The voices of female inmates are largely ignored in a prison system made for men. As the number of incarcerated women has skyrocketed in recent decades, it is time to implement gender-responsive policies that take into account the distinct needs of women. The recognition that a gender-responsive system is needed is not meant to perpetuate gender stereotypes but to acknowledge that men and women have differing needs. Distinct issues affecting incarcerated women range from reproductive health to mental health and personal safety.
In 2018, the lack of access to feminine hygiene products was debated in the Arizona Legislature, gaining significant media attention. Formerly incarcerated women testified before a legislative committee about the inadequacy of the 12 free sanitary pads per month allotment to inmates for their menstruation. Women also testified about the indignity of pleading with correctional officers for more hygiene products – pleadings that were ignored. They discussed the humiliation of walking around in blood stained clothing. Eventually, the Department of Corrections increased the quantity of free feminine products given to women to 36 pads per month.
Pre and postnatal care are sorely lacking. Recently, the Prison Law Office of ACLU toured Perryville State Prison and reported deficient care based on interviews with 25 women who had given birth or experienced miscarriages while incarcerated. Prison Law Office attorney Corene Kendrick said these women’s stories were “shocking and horrifying … they are being horribly mistreated by the health care staff and the custody staff.”
“They’re not being provided adequate nutrition. They’re not being given adequate hygiene supplies. The postpartum depression mental health care is minimal if existent at all.” Kendrick said. She said pregnant women received only an extra peanut butter sandwich and glass of milk in their diets and had limited access to fruits and vegetables. She reported that inmates who had given birth were given thin panty liners to deal with bleeding.
In 2019, the subcommittee on Dignity for Incarcerated Women investigated issues facing women at Perryville to advise policymakers. As the committee chair, I led this investigation with my colleagues. We surveyed roughly 200 women to inquire about their experiences at Perryville and the unique challenges they faced during incarceration.
These are just some of the issues we found facing incarcerated women:
One hundred and forty women identified as having mental health needs. More than half of the women we surveyed also identified as being abuse victims. The large majority of these women did not receive treatment in prison because no treatment was available.
Ninety five percent of the inmates rated the health care at Perryville as “poor.” In fact, we consistently found that “improving health care” was the top priority of surveyed women. This fact is not surprising given the ongoing litigation by the ACLU exposing the insignificant health care provided to inmates by the Arizona Department of Corrections. Though the health care provider has been changed, the quality of health care provided has not.
Fifty seven percent of women felt unsafe in prison for a variety of reasons. These reasons ranged from lack of health care to physical and sexual abuse from staff and in some instances, other inmates.
Most women in prison are mothers of minor children. These women and their families suffer from lack of physical and face-to-face contact. Because there are fewer women’s prisons, women are more likely to be held in prisons located far from home, making visits difficult and expensive. Additionally, current visitation policies do not allow children to sit on their mothers’ laps if they are over seven years old.
Based on our interviews and the available research, we recommend the following policies to be implemented:
- Provide gender-responsive, trauma-informed care, especially mental health treatment. Women are more likely than men to have been victims of crime themselves and lack needed mental health treatment. Prisons should also protect against the further retraumatization during incarceration, particularly by correctional officers. Implementation of programming in a safe and respectful environment is vital to addressing substance use, trauma and mental health issues.
- Provide transportation for children to facilitate more frequent visitation. A handful of other states, including California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, have programs that provide free transportation for children to visit their parents.
- Break down unnecessary barriers for visitation and allow dress codes reflective of modern professional or modest decorum. Many inmates have reported stories of visitors being denied entry for arbitrary dress code violations after traveling a long distance to visit their loved ones.
- Encourage family and community visitation and communication. A more enlightened prison system should encourage visitation to promote family reunification, rather than making visitation difficult. Children should be allowed to have more warm and intimate bonds with their mothers, as this is healthy for children’s development.
- Prioritize women’s health care. Currently, there is nothing related to maternity or pregnancy care in DOC’s policy. There is no focus on education with respect to early detection of breast cancer or annual exams. Women should have access to unlimited feminine hygiene products, and nutritional food during pregnancy.
- Ensure better access to educational and vocational training. Although women can earn their GED, they can benefit from additional training to enter the workforce. Connecting inmates to jobs and educational opportunities that will allow them to earn a stable income is key to successful reintegration.
These findings and recommendations are brief summaries of my subcommittee’s research and only serve as a starting point to building a prison system that is responsive to women’s needs. We envision a more enlightened prison system that focuses not just on punishment, but successful rehabilitation. Due to the absence of in-depth data on incarcerated women, more research is needed to better understand the needs of women and their experiences during incarceration. A growing awareness for the need to understand differing needs of male and female offenders have already led a handful of states to implement gender responsive policies. Arizona should do the same in order to create successful programs that will make a lasting change in women’s lives and equip them to return to their communities.
Laetitia Hua is a criminal justice advocate and a lawyer licensed in New York and the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.