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Women Prisoners, Women's History

Mie Lewis,
Women's Rights Project
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March 10, 2011

Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day celebrate the strides toward dignity and equality that women have made around the world. They are also a chance to reflect on the work we still have to do, and the particular challenges faced by women at the margins, including those in the criminal justice system.

Years ago, women prisoners were second-class citizens occupying small units within men’s prisons. Reformers’ calls for facilities specializing in women’s needs helped spur the development of women’s prisons — which then needed to be filled with ever-increasing numbers of women prisoners.

Today, women are among the fastest-growing segments of the prison population. The so-called War on Drugs spurred the criminalization of women by widening the net of criminal liability to minor players, family members, and mere bystanders to drug activity. Sentencing laws have made things worse by failing to consider the many reasons women sometimes remain silent about a family member’s involvement in the drug trade.

Appropriately described as the “new Jim Crow” by commentators on race, the U.S. prison system also preserves and propagates the historical oppression of women. Women prisoners are often survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault on the outside, and once inside, they are targeted for similar attacks. For example, it took the ACLU’s advocacy to end a particularly horrifying method of strip search, called the “labia lift,” to which women prisoners in Colorado were subjected. But invasive body searches continue in prisons across the country, often based on flimsy or even nonexistent security rationale.

In the face of these assaults on their humanity and dignity, women prisoners often respond with a resilience that should inspire us all. In a prison in New Jersey, officials responded to a lawsuit challenging blatantly sex discriminatory treatment by instituting strip searches before the women could talk to lawyers. Faced with this deliberate use of sexual humiliation to discourage and punish women for taking a stand, one woman told me, “They could strip me a hundred times, and that wouldn’t stop me from talking about what’s happening in here.”

The lives and spirit of women prisoners hold lessons for the women’s rights movement. They challenge the stereotypes we conjure up when we hear words like “criminal” or “prisoner.” They show us the unintended consequences of policies that we are told fight crime. They embolden us to question government invasions justified by vague or overblown “security” rationales. They remind us that — as with other mass movements — the energy of the women’s rights movement can sometimes be diverted as vehicles for other ends. And they help us bear in mind that people in conflict with the law are just that — people — with families, unique histories, and futures as citizens.

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