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November 8, 2014

"We should stop putting women in jail. For anything."

The title of this post is the headline of this provocative commentary by Patricia O'Brien available via the Washington Post.  Here are excerpts:

It sounds like a radical idea: Stop incarcerating women, and close down women’s prisons. But in Britain, there is a growing movement, sponsored by a peer in the House of Lords, to do just that.

The argument is actually quite straightforward:  There are far fewer women in prison than men to start with — women make up just 7 percent of the prison population. This means that these women are disproportionately affected by a system designed for men.

But could women’s prisons actually be eliminated in the United States, where the rate of women’s incarceration has risen by 646 percent in the past 30 years? ...  Essentially, the case for closing women’s prisons is the same as the case for imprisoning fewer men. It is the case against the prison industrial complex and for community-based treatment where it works better than incarceration.  But there is evidence that prison harms women more than men, so why not start there?

Any examination of the women who are in U.S. prisons reveals that the majority are nonviolent offenders with poor education, little employment experience and multiple histories of abuse from childhood through adulthood.  Women are also more likely than men to have children who rely on them for support — 147,000 American children have mothers in prison....

What purpose is served by subjecting the most disempowered, abused and nonviolent women to the perpetually negative environment of prisons?  Efforts to make prison “work” for women have only perpetuated the growth of the prison industrial complex. These putative reforms have helped some individuals, and possibly brought the nature of mass warehousing of poor, black and brown bodies more into focus, but the number of incarcerated people still continues to rise.

So what is the alternative to jailing women at the rate we do?  In Britain, advocates propose community sentences for nonviolent offenders and housing violent offenders in small custodial centers near their families.  There is evidence that these approaches can work in the United States.  Opportunities to test alternatives to prison are increasing across the states, and some have demonstrated beneficial results for the women who participated....

Oklahoma is currently ranked No. 1 for female incarceration per capita in the country. Nearly 80 percent of Oklahoma’s incarcerated women are nonviolent offenders, their presence in prison largely attributed to drug abuse, distribution of controlled substances, prostitution and property crimes.

A program that began five years ago, Women in Recovery, provides an alternative to prison for women who are sentenced for felony crimes linked to alcohol or drug addiction.  The program includes comprehensive treatment and services such as employment services, housing assistance and family reunification.  Women with small children are given the highest priority for admission to the program.  Women who complete the program, averaging about 18 months, have a high degree of success after release.  The program coordinator has told me that 68 percent of the women who completed the program had no further involvement with the criminal justice system....

The systemic production of mass incarceration cannot be solved simply by assisting troubled and troubling individual women.  Another step to abolition requires taking the discussion beyond the individuals and communities most directly harmed, controlled and erased by the prison industrial complex to the public sphere that has passively accepted it.  Put simply, we need to stop seeing prisons as an inevitable part of life....

The case for closing women’s prisons is built on the experiences of formerly incarcerated women and activists who recognize that women who are mothers and community builders can find their way forward when they respected and supported.  It is possible to imagine a future without women’s prisons; whether it’s achievable will require a bigger shift in thinking.

November 8, 2014 at 07:21 AM | Permalink


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Women murder and such, so we are not going to stop imprisoning ALL of them, but since they are disproportionately involved in crimes where alternatives are possible, that too would factor into the situation. Still, the title is a bit silly given the first point.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 8, 2014 10:49:04 AM

Prisons harm BOTH genders. Is the author saying that women who DO commit violent crimes against humanity should get away scott free? Was it okay for Susan Smith to murder her two babies and blame an innocent black man for a crime that she ALONE committed. What if a woman should harm the author or the author's loved ones? Would the author let a violent female thug off the hook just because she's female? GIMME a break!

Posted by: william r. delzell | Nov 8, 2014 2:14:27 PM

All right, O'brien, how would you handle women who commit crimes that endanger society? Would you let male criminals like Richard Speck off scott free when he murdered several nurses in cold blood nearly fifty years ago? I don't think the families of Speck's victims would want him to get away free as a bird.

What would you do with a woman who commits a crime like Richard Speck's? The Manson women come to mind: Susan Denise Atkins, et al. The loved ones of THEIR victims resisted every effort to let them get away with their crimes.

What do you tell the father of the two boys that Susan Smith murdered? How about a woman who either scouts for a violent male gang or who joins a violent female gang to commit violent home invasions, etc. with no remorse and with no qualms about re-offending?

Granted, most women are in for non-violent crimes. Does that mean you would let the small number of VIOLENT females completely off the hook for their crimes? Try explaining that to their victims!

Over ten years ago, at four sororiety girls at a Texas college decided to pull a live gun on a convenience store owner in a high crime area. One can understand why the authorities threw the book at these particular girls for not only using a fire arm but who came from privileged white society.

Prisons also discriminate by race. Should we exempt all non-whites from imprisonment when they commit violent crimes? I don't think even many of your female supporters would go for that.

Prisons also discriminate against MALE inmates on account of their gender--the greater number of inmate-on-inmate rapes in male prisons! Should we shut down all MALE prisons for the same reason you apparently think we should shut down FEMALE prisons?

If a female criminal commits a violent crime against either you or your loved ones, let's see how you handle that one!

Posted by: william r. delzell | Nov 8, 2014 2:41:44 PM

I have often argues, KKK is to 1914 what feminism is to 2014, politically correct, accepted by all those in olicy positions as a given, a hate filled racist ideology. Oh, and I forgot, both are terrorist arms of the Democratic Party enforcing its supremacist views by violence.

Now this feminist wants to immunize them, same as was done to the lynch mobs that witnessed the extra-judicial hangings of prosperous blacks and the taking of their assets by the Al Aqsa brigade of the Democratic Party, the KKK.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 9, 2014 8:10:00 AM

Could the programs add one little feature?

Ask these brazen hussies to stop spewing little delinquents outside of marriage.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 9, 2014 9:10:59 AM

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