Women are more likely to have experienced sexual abuse in and before entering correctional facilities than men, while also having elevated mental health concerns, according to a study published by Prisoners Legal Services (PLS) of Massachusetts.
Researchers interviewed 22 women incarcerated throughout Massachusetts for the study, 19 of whom said they had either experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or sexual violence during incarceration.
Although fewer than 200 women are currently incarcerated in state prison in Massachusetts, down 75 percent from 2015, the research made clear that for most women offenders, incarceration offered little rehabilitative value.
“Trauma and discrimination are inherent to incarceration,” wrote Sarah Nawab, author of A Different Way Forward, in a press release accompanying the study’s recommendations for rethinking the sentencing of woman offenders.
“Healing trauma requires us to shift away from reliance on carceral systems, and towards addressing the root causes of harm.”
Nawab, an Equal Justice Works Fellow and an attorney, continued: “There is no form of prison, jail, or system of incarceration that will be responsive to trauma women undergo in their lives.”.
The report singled out harms experienced by the incarcerated women interviewed for the study.
“Notably, the harm that both cisgender and transgender women face at the hands of correctional staff is in contravention of law, and yet continually occurs with impunity.
“For example, women describe staff sexual misconduct as ubiquitous in spite of and without any recourse through the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which was meant to address exactly these issues.”
The negative experiences of women in Massachusetts facilities is not unusual, statistics suggest.
Nearly 60 percent of incarcerated women in the U.S. “have a history of physical or sexual abuse, and their involvement in the justice system leaves many incarcerated women vulnerable to revictimization,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
In one New York State maximum security prison, a study found that 94 percent of the women incarcerated there had experienced severe physical or sexual abuse at some point in their lifetimes.
According to another 2014 Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) study, women represented 7 percent of all people incarcerated in state and federal prisons but accounted for 33 percent of victims of sexual violence by staff.
Moreover, a 2012 BJS report found more women in prison (66 percent) than men in prison (35 percent) had a history of mental health concerns.
The state of Massachusetts had similar numbers according to the Massachusetts Department of Correction. Of the incarcerated population identifying as female, 70 percent had open mental health cases, 67 percent had a serious mental illness and 63 percent were on psychotropic medication as of December 31, 2020.
Recommendations of the PLS report to remedy the harms women face in the carceral system included:
- Establish independent oversight of women’s facilities;
- Release women from prisons and jails using parole, medical parole, clemency, ending pre-trial confinement, ending cash bail, and ending life without parole sentencing;’
- Reduce reliance on incarceration;
- Facilitate women’s reentry;
“The Commonwealth (of Massachussetrts) should pass a five-year moratorium on jail and prison construction without loopholes,” said Mallory Hanora, Executive Director of Families for Justice as Healing, in the PLS press release.
“And spend that time focused on releasing women and investing in community-led solutions that stop the flow of women into incarceration.”
The full study can be found here
James Van Bramer is associate editor of The Crime Report