In the Blog
Why We Need to Focus On Alternatives to Women’s Incarceration
Illustration: Sophie Freedman-Lawson
Over the past 25 years, women’s rates of incarceration have skyrocketed. In Canada, the statistics are grim, as recent reports have confirmed that Indigenous women are among the fastest growing prison populations in the country, as poverty-related crimes and nonviolent drug sentences have translated into life-sentences for many.
The story is far too similar for women in the States. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “Nationally, there are more than 8x as many women incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails as there were in 1980.” In fact, women in the United States, especially women of color, are jailed at a rate of nearly 150 percent when compared to men. A majority of these women are subjects of prevalent “War on Drugs” policies in the U.S. The ACLU estimates suggest that nearly 40 percent of criminal convictions of women in the 2000s were due to drug-related offenses, while an additional 34 percent were convicted with burglary, larceny, and fraud charges. While the majority of women’s offenses are nonviolent, their sentencing is often heavy handed.
Although women are being incarcerated at increasingly alarming rates, they still represent a small percentage of the total prison population in the United States. As a result, women’s issues are rarely a part of the discussion in criminal justice reform policies.
Yes, women are only seven percent of the total prison population, but that’s the precise reason their rehabilitation should be focused on, argues Emily Salisbury, a Criminal Justice Professor from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Salisbury, who made her case during a TedX event, argues that since the crimes women commit are generally related to addiction and lack of socioeconomic opportunities, focusing on their rehabilitation could significantly help curb the U.S.’s rampant prison overcrowding problem.
It’s a sentiment that many involved in criminal justice reform agree with.
“Women are often overlooked because on the surface, they make up a small part of the criminal justice puzzle,” Boston University Criminal Justice professor Dr. Danielle Rosseau says. “In reality though, women’s experience in the criminal justice system has an immense effect on future generations of our society. The incarceration of women has an immediate and systemic involvement from one generation to the next. We need alternative pathways and examples. We need trauma-informed approaches that are intergenerational.”
Still, many experts wonder just exactly how the U.S. might go about enacting change on a large scale level. There are a variety of ways that rehabilitation could occur, and many need support networks that will ensure that they don’t make their way back into the system. Many also need support for addiction, PTSD and gender based trauma, and cyclical poverty.
There are a number of individual communities in the U.S. that have had particular success in keeping non-violent offenders close to their families, simply by offering opportunities for education, employment, and social services.
In Cincinnati, for example, police partnered with the University of Cincinnati’s Criminal Justice Department to reduce violence and create a police-community partnership in an area where poor people of colour are disproportionately targeted by police. Here, police and academics made significant progress and improved community relations by offering known offenders access to education and employment.
While this particular solution was not woman-centric, experts have suggested that Cincinnati is far ahead of the grade when it comes to curbing crime and improving community relations.
“I wouldn’t go back for nothing,” one Cincinnati community member and former drug dealer Donte Ingram told NPR. “The worst thing I have to worry about [now] is if I’ve got my seatbelt on or not.”
There are other gender specific initiatives that have allowed women to avoid jail time for nonviolent offences. In New York, the Women’s Prison Association, a group that has been advocating on behalf of female offenders for over 150 years, created a program that removes punity for nonviolent offenders, offering social support for them instead.
The program is called New York’s Justice Home, and its aim is to help women who are facing a minimum of six months in prison with a felony charge. The program aims to provide individual assistance to each family and assess their individual needs in order to connect them with the services they need in order to prevent recidivism and cyclical incarceration.
These needs vary from family to family, but each of the women receive monthly home visits to ensure that they are in a safe environment and have access to food and other necessities. Many receive cash assistance, food stamps, and housing vouchers, counseling sessions for domestic abuse, substance abuse, and other mental health services. While random drug screenings do occur, there are no restrictions on their movement and they are not relegated to house arrest.
“Our focus is to get these women back on their feet by addressing the underlying causes of their criminal behavior,” Georgia Lerner, executive director of the WPA tells The Guardian. “We’ve learned over the years that so many of the reasons women get into trouble are things that can be cured with services.”
A vast majority of the women in this program succeed. When the story was covered in 2015, 40 women had completed the program, and while this number is relatively small, the taxpayer savings are anything but. One prison bed in New York costs a minimum of $60,000 per woman per bed, whereas providing women with social services costs only $15,000 per client. There are courts in Canada that treat those suffering from addiction similarly.
From in 2004-2014 a number of drug treatment courts in Canada were funded as a part of the federal Treatment Action Plan of the National Anti Drug Strategy. It’s a treatment model that combines the health care system and the criminal justice system.
Many of the clients who are a part of the program deal with similar issues as the women in New York: cyclical poverty, addiction, and mental illness. The program aims to help clients find permanent housing, reconnect with family supports, and provide cognitive behavioral therapy and other mental health services.
In order to graduate from these programs, clients must have been in the program for at least one year and not have acquired additional criminal charges in the three months prior to graduation. They also cannot have used drugs in the previous three months. Additionally, they must have permanent housing and be working, volunteering, or attending school.
Unlike programs in the U.S., however, experts in Canada suggest that there is little evidence to prove that the programs are effective.
One review found that 10.6 percent of participants graduated over a three-year period, while 19.9 percent were still participating. The rest of the participants had either withdrawn from the treatment or been expelled from the treatment program.
Many were hopeful about it’s progress, however.
“Graduation is great, and successful completion is almost as great, but even those who go through the program and don’t graduate or successfully complete have a number of successes,” says Justice Mary Hogan, who adjudicated one of the courts. “The fact that they have substantially reduced their drug use, that they have not committed a crime, those are all really significant and on their own are signs of success.”
The criminal justice system is a major point of discussion both for scholars and community members, many who agree that reform is necessary in order to save taxpayer dollars, and heal communities that have been heavily impacted by the results of poverty and crime.
Still, many in Canada and the U.S. are weary of the correctional system as a means of responding to criminal behavior, especially when it comes to issues that stem from poverty and systemic racism. For those fighting for Indigenous rights in Canada, this is especially true.
In the late 1960s, Native resistance in Canadian prisons greatly increased. Prisoners called for Native-only prisons, an end to solitary confinement and physical punishment, and asked for social programs outside of prison. Some reforms were adopted. Canadian prisons began to hire Native prison and parole workers, prison wardens recognized Indigenous elders as spiritual guides, and introduced limited capacity Healing Lodges as an alternative to minimum and medium security programs.
According to Canadian prison abolitionist Abby Rolston, these new policies were implemented in order to squash Native resistance.
“While reforms to the system have lessened the direct impact on Native lives inside, they did not change the colonial function of prisons in society,” Rolston writes. “Statistics of Indigenous incarceration show that Canada’s legal system does not move Native prisoners through the system and release them at the same rate as other prisoners. Police racial profiling and treatment of ‘crime’ in our society falls harder on the heads of the working-class, poor, racialized, and Indigenous peoples than it does (if it does) on the white collar crimes of the rich.”
Women in particular face a number of unique challenges in the criminal justice system, and as a result, many families are impacted for generations to come. Thus, alternatives to incarceration can not only help these individual women, who by and large are nonviolent, but they also are a necessary step to helping communities and families who suffer from women’s incarceration for generations.