In this holiday season Gloria Steinem reminds us of the isolation and dehumanization of women in prison and the importance of letting them know they are seen and valued.
As part of the Ms. community Gloria requested that I share her message with you.
Dear Common Ills,
Out of sight should not mean out of mind and heart. But the tragedy for women in prison is that it often does.
This invisibility keeps us from realizing how much women in prison may resemble you and me.
Did you know that over half, 58 percent, of women in prison are mothers, and 80 percent of women in jails are mothers. About five percent are pregnant and give birth in prison. And in 23 states, women give birth in chains because we have not yet succeeded in even passing anti-shackling laws.
Most women in prison are not a danger to society. About 60 percent have been convicted of non-violent crimes. Often, they are suffering unfairly harsh consequences even for nonviolent crimes, like possessing or selling illegal drugs. And many of the women convicted of so-called murder have actually killed a violent partner in self-defense, yet not been allowed to plead self-defense.
This is part of the reason women and girls are the fastest growing incarcerated population in the United States today. Over the course of the past four decades, women’s state prison populations have grown more than 834 percent – more than doubling the rate of growth in men’s prisons. And the incarceration rates for women of color outpace their white counterparts by 100 percent.
And because domestic violence shelters can be almost as isolating as prisons – and often lack reading material, just as many prisons do – we want to include women in those shelters in this program too.
We send Ms. to 5,418 federal, state and county prisoners, and hundreds of shelters across the country. That’s a fraction of the total, but it’s a number we’re very proud of and hope to keep growing. Over the eighteen years since this program’s birth, we’ve discovered that even this small gesture of recognition, support and information means a lot.
Here’s what Elena H. wrote to us from prison in Muncy, Pennsylvania, after Ms. published a feature on the rates of COVID infections in women’s prisons:
“The hardest aspects of COVID in prison were the unknowing and the isolation. It was hard to feel heard, to feel like my personhood mattered to anyone. A change began when I participated in Victoria Law's article in Ms. The article was a spark of dignity. As “Prison Outbreak” restored my idea of dignity, dignity sharpened into indignation. Prison itself is founded on unknowing and isolation and I am not content to consent to its dehumanization.”