Stories From Cell Block 7: Women in Prisons

By Abbey Williamson, Visitor Services Staff, Originally appeared in the Cell Block 7 email newsletter, January 29, 2016

Women prisons are a relatively new concept that came about in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As early are the 1870’s there were separate female facilities, but they were overcrowded and often not very clean. In the early days of separate facilities the goal wasn’t necessarily rehabilitation of the women. They were already deemed as fallen, and thus beyond possibility of being reformed. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the mindset changed and the women’s reformatory movement gained traction in facilities in the northeast, and overtime slowly started to spread to the west.

In the early twentieth century women’s prisons were almost non-existent. By the 1930’s thirty-four women’s facilities were built. But with the female prison population rapidly growing the need for more facilities grew. And by 1990 there were seventy-one prisons across the country, and only five years later that number grew to 150 facilities across the United States. While this is a major jump in numbers for only seventy years, most states still only have one facility for female prisoners. This means that most women are incarcerated miles from their children and family members, and this usually limits how often they receive visits from their loved ones.

In a 2008 report, statistics showed that 4% of female state prisoners were pregnant at the start of their incarceration. Of those, 9% of them give birth while they are completing their sentence. This means that many babies are born within the Department of Corrections, leaving a population of infants that need to be cared for, either with family members, foster care, or prison nursery programs. While only nine facilities in the United States offer a nursery program, they are beneficial to both mother and child as it is one of the best ways to accomplish a maternal bond. Though a facility may offer the program, a woman is only eligible if she has committed a non-violent crime and has no history of child abuse or neglect. If she is eligible then she is allowed to keep her baby with her for a time period between twelve and eighteen months. Another major benefit is that rates of recidivism are usually less for women who were able to participate in the nursery programs.

Once women serve their sentences and are released from prison, there are many programs that attempt to help with their re-entry. Programs like Helping Women Recover, Seeking Safety, and Beyond Trauma: A Healing Journey for Women, are aimed to help women with depression and the overwhelming aspects of re-entering society. Other programs like Our Place and The Refugee Model are programs that aim to help women with housing, employment, and health care. They also help with re-establishing familial bonds with loved ones and their children if necessary.

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