The Stateswoman Archive

Women in the Criminal Justice System

by Linda Ketcham

Amnesty International (AI) recently visited Wisconsin, focusing on conditions at the Supermax prison in Boscobel. Their report was a scathing indictment of treatment of the offenders there. Undoubtedly anyone who follows the news has heard this. However, what has not been mentioned is the intention of the WI Department of Corrections (DOC) to open a supermax facility for women on the grounds of Taycheedah Correctional Institute in Fond du Lac.

This lack of attention to issues facing incarcerated women is not unusual. Women still comprise a relatively small percentage of those incarcerated, with far fewer resources earmarked for the study of women offenders, programming for female offenders, and training of staff to work with female offenders. However, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rate of incarceration among women is growing at a faster pace than that for men. From 1986 - 1996 the U.S. saw an 888% increase in the number of incarcerated women. Since 1990 the number of female defendants convicted of felonies in state courts has grown at more than two times the rate of increase among males.

AI has been one of the few groups to focus on the needs of incarcerated women, identify issues facing women in the criminal justice system, and develop recommendations to address those issues. Some of the issues and recommendations are:

  • Health Care: Incarcerated women do not receive adequate physical and mental health services. Most women do not receive routine medical exams at the time of incarceration, despite the fact that many of them experience significant health problems.
  • AI recommends adequate physical and mental screening for all women. Women’s prisons should have medical facilities on-site capable of serving women (e.g., performance of pelvic exams, mammograms, menopause), at no cost.
  • The federal government should establish an inquiry into mental health services for women in jails and prisons, including the use of psychotropic medications.
  • Corrections staff should be professionals who use recognized standards of care, appropriate for prison and jail services. For example, pregnant inmates should not be handcuffed and shackled when in labor, as is common practice in the U.S. The use of leg shackles particularly poses a threat to the woman and the child by restricting movement and, should the correctional officer be away from the delivery room, there is no way to remove the restraints in case of an emergency.
  • Sentencing: Much of the increase in the incarceration rate of women is related to changes in sentencing laws. Crimes not previously felonies punishable by prison now are.
  • Current sentencing guidelines are based on male offenders and are inconsistent with rational sentencing policies for nonviolent female offenders, who constitute the majority of incarcerated women. They have also resulted in higher rates of imprisonment for economic crimes, which include a disproportionate number of women.
  • Although addiction is widely recognized as a disease, it is treated as a crime depending on the type of drug. There is a disconnect between punishing addicts and the availability of community treatment facilities for women.
  • Crack cocaine is the drug of choice among many women, especially women who have little income. Penalties for possession and use of crack are much tougher than those for cocaine, even though they are the same drug, with the same physiological and psychotropic effects.
  • States should not criminalize drug-using pregnant women. The result of “Cocaine Mom” laws has been to drive addicted women underground rather than to treatment, resulting in fewer women receiving prenatal care or drug treatment.
  • Racial disparities in sentencing do not only affect men. The rate of African American women sentenced to prison is much higher than the rate of women of Northern European descent.
  • Seventy percent of those employed in corrections and guarding women are men. A significant number (estimates are as high as 80%) of incarcerated women are survivors of abuse. Abuse survivors do not feel safe in prison. Wisconsin is one of only 14 states in which it is not a crime for correctional staff to have sexual contact with an inmate. Only female staff should be allowed to observe female offenders showering, dressing or using the bathroom.
  • Complaints of sexual misconduct or assault by staff should be investigated independently of DOC; allegations of rape should be investigated and prosecuted within the best practice and full extent of the law.
  • Allow ex-offenders to regain the right to vote. Wisconsin is one of only 10 states that deny all ex-offenders the right to vote, even after serving their sentences.

These are just a few of the issues facing women involved in the criminal justice system. As the rate of incarceration among women increases, so should our efforts to fully understand the issues facing women offenders, the conditions in which they are being held, and the disparities between services and programs for men and women. Please let your legislators know how you feel about the treatment of women within the system, especially since they are denied a voice.

Linda Ketcham is on the board of directors of Family Connections, a not-for-profit program that provides monthly transportation for children to visit their mothers at Taycheedah Correctional Institute. For more information about this program or if you want to contribute or volunteer, call Sandy Lott at 608-226-9660. View AI’s report, “Not Part of My Sentence - Violating the Human Rights of Women in Custody,”.

This article first appeared in the September 2001 issue of the Wisconsin Women’s Network’s newsletter The Stateswoman.