New report details harsh realities of women in jail, prison

3 months ago
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Women are treated much differently than men by the criminal justice system, according to a new report detailing how and why mass incarceration is harmful to women in the U.S.

The report said nationwide, more than 190,000 women are behind bars, with the vast majority serving time in local jails.

Mike Wessler, communications director for the Prison Policy Initiative, said it includes about 29,000 women in Mississippi. He argued the system is particularly harsh toward women. One major challenge is receiving sufficient medical care.

“Women are frequently overdosed behind bars; they may have consumed drugs or alcohol at high level before they came to jail,” Wessler noted. “And when they’re there, the jails don’t have the capacity to treat them. So, they often overdose or they detox without any assistance, and it costs them their lives.”

Wessler pointed out about 82% of women who are entangled in the legal system are on probation or parole. The other 18% are in jail or prison. The Magnolia State has one of the higher incarceration rates, with more than 1,000 people per 100,000 residents behind bars.

Wessler emphasized around 58% of women who are incarcerated have minor children. Their families often cannot afford cash bail, which is one reason they are trapped in the legal system. Worse yet, he added, the women are typically the primary caregivers for their kids, which may cause their parental rights to be at risk.

“If you can’t afford that, you’re going to sit in jail until trial, and that can be months and months at a time, in which time you’re likely to lose your job, lose your housing, lose custody of your children,” Wessler outlined. “Women who are incarcerated don’t make enough money to often pay that bail. The average bail in this country is about one year’s salary for an incarcerated woman.”

The report also echoed concerns about the stark racial disparities in locking people up. It said in Mississippi, white people are incarcerated at a rate of 386 per 100,000 residents. For Black people, the rate is 960.

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New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s five-point New York City subway safety plan is being met with backlash from some community advocates.

The plan calls for deploying National Guard troops to keep commuters safe. It comes after Mayor Eric Adams deployed an additional 1,000 police officers into the subways. Crime has heavily fluctuated on the subway since the pandemic but the moves come after a series of violent acts on several lines across boroughs.

Sala Cyril, organizer for the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, called the new plan “atrocious.”

“It will increase racial profiling. It’ll increase abuse. It’ll increase the harassment of New Yorkers, and it won’t make us safer,” Cyril contended. “It creates a kind of terror in New Yorkers.”

New York City police statistics show a 15% drop in crime from last year and from January to February 2024, 74 fewer crimes occurred on subways.

Cyril does not deny crime is a problem in the subway but feels there are more effective ways to create lasting results, including building more affordable housing and providing mental health services for those in need.

As a native New Yorker, Cyril believes Hochul’s plan is similar to former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “broken windows” approach to crime reduction; the strategy of addressing smaller crimes to make a bigger impact. The theory has often been challenged because crime remains in flux.

Cyril is concerned the presence of armed guards and policy alters a place of community for residents.

“People build community on the train. People feel connected to New York on the train,” Cyril observed. “The kinds of things that change that are people having mental health issues, but being criminalized instead. People, you know, jumping the turnstile because they’re poor and being criminalized.”

Other elements of Hochul’s plan include a new program bill permitting transit bans for people who’ve assaulted other passengers, adding new cameras to protect conductor cabs, and increasing the Subway Co-Response Outreach teams in the subway.

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A first-of-its-kind case in Johnston County could affect the futures of more than 100 people on death row in North Carolina. It’s the Racial Justice Act case of Hasson Bacote.

Gretchen Engel, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said that what sets this hearing apart is that it’s examining patterns and implications of racism in the death penalty for the entire state, rather than focusing solely on Bacote’s individual case.

“This is a case that will allow the court to consider an unprecedented amount of evidence related to the question of whether the death penalty is administered fairly in North Carolina, or whether race affects who sits on the juries,” she said.

Bacote was sentenced to death in 2007 for his role in a deadly robbery. Last week, Engel said, experts showed how racial disparities in jury selection disproportionately affect Black jurors across the state. This week, experts explored the history of the death penalty in North Carolina, and racism in Johnston County.

About 136 people are on death row in North Carolina; about 60% are people of color. According to the North Carolina Coalition of Alternatives to the Death Penalty, nearly half were sentenced by majority-white juries. By addressing the systemic issues that underpin capital punishment, Engel said, the evidence presented in this hearing could have far-reaching impacts.

“If the judge finds that there is discrimination across the state of North Carolina, not simply in Mr. Bacote’s case,” she said, “that could have implications for other people who are under sentence of death and residing on death row here in our state.”

After Bacote’s team presents its evidence, the state will present its case. North Carolina hasn’t executed anyone since 2006 because of legal issues surrounding lethal-injection drugs. The governor is unable to schedule executions because of ongoing litigation related to the Racial Justice Act.

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Nationwide, people with disabilities are overrepresented both as victims of crime and those who are accused of crimes, and advocates believe the justice system could do much more to improve accessibility.

The system is not always fair to people with autism, cognitive disabilities and learning disorders, and visual and hearing disabilities.

Ariel Simms, president and CEO of the nonprofit group RespectAbility, said there are ways to better ensure disabled individuals are treated fairly, such as expanding access to hearing and visual aids or American Sign Language interpreters.

“When somebody is reaching out for legal support or assistance, we can really think through almost every process/environment ahead of time,” Simms pointed out. “And really think through how we’re going to make it more accessible.”

Last year, West Virginia lawmakers passed Senate Bill 232, which aims to improve data collection on disabilities in state correctional facilities and make recommendations for alternative placements for people with severe disabilities, rather than prisons or state psychiatric hospitals.

Simms noted there are resources in every state to help people working in the criminal justice system assist individuals with disabilities.

“Always the number one recommendation: Work with disability groups,” Simms emphasized. “There are also groups that work at the state and the local level that can also be really incredible resources.”

Health care access and safety for people with disabilities in West Virginia prisons continues to be a major issue. In an analysis of federal data by the West Virginia Center for Budget Policy and Priorities, from 2001 to 2018, West Virginia had the second-highest prison mortality rate in the nation.

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