A vision for keeping women out of jail
For the third year in a row, the week leading up to Mother’s Day became an occasion for a mass bailout to reunite jailed mothers with their children. The National Bail Out collective’s #FreeBlackMamas campaign was launched in May 2017. Since 2017, the initiative has paid nearly a million dollars in bail, to get more than 300 people out of jail. The campaign also offers assistance to people once they are released and invites them to participate in an eight-week organizing fellowship. [Taryn Finley / HuffPost]
Roughly 2.5 million women are sent to jail every year. Two-thirds are women of color and 44 percent are Black women. Most are mothers of young children, and single parents, and 5 percent are pregnant. Parental incarceration, and the separation that is involved, is traumatizing for children and can have long-lasting consequences: One study in Cook County showed that mothers whose children were sent to foster care when they were incarcerated were half as likely to be reunited with their children as non-incarcerated mothers whose children were in foster care. [Vera Institute of Justice]
In the New York Review of Books last week, Jacob Kang-Brown and Olive Lu of the Vera Institute of Justice looked at how the number of women in jail has remained steady in recent years, even while the number of men in jail has significantly declined (though it also remains extremely high). The numbers of women in both prisons and jails has stayed stubbornly high, suggesting that reforms have failed to decarcerate evenly across genders. [Jacob Kang-Brown and Olive Lu / New York Review of Books]
Until the 1970s, incarceration rates for women were low. Beginning in the late ’70s, they began a steep climb, driven by state and local policies. With respect to prisons, although decarceration efforts have brought down the number of incarcerated men in prisons, the overall decline in population has masked the fact that women have benefited far less than men in 35 states. In a few states, the number of women sent to prison continues to grow to a degree that cancels out the declining incarceration of men. [Prison Policy Initiative]
The situation is even worse with respect to jails, which hold half of all incarcerated women. As the number of men sent to jail is on a downward trajectory but the number of women admitted remains constant, the combined effect is that women make up an increasingly large fraction of jail admissions.
The problem is also a rural problem. The number of women in jail is heavily driven by increased admissions in rural areas—up a staggering 45 percent from 2000 to 2013, compared to 13 percent in urban areas. Meanwhile, the numbers for incarcerated men were going in the opposite direction—jail admissions were down 1 percent in rural areas, and down 24 percent in urban areas.
Even gender-specific efforts may ignore the needs of women. An Urban Institute study looked at a diversion program for low-income mothers in jail in rural Campbell County in Tennessee. Researchers found that over the 15 months that the program was studied, strict enrollment criteria meant that only 13 women were admitted, less than a third of those referred. Of the 13, only six remained in the program by the end of the study period. [Urban Institute]
The majority of women in jail, like the majority of men, face low-level, nonviolent charges. As an example of how charges for nonviolent offenses continue to target women: Between 2008 and 2017, according to the FBI, the number of men charged with drug offenses went down 9 percent but went up 29 percent for women.
Women who are sent to jail are also more physically, psychologically, and financially vulnerable than their male counterparts. The rates of serious mental illness, serious medical conditions, history of trauma, and unemployment are all higher among women in jail than men. But physical facilities and administrative methods designed with men in mind routinely fail to identify and address vulnerabilities among women. [Vera Institute of Justice] Rates of victimization in jail are also high for all women, and particularly high for trans women.
Women held on cash bail are less likely to be bailed out than men held on comparable amounts. Although women are more likely to be released on their recognizance—in other words, without bail—they are less likely to be bailed out if bail is set. A 2016 Prison Policy Initiative report found that women jailed pretrial because they were unable to pay bail had significantly lower incomes than men. For Black women, the median annual income was even lower. As Kang-Brown and Lu wrote, “Bail exacerbates inequality by turning the gender pay gap into a gender jail gap.”
Last week it came to light that Sandra Bland, whose 2015 death in a Texas jail was ruled a suicide, had taped the encounter with the state trooper who pulled her over and arrested her. The newly released video undermines the trooper’s claim that he feared for his safety when he approached Bland’s car. Bland, who was 28, spent three days in jail, after being arrested for allegedly changing lanes without a turn signal. [David Montgomery / New York Times]
Bland was jailed pretrial on $5,000 bail. During the intake screening at the jail, Bland told staff that she had attempted suicide years earlier. The staff failed to flag her for any kind of special care or attention. Bland had hoped to raise $500, or 10 percent of the bail amount, to post bail but was unable to. After three days in jail, according to authorities, Bland hanged herself. [David Montgomery / New York Times]
Texas passed the Sandra Bland Act in 2017. But police unions were successful in keeping out one provision that would have prevented arrests for Class C misdemeanors—traffic infractions punishable only with a fine. Such a provision, Texas advocates have said, could have prevented Bland’s arrest, and death. Just last week, another bill to prevent arrests for Class C misdemeanors—one of the most common charges faced by Texans in jail—failed to pass.
Despite resistance to change, there have been some victories, thanks to long-term organizing and far-reaching efforts. In February, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted against a $215 million proposal to convert an ICE detention facility into a women’s jail. As Lily Fahsi-Haskell of Critical Resistance told Kang-Brown and Lu: “Without organizations holding a clear abolitionist vision over the years, we wouldn’t have gotten to the place we’re in now, where the movement can negotiate the real terms of reforms that meet people’s needs in the community instead of building new jails.”
That is consistent with the vision of the National Bail Out Collective. Its project director told HuffPost: “We don’t want to have to keep bailing people out until the end of time. We don’t want bails to exist, and we don’t want pretrial detention or jails to exist. We picture ourselves to be abolitionists, so we want a clearing of the prison-industrial complex.”