This is a series that looks at the corporal works of mercy from a feminist lens. You can read part one of the series, on homelessness, here.

There are some neighbors who can be harder to love than others. When Jesus asks us to care for the poor, the sick, and the dying, we can find it to be difficult but understandable work. When he asks us to visit the imprisoned, it seems like a harder ask. We often think in terms of actions and consequences — they’re being punished, and they deserve it. However, the experience of a lot of people in this system is far from just, and it is our task to fight for them, too.

Readers may already be passionate about this topic, especially in light of larger issues within the criminal justice system. If the topic is one that you’re interested in, I recommend reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and Incarceration Nations by Baz Dreisinger and listening to season 3 of the podcast Serial. These resources look at the issues of race, poverty, corruption, and the modern prison-industrial complex and can help show the big picture. However, this article aims to narrow in on the social justice issues faced by women in the criminal justice system.

The United States “is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons and jailsa 500% increase over the last forty years.” Trends show that the number of women in prison has grown by more than 800% which is an increase rate 50% higher than that of men, since 1980. Julie Ajinkya writes:

“This population has gender-specific needs that differ from men in prison, primarily owing to the fact that they are often the primary caregivers of their children before incarceration and are disproportionately victimized by emotional, physical, and sexual abuse in their past. Instead of investing in counseling treatment for such traumatic pasts and rehabilitative treatment for substance addiction, the criminal justice system continues to detain women at extraordinary rates for primarily nonviolent drug-related offenses.”

Issues Faced Before Incarceration

Changes in sentencing law and policy have made it so that two-thirds of women are incarcerated for non-violent and low-level crimes (Just Mercy, page 235). Not surprisingly, women of color are the most affected. African American women are three times more likely and Hispanic women 69% more likely than white women to be imprisoned.

Another issue that many women face before even stepping into the justice system is a history of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Julie Ajinkya continues:

“A reported 85 to 90 percent of women who are either currently incarcerated or under the control of the justice system in the United States have a history of domestic and sexual abuse. Risk factors contributing to women’s criminal behavior include substance abuse, mental illness, and spousal abuse. It is estimated that up to 80 percent of women prisoners suffer from substance addiction. While it would be much more cost effective to treat these women than imprison them or pay for foster placement for their children, they are refused such rehabilitative measures—measures that could facilitate their integration back into society as productive members.”

When it comes to those entering the system as juveniles, girls are reportedly disproportionately arrested for running away, even though they are often doing so to flee violent home situations. They are, therefore, entering the system already having faced significant trauma and are more likely to be sexually abused than their male peers in the system.

In summary, research on women’s pathways into crime indicates that gender matters. Stephanie Covington, Ph.D., LCSW, writes, “Many women on the social and economic margins struggle to survive outside of legitimate enterprises, engaging in a lifestyle that brings them into contact with the criminal justice system … Among women, the most common pathways to crime are characterized by issues of survival (of abuse and poverty) and substance abuse.” For many women, larger societal issues create a “prison pipeline” and create specific disadvantages for them as they enter the system.

For many women, larger societal issues create a “prison pipeline” and create specific disadvantages for them as they enter the system.

Issues Faced in the System

Jails and prisons are created for boys and men. These systems were not designed with women or their particular adversities in mind. Many of the structures, procedures, and systems in place create compounding issues for incarcerated women, who most likely walk in with issues related to sexual violence and abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and other mental illnesses.

Jails and prisons are created for boys and men.

Trauma and Mental Health

Around 32% of women in the system enter with serious mental illness, a rate more than double that of men in the system and six times that of women in the general public. Rather than being sentenced to treatment for their substance abuse or mental illness, these women are brought into an environment that exacerbates their mental illness; causes more stress; and often leads to harmful and self-abusive behaviors, from cutting to suicide.

Women also face a retraumatization and revictimization through many of the standard procedures in these settings, such as strip searches, the use of restraints, and solitary confinement. These seemingly standard actions do not take into account the violent histories of these women. Instead they compound, intensify, and reactivate their previous trauma, which is further aggravated when they react to their guard in a way that is perceived as threatening and are punished.

Seemingly standard actions do not take into account the violent histories of these women. Instead they compound, intensify, and reactivate their previous trauma.

Other forms of trauma come from the correctional officers themselves. Records show that “correctional officials have subjected female inmates to rape, other sexual assault, sexual extortion, and groping during body searches. Male correctional officials watch women undressing, in the shower or the toilet. Male correctional officials retaliate, often brutally, against female inmates who complain about sexual assault and harassment.”

These abuses not only build on preexisting trauma but also create the added stressor of an unsafe environment. Human Rights Watch reports that the stress is exacerbated by four specific issues: the inability to escape the abuser, ineffective or nonexistent investigative procedures, a lack of employee accountability, and a lack of public concern.

Women in prison need treatment within an environment focused on control and security that discourages them from coming together, forming bonds, or speaking about their personal issues. Due to a lack of funding and limited resources, jails are often overcrowded and lack availability to providers who are trained to address the distinct health needs of incarcerated women. As a result, these women are inappropriately or inadequately treated, leading to undetected illness, under- or over-treatment or under- or over-prescription of drugs, worsening health conditions, and a lack of treatment for substance abuse that leads to withdrawal complications and even death. If treatment is available, the processing of requests is often delayed, or prisoners are required to pay a copay that they cannot afford.

Women in prison need treatment within an environment focused on control and security that discourages them from coming together, forming bonds, or speaking about their personal issues.

Physical Health Concerns

As mentioned before, the correctional system is designed for men and takes little of women’s specific needs. One obvious oversight is the need for menstrual hygiene products and gynecological care. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime elaborates on these needs:

“Women have gender-specific health-care needs that go beyond pregnancy, pre- and post-natal care and also include reproductive and sexual health care or preventative screening for breast or cervical cancer. Different physical and mental health-care needs stem from violence experienced, sexually transmitted diseases, unsafe sexual practices or substance abuse.”

The UN continues, stating that a women’s facility requires “the provision of adequate sanitation facilities, as well as services/facilities relevant to women and girls’ physiology,” including access to sanitary products, bathroom privacy, and OB/GYN services.

Menstrual hygiene products are often not immediately available and, when they are, are only given on certain days or in specific (inadequate) amounts. They are often seen as a “luxury item” that must be purchased with the limited funds in a prisoner’s account. These products have also been used as a bargaining chip or as punishment.

Menstrual hygiene products are often seen as a “luxury item.”

About 5% of incarcerated women are pregnant upon entering the system. Fewer than half of them receive an obstetric exam after admission, and only about one-third of them receive any prenatal care. As noted, the majority of these women come from backgrounds of poverty and have not had access to any prenatal care before entering the system. These women are at risk for miscarriage, stillbirth, and ectopic pregnancies with a continued lack of care.

Many states also still allow for the shackling of pregnant women, even during labor and delivery, resulting in injury to the mother and baby, falls, dangerous levels of pressure, restriction of circulation and fetal movement, and interference with medical evaluations or care. Once women go through this often terrifying and brutal labor and delivery, in some states, they are given only 24 to 48 hours with their newborn before being separated from their child. During a time that is critical for mother-child bonding, this separation does damage to both mother and child and can lead both to physical and mental health complications.

Many states also still allow for the shackling of pregnant women, even during labor and delivery.

Issues Faced Upon Release

Involvement in the criminal justice system is widely considered both a consequence and a cause of poverty. Even spending just a few days in jail comes with significant costs. Around 60% of women in jail have not yet been convicted of a crime but are awaiting trial or bond, putting them at risk of losing their employment, access to benefits, and housing. Many of these women enter prison with a zero or negative net worth and children at home to support. Even if they are able to minimize their time spent in jail, these women face up to tens of thousands of legal fees, including:

  • Fines, fees, and surcharges that jails, courts and other criminal justice agencies charge defendants.
  • Judicially-set bail and nonrefundable fees set by bail bond companies.
  • Public defender application fees or reimbursement fees for representation.
  • Supervision, programming, and electronic monitoring fees for pretrial supervision.

Women who are already barely surviving through public assistance and low-wage jobs typically end up with a pathway back to jail because of their inability to pay everything back. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that many housing and employment opportunities discriminate against people who have served time. The American Bar Association identifies 400,000 such barriers across the country.

Women who are already barely surviving through public assistance and low-wage jobs typically end up with a pathway back to jail because of their inability to pay everything back.

About 79% of incarcerated women are mothers with young children, and the majority of them are single. Even though studies demonstrate that prisoners who maintain close contact with family, especially with children, do better upon release and show a lower rate of recidivism, most of these mothers face a system that is designed to keep them separated from their children. Limited visitation hours (often during school hours), a lack of permissible physical contact, and fees or surcharges for phone and video calls lead to ongoing stress for these mothers. Depending on the county, even upon release, this separation can continue. The mothers who are reunited with their children often face discrimination for their record and face the shame of being a “bad mother.”

Stephanie Covington discusses this stereotype, explaining, “Gender stereotypes … also influence how we perceive people who violate the law, and stereotypes often have a differential impact on women. A convicted female offender may automatically be labeled a bad mother, while a male offender may not necessarily be labeled a bad father.” Incarcerated women are generally portrayed as inadequate, incompetent mothers who are unable to provide for the needs of their children when, in reality, separation from and concern about the well-being of their children are among the most damaging aspects of prison for women.

Separation from and concern about the well-being of their children are among the most damaging aspects of prison for women.

Deborah Smith of the National Center for State Courts outlines further issues faced by these single mothers: “Single mothers who must comply with community-service requirements, treatment provisions, childcare, child welfare, work, public assistance, and poverty are set up for failure as they try to comply with multiple agencies and conflicting requirements.”

For the most part, incarcerated women leave prison with less than the nothing they came in with, sending them back to the same communities, where they face the same problems of poverty, addiction, and violence — with no resources, mental or physical health support, or aid to help them. The larger issue, then, is the ongoing cycle of poverty, which we will turn to in the next part of the series.

For the most part, incarcerated women leave prison with less than the nothing they came in with, sending them back to the same communities, where they face the same problems of poverty, addiction, and violence.

Victoria Mastrangelo

Church Section Editor

Victoria Mastrangelo is a wife, mother of 3 girls, and high school campus minister at an all-girls’ school in Houston, TX. She is super nerdy and loves reading multiple books at once, trivia, podcasts, writing, and great coffee. She has a B.A. in Theology from the University of Dallas and an M.A. in Theological Studies from the University of St. Thomas (Houston). Being surrounded by so many awesome young women grows her passion for Catholic feminism daily. Her search for truth and beauty led her to a profound love of Christ, His Church, and the feminine genius. Victoria hopes that FemCatholic continues to inspire conversations and inspire women to find that same love for Christ, the Church, and their unique way of living our their feminine genius.

Don't miss the Weekly Insight.

Delivered to your inbox every Friday, get the best insights we have on trending stories and who to read, watch, and follow.