In an effort to ensure that women in prison are treated like human beings — and reduce the negative impact incarceration has on their families, especially their kids — a group of lawmakers has introduced a bill that would make a series of reforms to how the federal prison system handles female prisoners.
Sens. Cory Booker (NJ), Elizabeth Warren (MA), Dick Durbin (IL), and Kamala Harris (CA) introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act on Tuesday.
The Current State Of Incarcerated Women In America
While noting that “America is truly exceptional when it comes to incarceration” — with percent of the global population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population — Sen. Booker pointed out that only 5 percent of the world’s female population lives in the U.S., but we also have nearly 30 percent of the world’s incarcerated women.
In 2013, he added, “more than two-thirds of women in federal prison were behind bars due to nonviolent drug, fraud, or immigration crimes and over 70 percent of women in federal prisons had little or no prior criminal history.”
Citing an “urgent need” to address the “unique challenges women face behind bars,” Booker pointed out that women are often the primary caretaker parents, which means incarceration often impacts children.
“Incarcerated women face the unconscionable choice of either calling home to talk to their children or using commissary funds to buy sanitary napkins,” Booker said while introducing the bill.
Indeed, the few providers of phone service in prison charge as much as $14/minute. Although the Federal Communications Commission tried to cap these rates with new rules, business-friendly and new Chairman Ajit Pai decided in February the agency won’t defend its own rules.
Not only that, but women in prison are often victims of trauma, Booker said, citing data from the Vera Institute of Justice: 86 percent experienced sexual violence; 77 percent report partner violence; and 60 percent were survivors of caregiver violence.
“These troubling statistics deserve our attention,” Booker said.
What The Bill Wants To Change
Among other reforms, the Dignity Act aims to:
1. Require the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to consider the location of children when placing an incarcerated parent in a federal prison, in order to help “alleviate the great distances children and other loved ones often have to travel to visit incarcerated parents.”
2. Mandate the BOP to create more generous and uniform visitation hours for primary caretaker parents to provide more easy access to loved ones while a woman is behind bars. These kinds of visits are a “critical part of successful reentry” for prisoners.
“This provision makes it less likely that returning citizens commit crimes, which would enhance public safety,” Booker said.
3. Ban solitary confinement and shackling of pregnant women in federal prisons. Yes — this is still a thing, and it could lead to serious psychological and physical harm, Booker noted.
“It is time we ban the use of solitary and shackling on pregnant women and treat these women with the dignity and respect they deserve.”
4. Require the BOP to provide parenting classes to primary caretaker parents, provide trauma-informed care to victims of trauma, and allow returning citizens to mentor incarcerated people. It would also mandate the BOP to train correctional officers in how to identify trauma victims.
5. Preclude correctional officers of the opposite gender of the incarcerated individual from conducting strip searches or entering a restroom of the opposite gender.
“This bill would help ensure people behind bars receive the critical programming they need to prepare for reentry into society,” Booker said.