From the President: With Dramatic Increases in Women Prisoners, How Much Indifference Can We Stand?

Programming and policy decisions at the Bureau of Prisons do not fully consider the needs of female inmates.

Access to The Champion archive is one of many exclusive member benefits. It’s normally restricted to just NACDL members. However, this content, and others like it, is available to everyone in order to educate the public on why criminal justice reform is a necessity.

On May 20, 2009, inmate Marcia Powell died at Perryville Prison in Maricopa County, Arizona. The prison is just north of the Sonoran Desert National Monument, where average temperatures easily exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. She sat in a cage for hours until she ultimately died from “complications of hyperthermia due to environmental heat exposure.”{1} 1  Maricopa County (Arizona) Office of the Medical Examiner, Report of Toxicological Examination (2009) (Case No. 09-2884), An inmate at Perryville Prison wrote an anonymous letter, dated May 12, 2019, in honor of the ten-year anniversary of Ms. Powell’s passing.{2} 2  Anonymous Letter Written in Honor of Marcia Powell, ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice: The Human Toll of Incarceration (June 11, 2019), The inmate writes, “[w]hile the men’s prisons tend to garner more media attention … the women of Perryville are in danger as well.” According to the letter, just in time for summer, a new cage has been erected in the main yard where inmates stood just one year ago in silent protest and in remembrance of Ms. Powell. The Perryville inmate’s letter is but one recent reminder of how even after a decade of efforts to improve the most obvious cruelties associated with our outdated models of incarceration, the needle has not moved far enough in the right direction.

One study has reported that the number of women in prison in Arizona has more than doubled between 2000 and 2018.{3} 3  Felicity Rose & Cybele Kotonias, Arizona’s Imprisonment Crisis: The Harm to Women and Families, (December 2018), This alarming trend is not unique to Arizona. A Prison Policy Initiative study published in November 2018 reports there are 219,000 women locked up in the United States.{4} 4  Aleks Kajstura, Prison Policy Initiative, Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018 (2018), In 1970, there were less than 8,000 women in jail nationwide according to the Vera Institute of Justice.{5} 5  Elizabeth Swavola, Kristine Riley & Ram Subramanian, Vera Institute of Justice, Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform (report summary) (2016), Women have become the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population.{6} 6  Wendy Sawyer, Prison Policy Initiative, The Gender Divide: Tracking Women’s State Prison Growth (2018), The myriad problems associated with this country’s obsession with incarceration are certainly an issue for both women and men. However, women’s incarceration has grown at two times the rate of men’s incarceration in recent decades.{7} 7  Kajstura, supra note 4. According to this 2018 report, State prisons house 99,000; local jails house 89,000; and, federal prisons 16,000. Youth facilities house 7,300 and immigration detainees total up to 7,000.{8} 8  Id. The reasons for the exponential growth of incarcerated women have been difficult to analyze due to the lack of research and data.{9} 9  Elizabeth Swavola, Kristine Riley & Ram Subramanian, Vera Institute of Justice, Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform (updated report) (2016),

“While women and men enter prison through the same pathways, women are unique in several key ways.”{10} 10  Rose, supra note 3. Women are more likely to suffer from mental health problems.{11} 11  Doris J. James & Lauren E. Glaze, Department of Justice, Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates (2006), Older national research shows that incarcerated women are more likely to have used drugs in the month before the crime and to have been under the influence of drugs at the time of the offense.{12} 12  Christopher J. Mumola, Department of Justice, Substance Abuse and Treatment - State and Federal Prisoners 1997 (1999), Commonly, women in prison are victims themselves. The Vera Institute studied the prevalence of victimization of incarcerated women. The numbers are shockingly high: 86 percent of women experienced sexual violence; 77 percent experienced partner violence; and 60 percent experienced caregiver violence.{13} 13  Elizabeth Swavola, Kristine Riley & Ram Subramanian, Vera Institute of Justice, Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform (report summary) (2016), Nearly 80 percent of women in jails are mothers of young children{14} 14  Susan W. McCampbell, Department of Justice, The Gender-Responsive Strategies Project: Jail Applications (2005), and primary caretakers.{15} 15  Id. As with incarcerated men, women in jail are disproportionately people of color.{16} 16  Id. “More than half of women in jails report having a current medical problem – compared to 35 percent of men.”{17} 17  Laura M. Maruschak, Department of Justice, Medical Problems of Jail Inmates (2006), And of course, women face the nightmare of pregnancy and delivering a child while incarcerated. In her April 2008 column in The Champion, Carmen Hernandez highlighted the fact that one in four incarcerated women reported being sexually abused while in prison. Years later, women are still far more likely than men to experience sexual victimization while in jail.{18} 18  Allen J. Beck, Ramona R. Rantala & Jessica Rexroat, Department of Justice, Sexual Victimization Reported by Adult Correctional Authorities, 2009-11 (2014),

In September 2018, the Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) of the Department of Justice released a review of the BOP’s management of the female inmate population. While acknowledging that female and male inmates have different needs, the OIG ultimately concluded that (1) BOP’s approach to managing female inmates has not been strategic, resulting in weaknesses in its ability to meet their specific needs; (2) BOP’s programming and policy may not fully consider the needs of female inmates; (3) BOP’s lack of gender-specific posts results in inefficiencies at female institutions; and (4) BOP’s decision to convert FCI Danbury to a male institution negatively affected female inmates transferred to Metropolitan Detention Center-Brooklyn.

The findings relating to BOP’s programming and policy failures are particularly disturbing given the potential long-term impact that lack of programming could have on female inmates, and consequently on their outside dependents and family. The OIG found three areas in which the BOP’s programming and policy decisions did not fully consider the needs of female inmates: trauma treatment programming, pregnancy planning, and female hygiene. The BOP relied upon research showing that physical and emotional trauma effects as many as 90 percent of the female inmate population. However, the OIG found that BOP may not be able to provide its trauma treatment program to all eligible inmates until late in their incarceration or never. This is due to the fact that BOP has assigned only one staff member per institution to this program. Next, shockingly, only 37 percent of sentenced pregnant inmates participated in the BOP’s pregnancy programs between FY 2012 and FY 2016. The OIG concluded that this low participation rate is due to BOP inmates and staff lacking awareness of these programs in addition to staff applying eligibility criteria more restrictively than intended. Finally, with regard to feminine hygiene, the BOP did not have consistent distribution methods from institution to institution and did not ensure that there were sufficient quantities of products to meet the population’s needs.

The fact that 90 percent of the female inmate population suffers from the same phenomenon, yet in 2018 these institutions are still ill-equipped to handle such basic programming needs, is appalling. Consider the growing female inmate population in the United States together with the fact that more women will be released without programming such as trauma treatment, and the result is uniquely devastating. According to the National Research Council, a 2004 survey of inmates found that 55 percent of female inmates in state prisons who were parents, compared with 36 percent of male inmates, reported living with their children in the month before arrest.{19} 19  J. Travis, B. Western & S. Redburn, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences 261 (2014), Incarcerated parents in federal prisons were more likely to report living with their children before arrest (73 percent of female inmates, compared with 46 percent of male inmates).{20} 20  Id. Given that women are more likely to be primary caregivers, the high rate of female incarceration has weighty collateral consequences for children, family and communities across the nation. The ripple effect of trauma to female inmates’ dependents has to be increasing proportionally to the rise in female inmate populations.

The true level of this impact will be chronicled and will sadly reveal itself over time. These observations make it crystal clear that now is the time to push for accountability and change in these vital areas and to demand that government officials meet their obligation to provide humane care and treatment for the women the government is punishing by incarceration. Hopefully, with an apparent increase in data collection and policy awareness, the collateral erosion to the families and communities of incarcerated women can be addressed and abridged. As NACDL’s incoming president, I am committed to raising awareness of the urgent need to focus criminal justice reform on the forgotten women who are cycling thought the nations jails and prisons. As the anonymous inmate at Perryville wrote in May, “[a] prison sentence should not be a death sentence.” “[A]s we approach the ten-year anniversary of Marcia’s death, the women of Perryville prison would like to remind the world that we are people’s daughters, mothers, and sisters. Like Marcia Powell, we are human beings. And we will not be forgotten.”

About the Author

Nina J. Ginsberg, a founding partner at DiMuroGinsberg, P.C., in Alexandria, Virginia, has practiced criminal law for over 35 years in state and federal courts. She has represented individuals and corporations in a wide range of white collar and national security matters, as well as served as a panel attorney in hundreds of court-appointed cases. She has served in leadership roles in local and national bar associations and has been recognized for her work as an advocate for fair treatment and racial justice in the criminal justice system.

Nina J. Ginsberg (NACDL Member)
DiMuro Ginsberg, P.C.
Alexandria, Virginia

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