right now is that I came here with a mission, and I want to be loyal to that mission. That’s why bills like today are so important to me.
"Injustice persists because people aren’t focusing on them," he added. "So if I can use my office to focus people on injustices that are undermining the success or millions of Americans, I just feel like I’m doing the right thing with my career."
And, according to Andrea James, legislation like the Dignity for Incarcerated Women put the senator on the right track. Her organization and advocacy is keenly tuned into what women who are currently incarcerated say that they need on the inside.
"That's why this bill is so important to us: It's about the fact that they have value," she told Refinery29. "It's important to understand that these are human beings — and that it could be any one of us that lands on that prison bunk, based on the policies we have in this country which make us the number one incarcerating country in the world. It can happen to any one of us."