Join Hostess Billie Fidlin and Guests Karen Spencer-Barnes and Patricia Wheat as they discuss the issue of Women in Prison.
The number of women in state and federal prisons has surged since 1978 by nearly 800 percent — twice the growth rate for men. Mandatory sentences for drug offenses enacted during the 1980s and 1990s have hit women particularly hard, many experts say. But some prosecutors and Republicans dispute the claim that the so-called war on drugs has disproportionately hurt women. They say mandatory sentencing has reduced crime, helped break up drug rings and ended sentencing disparities. Reformers hope states' recent efforts to reduce prison populations and spend more on drug treatment will help women. But they say women still remain an afterthought in the penal system. For example, reformers say courts and prisons rarely recognize women's responsibility as mothers or the factors underlying their participation in crime, such as domestic abuse. The justice system, women's advocates say, needs to think creatively about how to help female prisoners. Meanwhile, in the juvenile system, girls often receive harsher punishments than boys who commit similar offenses.
The majority of women in prison, according to researchers, have suffered some kind of trauma, such as domestic or sexual violence; many are addicts; and many suffer from serious mental illness. “Prison is a place where those things generally will get worse — for mothers and their children,” says Georgia Lerner, executive director of the Women's Prison Association in New York City, which helps women involved in the criminal justice system.