The rate of wrongful convictions in the United States is estimated to be somewhere between 2% to 10%. That may sound low, but when applied to a prison population of 2.3 million, the numbers become staggering. Can there really be 46,000 to 230,000 innocent people locked away? Those of us who are involved in exoneration work firmly believe so.
Millions of defendants are processed through our courts each year. It’s nearly impossible to determine how many of them are actually innocent once they’ve been convicted. There are few resources for examining the cases and backgrounds of those claiming to be wrongfully convicted.
Once an innocent person is convicted, it is next to impossible to get them out of prison.
Once an innocent person is convicted, it is next to impossible to get them out of prison. Over the past 25 years, the Innocence Project, where I serve on the board of directors, has secured through DNA testing the release of 349 innocent men and women, 20 of whom had been sent to death row. All told, there have been more than 2,000 exonerations, including 200 from death row, in the U.S. during that same period. But we’ve only scratched the surface.
Wrongful convictions happen for several reasons. In no particular order, these causes are:
Bad police work
Most cops are honest, hard-working professionals. But some have been known to hide, alter or fabricate evidence, lie on the witness stand, cut deals with snitches in return for bogus testimony, intimidate and threaten witnesses, coerce confessions or manipulate eyewitness identifications.
Most prosecutors are also honest, hard-working professionals. But some have been known to hide exculpatory evidence, encourage witnesses to commit perjury, lie to jurors, judges and defense lawyers, use the testimony of bogus experts or ignore relevant evidence beneficial to the accused.
Most jurors find it impossible to believe that a suspect would confess to a serious crime he didn’t commit. Yet the average citizen, if taken to a basement room and subjected to 10 consecutive hours of abusive interrogation tactics by experienced cops, might be surprised at what they would say. Of the 330 people who were exonerated by DNA evidence between 1989 to 2015, about 25% gave bogus confessions after lengthy interrogations. Almost every one recanted soon after.
Any national campaign to eliminate hepatitis C, an insidious virus that kills tens of thousands of Americans a year, would almost certainly involve prisons.
One in seven state inmates are believed to be infected, and the regimented environment of a prison has its advantages when it comes to screening and treatment.
The problem is, the drugs that effectively cure the disease are priced in the tens of thousands of dollars — far more than prisons can pay. In 2015, state corrections departments were treating less than 1 percent of those inmates known to be infected, a survey found.
Now courts have begun ordering states to provide the drugs regardless of cost, prompting an unusual showdown over how pharmaceutical companies set prices for the treatments.
In at least nine states, prisoners have filed lawsuits arguing that withholding drugs constitutes deliberate indifference to their dire medical needs, violating a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Last week, Massachusetts settled a lawsuit by agreeing to give all prisoners in advanced stages of the disease access to drugs.
In November, a federal district judge in Florida was the first to order a state prison to begin treating sick inmates. The state must now provide drugs to all inmates with severe liver damage by the end of this year and those with significant damage in 2019.
“This Court will not tolerate further foot dragging,” Judge Mark E. Walker wrote. “One can only wonder how long Defendant would have kicked the can down the road had Plaintiffs not filed this case.”
Dr. Anne Spaulding, an associate professor of public health at Emory University and the former medical director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, called the order an unfunded mandate. “It’s an impossible situation that the prison administrators are put in,” she said. “You can’t buy something you don’t have any money for.”
Prisons would be a logical linchpin in a campaign to eliminate hepatitis C: some studies suggest that one in three Americans with the disease pass through a correctional facility in any given year.
Delaying treatment has grave consequences. A leading cause of cirrhosis and end-stage liver disease, hepatitis C wreaks irreversible but invisible damage for years; when symptoms become apparent, it is too late to treat. The disease is blood-borne and usually acquired from unsafe transfusions or injection drug use, but perhaps only half of those infected know they have it. It can also be transmitted through tattooing using nonsterile equipment.
Early therapies for hepatitis C induced fatigue and depression in many patients and cleared the infection in less than half of them. But four years ago drugmakers began to introduce new medicines that do not have the same debilitating side effects and cure nearly all patients, revolutionizing treatment.
In return, the companies demanded high prices — Gilead Science debuted the first of the new class of hepatitis C drugs, Sovaldi, at $84,000 per course of therapy — and private insurers proved willing to pay.
Gov. Kay Ivey has signed a contract with a Pittsburgh-based company to provide medical care and mental health care in Alabama prisons after a short delay related to a lawsuit filed against the company by the state of Mississippi.
The Department of Corrections will pay Wexford Health Sources Inc., $360 million over 30 months, beginning April 1.
Williams said he released the contract last week because he did not want to hinder Alabama’s efforts to reach an agreement in a federal lawsuit over mental health care for prisoners. The contract review committee cannot block legislation but can hold it for up to 45 days.
“The governor had the ultimate say-so on this. My intention was to give the governor’s office further time to evaluate the situation,” Williams said.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled last year that Alabama’s mental health care for inmates was “horrendously inadequate.” The state has proposed increasing mental health staff in prisons as part of an effort to come up with a plan that would satisfy the court.
The contract with Wexford calls for increased mental health staffing. The Legislature is close to approving a total of about $80 million in additional funding for prisons over two years. Most of that is intended to pay for increased medical and mental health care costs.
The Department of Corrections chose Wexford over two other final bidders, Centurion and Corizon Health. Centurion includes MHM Services, which is DOC’s current mental health provider. Corizon Health is DOC’s current medical care provider.
The department has not released the bid amounts. Spokesman Bob Horton said they would be released after the Tuesday deadline for the other bidders to file a challenge. Horton said no protest has been filed as of today.
The state of Mississippi sued Wexford and other companies alleging they had a role in a scheme to pay consultants to bribe state officials. Mississippi’s former prison commissioner was sentenced to prison. Wexford has denied any wrongdoing.
Williams said the Department of Corrections contract includes a provision that Wexford could forfeit a $15 million bond if it turns out the company has not been truthful in its assertions about the Mississippi case.
Over the course of Women’s History Month, we’ve heard from hundreds of courageous women who share in the hardship of advocating for a loved one in prison or the experience of being wrongly convicted themselves.
Debra Milke of Arizona, wrongly convicted of the murder of her son, expressed the “bittersweet” feeling of being only the second woman in the U.S. exonerated from death row. Like Milke, 40% of women exonerees were convicted of harming children or loved ones:
While I did gain my hard-fought freedom, I am still left with a life without my son, making the victory bittersweet. D E B R A M.
And Michele B., an advocate for the wrongly convicted, who could no longer sit back and read another unjust story. Innocence stories have helped give her “purpose in life”:
I immediately went on to law school and spent my free time volunteering with the public defender’s office … I look forward to a lifetime of advocating for our nation’s most vulnerable people. M I C H E L E B.
Or Barbara S., who after being jailed in Fort Bragg became an activist for wrongly incarcerated women veterans, many of whom were victims of sexual assault.
A common form of punishment for reporting sexual assault is adverse discharges and incarceration to silence the victims. Therefore, [my organization’s] ongoing mission is to help homeless and transitioning women veterans fight for justice, expungement of their criminal records, and upgrade of their military discharge. B A R B A R A S.
For nearly two decades, criminal justice reform advocates have been fighting to fix a persistent and egregious flaw in the US prison system: the frequently exorbitant cost of inmate phone calls, which can run up to $17 for a 15-minute local phone call. A confluence of market failures, political intransigence, and public indifference has created a broken billing system that veteran Federal Communications Commission official Mignon Clyburn has called “the greatest, most distressing, type of injustice I have ever seen in the communications sector.”
An Obama-era policy sought to rectify the matter by capping inmate calling fees at as low as 11 cents per minute, but President Trump’s telecom chief Ajit Pai — facing a fierce legal attack from prison phone companies, including the two industry titans GTL and Securus — refused to defend a key portion of the rule last year. As a result, the rules are stuck in a legal quagmire.
For years, GTL and Securus have exerted effective monopoly power in many states to charge inmates, families, lawyers, and clergy excessive rates that can result in monthly bills of as much as $500. For a struggling family whose former breadwinner may be locked up, that’s a lot of money just to stay in touch with a loved one.
The cost of inmate phone calls is now less than 4 cents per minute at all state-operated facilities in Mississippi, with the three privately ran prisons soon following suit.
The call rate is dropping from 11 cents per minute to .039 cents per minute under a new agreement with Global Tel*Link (GTL) Corp.
Alabama Department of Corrections has contracted with ICSolutions and charges $0.21 cents per minute in addition to the $3.00 charge that is applied anytime you add funds to the account.
“The reduced rate will make services even more accessible and affordable for inmates’ families and loved ones,” said Commissioner Pelicia E. Hall. “Family members will be able to stay in touch with their loved ones without worrying about the cost. We realize that family contact is very important for rehabilitation.”
The MDOC last dropped rates in March 2016 when the FCC mandated lower rates per minute for calls in prison systems.
From March 2016 to January this year, inmates made 3,599,018 calls and talked for 37,028,605 minutes at state-operated facilities, including the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, and South Mississippi Correctional Institution.
In January alone, 188,764 calls were made, additionally the new contract calls for equipment and technology to aid the department’s efforts to control contraband cellphones inside prison walls.
So it begs the question, if Mississippi can do it, why can’t Alabama?
The information in this article is not intended to diagnose or treat any mental health condition. Always seek the advice of a qualified medical professional with any questions you may have about your health or treatment.
For some people, the holidays are a time of joy and celebration. But for others, they bring a sense of loneliness and pain – especially behind bars. Its common for prisoners to experience depression around the holidays, so its important to know the signs and learn the tools to cope.
Dr Karen Boortz, a psychologist with the Minnesota Department of Corrections, explains that sadness is a normal emotion that everyone experiences sometimes, usually in response to a difficult situation. Depression however, is “an abnormal state.” It makes you feel sad about everything and it doesn’t even require an outside trigger.
Signs of depression
Women with depression are more likely to experience severely low self-esteem, self-harm, anxiety, panic or eating disorders. But the normal stresses of adjusting to prison life can look like depression. So how can you tell whether you’re depressed or just a little “off”? In a nutshell, depression symptoms are abnormal and constant.
Dr Sarah Deweese, a psychologist at San Quentin Prison, says if the things that usually make you happy, no longer cheer you up, that might be a sign. “Look for clues that something doesn’t feel right, that you’re not yourself,” says Deweese. Pay attention if others seem concerned about your state of mind, because depression can distort your sense of reality and make it hard for you to realise that something is wrong.
Other symptoms of depression include: Lack of interest (feeling detached or numb); major change in weight or appetite; trouble sleeping or sleeping too much; fatigue or agitation; feelings of worthlessness or shame; trouble concentrating or thinking straight; and thoughts of dying or suicide. Physical symptoms may include headaches, body aches, and digestive problems.
Reasons for Prison Depression
The largest factor leading to depression behind bars, Boortz says, is the separation from family, friends and community, a factor that gets even harder during the holidays. Deweese points out that we’re designed to be social creatures. “The holidays are a reminder that the family system, the bond with people you’re accustomed to being around, has been broken, so it makes sense that prisoners would feel a loss,” she says.
Dr. Lisa Herman, PsyD, LP, a psychologist, adds that things we see on TV or hear on the radio can also make the holidays harder. “There are so many commercials on TV showing happy, ‘perfect’ families, and traditionally the holidays are a time of the year focussed on family togetherness,” so when you don’t have that because you are in prison, away form family, “you can feel very alone.”
Other factors that can make depression worse include the lack of privacy, the constant noise, too much downtime and less access to support. Symptoms can be more severe during these winter holidays because the days are shorter and darker.
Ways to Cope
Ready for some good news? There are self-care tools that you can use when dealing with depression behind bars. Even if you’re not clinically depressed, these tips can help you get through a tough time.
Get the right sleep. Depression might have you up all night or sleeping all day. Going to bed at a decent hour and getting out of bed during the day can help improve your mood.
Eat well and exercise, outside if possible. Be kind to your brain and your body. Stay away from mood-altering substances (including caffeine), which can make things worse. Take a walk in the fresh air; sunshine can boost your mood.
Meditate. Deweese suggests reading and doing relaxing meditations (and even mini-meditations where you focus on your breathing, feel your heart and count your heartbeats for 30 seconds). Creative outlets like playing music or journaling can help too.
Set a goal. Find a daily activity like memorizing a chapter of the bible, or walking a certain distance everyday; start small (even as simple as doing 10 jumping jacks) and slowly increase the task when ready. Meeting a goal can help fight the feelings of worthlessness.
Connect. Isolation tends to make depression worse. If you can, connect with others who are going through the same thing. “Creating a makeshift family and talking with supportive fellow prisoners can help you feel much better,” Deweese says, Join an educational program or religious group. Turning to Jesus by praying and reading scripture can bring comfort, but its important to note that you can be a Christian and still struggle with depression.
Go easy on yourself. Use extra kindness towards yourself and others, remembering this time and these feelings – will pass.
Depression is not about weakness. “The brain is an organ, and just like any other body part is susceptible to illness or imbalance, so is our brain,” says Deweese. “And just like theres no shame in seeing a doctor if you need a cast on your leg, theres no shame in getting extra help if you’re depressed.
It’s the holiday season, but many incarcerated Americans won’t get presents directly from home.
To stop drugs and weapons from entering jails and prisons, many corrections agencies bar family members from mailing packages or bringing them during visits. Those who want to send food, clothing and other gifts to incarcerated relatives at any time of year often must go through private vendors. (SEE NOTE BELOW ABOUT PRODUCT IMAGES)
Here’s how it works: Families shop from print and online catalogs supplied by care package companies. Every item is PRISON- AND JAIL-APPROVED. In some facilities, that can mean no glass or metal containers or no personal hygiene products containing alcohol. Items are often contraband-proof, from sealed food pouches to clear electronics to pocketless sweatpants.
For the holidays, families can choose from seasonal products; think red and green cream-filled Hostess cupcakes and peppermint Twinkies. The Los Angeles County jails’ contract for care packages includes annual “gift packs” that are given to inmates for free during the winter holiday season, complete with a card from the county.
At least one program, Access Securepak, offers RELIGIOUS ITEMS including the Bible, rosary beads and Allah pendants.
Prisoner care packages are part of a lucrative industry that provides a RANGE OF SERVICES to incarcerated people and their families. Companies that offer care package programs often bundle additional services, such as phone and commissary, into one contract with a corrections agency. Keefe Commissary Network, which along with Access Securepak is part of Keefe Group, reported net sales of over $375 million from care package, commissary and technology programs in 2012, according to a 2014 contract proposal posted on the West Virginia state government website. Access Securepak had over 125 active custom package programs nationwide in 2014 and was the exclusive provider for 18 state departments of corrections.
Companies often offer their services at no charge to corrections agencies along with a share of the profits. In its bid for the West Virginia contract, Union Supply Group, which oversees Union Supply Direct, projected that the state stood to earn about $95,000 in one year, based on a 17 percent commission of annual care package sales.
The privatization of services at correctional facilities generally leaves prisoners and their families with fewer choices, forcing them to do business with certain vendors or go without, says Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that advocates for incarcerated people and their families and has conducted research on predatory practices in the prison and jail communication industry.
Although catalogs can contain hundreds of items, some relatives lament their inability to send a personalized gift. “We want to love the prisoner. We don’t love their crime, but we love them,” says Julie Tyson of Morehead City, North Carolina, whose son is incarcerated in a state prison. “It’s hard to do that through the calls and brief visits. It would be so nice to send a pair of socks or something I went and picked out for him.”
Perhaps because prison meals often leave much to be desired, food tends to dominate care package offerings. Most snacks and meals are HEAVILY PROCESSED and packed with sugar, fat and sodium. (Food typically must be in hermetically-sealed and tamper-proof packages, which rules out most fresh options.)
There’s often a variety of PRE-MADE GIFT PACKS, like the “Heat and Eat” package sold by iCare, a program of the stadium and schools food service giant Aramark, that contains a quesadilla, soda and 10 packs of ramen noodles.
Most food items can be stored without refrigeration and consumed in a cell with the help of a hot pot, including dried ramen noodles, instant coffee and mac and cheese. In some cases, the snacks — such as Big Haus Sausages — are made exclusively for correctional facilities; other items, like single packets of mayo, are typically not sold individually.
iCare even allows loved ones to send prepared HOT FOOD to inmates; for example, New York, Virginia and Tennessee each have a jail where inmates can receive an Angus double cheeseburger, a calzone or a pepperoni pizza.
The three major care package providers, Access Securepak, Aramark’s iCare, and Union Supply Direct, each have relied on INCARCERATED WORKERS. Access Securepak has used inmates to unload trucks, stock and pick items from warehouses and assemble packages, according to a 2015 West Virginia contract proposal. In its 2014 bid, Union Supply Direct reported that it employed inmates to, among other things, clean freezers and manufacture clear electronics sold in its package program.
$1,248 Projected ANNUAL PAY for one inmate working fulltime in package program. (SOURCE: 2014 UNION SUPPLY DIRECT CONTRACT BID IN WEST VIRGINIA.)
SATANIC BIBLE $17.76 | Bernalillo County, New Mexico
“We deliver experiences that enrich and nourish millions of lives every day,” Karen Cutler, vice president of corporate communications for Aramark, wrote in an emailed response to questions. Correctional facilities determine the prices, nutritional guidelines and labor model used in their contracts with the company, she said.
Keefe Group and Union Supply Direct did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Prisons and jails have long restricted the types of items inmates can receive from the outside — nothing with poppy seeds, for example, or no boxer shorts with patterns on them. And where packages from home are allowed, workers have thrown away those that contained forbidden items. So some families may consider ordering through authorized private vendors, which only offer pre-approved goods, to be more convenient than navigating a prison’s byzantine gifting rules.
But others say sending packages through these companies can be onerous and expensive.
Corrections agencies set DIFFERENT RULES for how many gifts inmates can receive and how often they can receive them. In some facilities, inmates who are eligible to receive packages (usually those who are lowest risk and have good behavior) can get a care package once every three months; at others, inmates are allowed weekly deliveries. The timelines are strict, said Joi Davis of Clarksville, Tennessee, whose husband has been incarcerated since 2003. “If you miss the window, even by one day, you can forget it,” she said.
Packages can also be limited by weight, price and item count. Many facilities don’t allow packages that weigh more than 30 pounds. Gifts are often limited by dollar value; in some places, the cap is $50 a week, at others, it’s $150 every three months. The number of items, like hair ties or sunglasses, can be restricted as well.
“It’s a taxing experience,” Davis said. “There should be other avenues for families to be able to send their loved ones items that they want and need.”
Family members also complain that they’re often forced to buy their loved ones BASIC NECESSITIES that should be provided by the prison. Jennifer Gross of Livonia, Michigan, says she sent her boyfriend, an inmate in the Michigan Department of Corrections, a care package containing toilet paper after he told her he had gone without for four days. “We don’t expect for all our loves to be freed,” she said. “We just want them to have the basic needs and nutrition they deserve.”
Price is another issue. Relatives say that some goods sold in prison-approved catalogs cost more than they would in a store. At the very least, the PRICING OF ITEMS can be unpredictable. At Franklin County Jail in Pennsylvania, for example, a radio from Access Securepak costs $22, but in Custer County, Nebraska, the program sells that same radio for just under $13. At Arrendale State Prison in Georgia, a wire-free bra from Union Supply Direct is $13.80; at Northeast Correctional Complex in Tennessee, the company sells the same bra for $25.95.
Such variation comes from how individual contracts are negotiated between corrections departments and their vendors. In Los Angeles County, Keefe’s contract requires that prices fall within 2 percent of the cost of the same item at any three convenience and grocery stores within 12 miles of the central jail; in contrast, Aramark’s catalog prices in Santa Clara County are required only to be the same as or lower than the prices in the commissary.
In other places, pricing guidelines use the fair market price of an item as a baseline and mandate that the prices stay within 10 percent of the current selling price.
Some inmates have filed LAWSUITS against prison officials and private companies over the cost of care packages, with little luck. In New Mexico, an inmate sued over the price differences for identical products sold through county and state prisons. In California, an inmate alleged that his family suffered by having to purchase items exclusively through a private company with inflated prices and extra fees, particularly for items that he claimed should have been paid for by the prison.
The case in California was dismissed because the inmate was unable to pay the court filing fees. The New Mexico case was dismissed because the judge ruled that inmates do not have a constitutional right to goods at certain prices. The judge also ruled that many of the allegations made by the inmate could be brought only by government agents responsible for oversight of private companies, such as the United States attorney general or the Federal Trade Commission. In Mississippi, the state attorney general is currently pursuing a lawsuit against Keefe alleging fraud and bribery in its contracts with the state department of corrections.
Keefe Group did not respond to requests for comment about the Mississippi lawsuit.
Despite her frustrations with the industry, Davis estimates that she spends as much as $600 of her monthly budget on staying in touch with her husband through things like phone calls, visits and care packages. “It eats up the money, but you don’t want your loved ones to go without,” Davis said.
She has two recommendations for other families who want to send care packages to incarcerated loved ones: “Have a budget and a lot of patience.”
About our product images: The companies mentioned in this article deliver to correctional facilities only, so The Marshall Project purchased and photographed retail store products that most closely resembled items sold in corrections package catalogs. All catalog prices are current as of December 2017, except for the boxers sold by Access Securepak through Okeechobee Correctional Institution, Florida; they were sold in a June 2017 catalog.
Editor’s note: Tony Tamer, the co-CEO of H.I.G. Capital, which indirectly controls TKC Holdings, the owner of Keefe Group, provided the endowment that funds the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise at the Columbia University Business School. The Tamer Center funds summer fellowships at organizations making social change, including The Marshall Project.
A powerful body of literature reveals important differences in the reasons underlying men and women’s criminal involvement. The research conducted on women’s specific “pathways” into crime indicates that their experiences of victimization and abuse, poverty, mental illness and substance abuse play a key role.
The US prison system was designed to house a large male population, and is operated by primarily male officers and officials.
Women represent less than 8% of the total US prison population, and their unique risks, strengths and needs are often eclipsed throughout systems lacking in gender responsive practices.
Despite this fact, women are the fastest growing prison population: The number of women in prison grew 800% vs. 400% in the past 30 years.
Justice-Involved Women: United States vs Illinois Trending
The following data was developed for the “The Gender Informed Practice Assessment” Report on Logan Correctional Center.
Disproportionate Histories of Abuse and Trauma
The vast majority of women in prison have experienced interpersonal or sexual violence, with estimates as high as 90%.[i]
Histories of interpersonal violence are prevalent among both men and women in prison, but rates are much higher among women.[ii]
Incarcerated women with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) report a much higher rate of witnessing violence than the female population in general.[iii]
Trauma such as sexual victimization is linked to mental health, substance abuse, and relationship difficulties and contributes to crime pathways for women. Women with histories of abuse and neglect are 77% more likely to be arrested as an adult than their peers who were not abused.[iv]
The correctional environment is full practices that trigger women’s past trauma, including pat downs and strip searches, frequent discipline from authority figures, and restricted movement.[v]
In Illinois, 98% of incarcerated women in state prisons have experienced physical abuse at some point in their lives; 75% experienced sexual abuse and 85% experienced intimate partner stalking and emotional abuse.[vi]
[i] Miller, N. A., & Najavits, L. M. (2012). Creating trauma-information correctional care: A balance of goals and environment. European Journal of Psychotraumatology.
[ii] Baglivio, M. T., Epps, N., Swartz, K., Huq, M. S., Sheer, A., & Hardt, N. S. (2014). The Prevalence of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) in the lives of juvenile offenders. Journal of Juvenile Justice, 3(2).
[iii] Hackett, M. (2009). Commentary: Trauma and female inmates: Why is witnessing more traumatic? Journal of the American Academy Psychiatry Law, 37(3), 310–315.
[iv] Widom, C. S. & Kuhns, J.B. (1996). Childhood victimization and subsequent risk for promiscuity, prostitution, and teenage pregnancy: A prospective study. American Journal of Public Health 86 (11): 1607.
[v] Miller, N. A., & Najavits, L. M. (2012). Creating trauma-information correctional care: A balance of goals and environment. European Journal of Psychotraumatology.
[vi] Reichert, J., Adams, S., & Bostwick, L. (2010). Victimization and help-seeking behaviors among female prisoners in Illinois. Chicago, IL: Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
Higher Rates of Reported Mental Illness
Nationally, female inmates report higher rates of mental health problems than male inmates (73% of females versus of 55% of males in state prisons).[i]
Nationally, women in prison have more frequent suicide attempts than male inmates.[ii]
Incarcerated women with a history of trauma and accompanying mental health concerns are more likely to have difficulties with prison adjustment and misconduct.
Justice involved women are more likely to experience co-occurring disorders; in particular, substance abuse problems tend to be interlinked with trauma and/or mental illness. The majority of women who suffer from mental illness also have substance abuse disorders.
Women experience mental illness differently than men; Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and eating disorders are all more prevalent in justice-involved women than in men.
The lack of trauma-informed practices and inadequate access to mental health services, combined with the experience of confinement, pose a greater risk of either creating or exacerbating mental health issues among female inmates. Also, correctional policies and procedures – and institutional environments in general – can trigger previous traumatic experiences, exacerbate trauma-related symptoms, and interfere with a woman’s recovery.
In Illinois, the percentage of all incarcerated women on a mental health caseload is 58% compared with 25% of all incarcerated men. Logan Correctional Center, the state’s largest women’s prison, currently houses an estimated 770 women prisoners diagnosed as Seriously Mentally Ill (SMI). In addition, a study of all women incarcerated statewide indicated that an estimated 60% have suffered from PTSD.[iii]
Note: While data regarding the need to address diagnoses of “Serious Mental Illness” among incarcerated women is compelling, it is important for corrections systems to explore their use of the category “Seriously Mentally Ill” and ensure that 1) appropriate clinical criteria are being used and adhered to when identifying someone as SMI, and 2) gender, culture, trauma, oppression and other factors are thoroughly considered so that women are not inappropriately diagnosed.
[i] US Department of Justice. (2006). Mental health problems of prison and jail inmates.
[iii] Reichert, J., & Bostwick, L. (2010). Post-traumatic stress disorder and victimization among female prisoners in Illinois.
Disproportionate Involvement of Women of Color
Nationally, African American women are incarcerated at twice the rate of white women, and rates among Hispanic women are 1.2 times higher.[i] These rates perhaps most dramatically impact younger women: A 2012 study revealed that black females ages 18 to 19 were three times more likely to be imprisoned than white females, and Hispanic females in this age group had imprisonment rates nearly twice those of white females.[ii]
In Illinois, most state prison admissions for men and women in general, and particularly those of Color, are from Cook County. A decline in admissions from Cook County between FY2005 and FY2010 resulted in a decrease in the overall proportion of African American women incarcerated in state prisons (from more than 70 percent in the late 1990s to less than 50 percent among the FY2010 female court admissions). Commensurately, the shift resulted in an increase in the proportion of white females from 20% to nearly 50% in that same period, while Hispanic women experienced a slower, more gradual shift from 2-3% in 1989 to 7.8% today.[iii]
In Illinois, while disproportionality has trended downward, African American women still represent 42% of the women’s prison population, while African American citizens represent only 15% of the Illinois population. Conversely, White women represent 51.4% of the women’s prison population and White citizens represent 73.5% of the Illinois population. [iv]
[i] Carson, E.A. (2015). Prisoners in 2014. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
[ii] US Department of Justice. (2013). Prisoners in 2012
[iii] Olson, D., Escobar, G. & Stalans, L. (2011) An Examination of admissions, exits and end-of-the-year populations of adult female inmates in the Illinois Department of Corrections, state fiscal years 1989 to 2010. Chicago, IL: Loyola University Chicago, Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology
[iv] IDOC Offender 360 Report (2016). US Census Data.
Higher Rates of Substance Abuse & Drug Crimes
A large proportion of justice-involved women have abused substances or have engaged in criminal behavior while under the influence and/or to support their drug use.
In a 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics study, over 60% of women reported a drug dependence or abuse problem in the year prior to their incarceration. Moreover, there is evidence indicating that current substance abuse among women is a strong direct predictor of prison readmission.
Substance abuse among justice-involved women may be motivated by a desire to cope with or mask unpleasant emotions stemming from traumatic experiences and ensuing mental health problems.
Nationally, on every measure of drug use, women in state prisons have reported higher usage (40%) than males (32%).[i] In addition, 25% of female prisoners serve time for drug offenses, compared to 15% of male prisoners.[ii]
In Illinois, 85% of women surveyed in state prisons reported periods of regular alcohol and drug use and an average age of onset at 16.3 years old.[iii]
In Illinois, nearly the entire increase in court admissions of women to state prisons from FY1996 to FY2005 that led to the skyrocketing prison population were attributed to low-level, Class 4 felonies for drug and property crimes. Conversely, the dramatic 40% decline in female court admissions from FY2005 to FY2010 was also linked to a reduction in court admissions for primarily the same class of low-level drug crimes.[iv]
[i] US Department of Justice (1999). Women Offenders. Note: This is self-reported data. Actual number of offenders with substance abuse histories is approximately 80 percent (national data).
[ii] US Department of Justice. Prisoners in 2013 (2014).
[iii] Reichert, J., Adams, S., & Bostwick, L. (2010). Victimization and help-seeking behaviors among female prisoners in Illinois.
[iv] Olson, D., Escobar, G. & Stalans, L. (2011) An Examination of admissions, exits and end-of-the-year populations of adult female inmates in the Illinois Department of Corrections, state fiscal years 1989 to 2010. Chicago, IL: Loyola University Chicago, Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology
More Likely to be the Custodial Parent of their Children
Nationally, more than 60% of women prisoners are parents, and women prisoners are more likely than men to serve as the custodial parent of their children.[i] According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report, 77% of mothers in state prison who lived with their children just prior to incarceration provided most of the children’s daily care, compared to 26% of fathers. 88% of incarcerated fathers identified the child’s other parent as the current caregiver, compared to 37% of mothers.”[ii]
The Annie E. Casey Foundation found that Illinois has the 7th highest number of individuals who have experienced parental incarceration during their childhood, totaling 186,000.
Children of incarcerated parents “…display short-term coping responses to deal with their loss, which can develop into long-term emotional and behavioral challenges, such as depression, problems with school, delinquency, and drug use.”[iii] Children of incarcerated mothers in particular are at greater risk of dropping out of school and academic challenges.[iv]
“Preserving a child’s relationship with a parent during incarceration benefits both parties. It also benefits society, reducing children’s mental health issues and anxiety, while lowering recidivism and facilitating parents’ successful return to their communities.”[v]
In Illinois, a snapshot of the women incarcerated at Logan Correctional Center in October 2015 indicated that 71% of them (1,304 out of 1,835) are mothers of a total of 3,700 children.
[ii] Glaze, L. & Maruschak, L. (2008) Parents in prison and their minor children.
[iii] Hatzenbuehler, M. L., Keyes, K., Hamilton, A., Uddin, M., & Galea, S. (2015). e collateral damage of mass incarceration: Risk of psychiatric morbidity among nonincarcerated residents of high-incarceration neighbor- hoods. American Journal of Public Health, 105(1), 138–143. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ pubmed/25393200
[iv] Dallaire, D. H. (2007, December). Children with incarcerated mothers: Developmental outcomes, special challenges, and recommendations. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 28(1), 15–24.
[v] Annie E Casey Foundation (April 2016) “A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families & Communities; La Vigne, N. G., Davies, E., & Brazzell, D. (2008, February 12). Family and recidivism. AMERICAN Jails, 17–24. Retrieved from www.vera.org/ les/the- family-and-recidivism.pdf.; The Osborne Association. (2012, May).
Higher Rates of Poverty & Unemployment
Economic hardship, lower educational attainment, fewer vocational skills, underemployment, and employment instability are more common among justice-involved women. These factors are particularly problematic when considering that women are more likely to have child-rearing responsibilities, particularly as single mothers.
Compared to men, it is more difficult for justice-involved women to obtain and maintain legitimate and well-paying employment that will meet their family’s needs, both before and following incarceration. Research has indicated that programming designed to enhance women’s educational/vocational skills are effective in reducing their risk of recidivism.
Nationally, women report greater levels of poverty than men and less employment history immediately preceding incarceration. In addition, those seeking affordable housing and reunification face considerably greater challenges. [i]
A study of the Women’s Prison Association found that 60% of women reported that they were not employed full-time at the time of their arrest (compared to 40% of men) and 37% of women had incomes of under $600 in the month leading to their arrest (compared with 28% of men).[ii]
A study conducted by the Urban Institute regarding prisoner reentry suggested greater challenges for formerly incarcerated women seeking employment. A sample allowed comparisons of the statistical differences between male and females in several states, and indicated 61% of males were employed post release vs 37% of women.[iii]
In Illinois, 43.8% of women at Logan Correctional Center, the state’s largest prison, do not have a high school diploma or GED; and one study indicated that approximately 58% of women in Illinois prisons were employed either full- or part-time at the time of their incarceration.[iv]
[iv] Reichert, J., Adams, S., & Bostwick, L. (2010). Victimization and Help-Seeking Behaviors Among Female Prisoners In Illinois. Chicago, IL: Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
Lower Public Safety Risk, Yet Fastest Growing Criminal Justice System Population Nationwide
Justice-involved women are less likely than men to have extensive criminal histories.
Women typically enter the criminal justice system for non-violent crimes that are often drug-related and/or driven by poverty. Nationally, women in state prisons are more likely to be incarcerated for a drug or property offense than a violent crime: 24% of women have been convicted of a drug offense, compared to 15% of men; 28% of women have been convicted of a property crime, compared to 19% of men; and 37% of women have been convicted of a violent offense, compared to 54% of men.[i]
The nature and context of violent crime committed by women frequently differs from that observed in men. When women commit aggressive acts, they typically involve assaults of lesser severity that are reactive or defensive in nature, rather than calculated or premeditated. Compared with men who tend to target strangers and acquaintances, violent acts committed by women occur primarily in domestic or school settings, and are more likely targeted at family members and/or intimates.
Women released from incarceration have lower recidivism rates than their male counterparts. This holds true for rearrests, reconvictions, and returns to prison with or without new prison sentences. Moreover, for the small proportion of women who are incarcerated for violent crimes, most do not reoffend with another violent crime.
Within prisons, incidents of violence and aggression committed by women are extremely low. Studies indicate that incarcerated women are five times less likely than men to commit such acts – 3-5% of women compared to 17-19% of men.
Despite women’s lower level crimes, arrest data from 2010 reveal that the number of female arrests in the United States increased by 11.4% from the preceding decade; this increase is in contrast to a 5% decline for male arrests. During the same time period, the number of women incarcerated in federal and state correctional facilities increased by 22%. Women now constitute one-fourth of the probation and parole population, representing a 10% increase over the past decade.
In Illinois, 34% of women in state prisons are incarcerated for a violent offense, compared with 43% of male inmates. Women are also more likely to be incarcerated for a drug crime (29% vs 21%) or a property crime (30% vs 19%).[ii]