Incarceration of Men and Women
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The number of incarcerated women has increased tremendously. According to some studies, this number has increased 600 percent since 1980. The escalation of women incarcerated in the United States is faster now than that of men. As a matter of fact, the United States has ten times the number of female prisoners compared to Western Europe nations combined. The majority of these female prisoners have committed non-violent crimes. The number of men becoming incarcerated is also steadily growing. Men and women can be incarcerated for similar reasons, but their experiences while being incarcerated can be different.
First, one reason for the increase in women incarceration is due to wide spread substance abuse and tougher drug laws. “In May of 1973, New Yorks governor Nelson Rockefeller pushed through the state legislature a set of stringent anti-drug laws” (Wilson, 2000). These anti-drug laws were considered to be very severe. The hope was that by pushing these laws through, there would be a decrease in the epidemic of drug abuse. The Rockefeller Drug law required that a mandatory sentence of fifteen years to life be imposed on anyone convicted of possessing or selling a narcotic drug as well as marijuana. Many women were led into the world of drugs by their boyfriend or spouse. An interesting example of this would be the Kemba Smith story. “Away from the protective watch of her mother and father and in an attempt to fit, Kemba fell in with the wrong crowd and became involved with a drug dealer. He was a major figure in a crack cocaine ring and drew Kemba right in the middle of his life with physical, mental and emotional abuse disguised as love” (Kemba Smith Foundation, 2010). Kemba was a first time non- violent offender and was sentenced to 25 years in prison for her involvement in the drug ring. “Approximately half of the women incarcerated in state prisons were using mind-altering substances at the time of their most recent offense” (Clear, Cole, & Reisig, 2009). Women are continuing to be prosecuted for possession and distribution of drugs and sentenced to prison.
In addition, the increase in the number of female prisoners is due to conviction of the battered woman. These are women who kill their husband or boyfriend. Ninety percent of incarcerated women who were convicted of killing a man had been battered by that man. It is now becoming more difficult for women to claim self defense. The disparity in sentencing between women and men who kill their partner is great. Most women who kill their partner do so in self defense. They are also sentenced, on average, to fifteen years in prison. Men, on the other hand, are usually sentenced to 2-6 years for killing their female partners.
African American women disproportionately represent 50 percent of the population of incarcerated women. “In fact, African-American women are eight times more likely than white women to go to prison” (Kurshan, 2010). The system is comprised of 36 percent white women and the rest, Hispanic women comprising 14 percent. These women usually come from a background of poverty, lack of education and lack of family support. Many of these women have been abused physically and emotionally.
Also, the effects of incarceration can be far more detrimental to a woman than a man. Women are more likely to lose their support cast when they become incarcerated. When a man is incarcerated the woman is more likely to visit and support him. Once a woman is incarcerated their male partners often do not even visit them in prison. Women are usually sent to prisons further away from home and family because there are fewer female prison facilities. Six percent of the women entering prison are pregnant. The mother and child have no time to bond before being separated. The separation of many mothers and their children usually lead to depression and anger. Women who are mothers worry about the fate of their children. Most children end up in foster care if they have no one who can care for them. Sometimes the childs grandmother will care for the child once the mother becomes incarcerated. Worrying about the fate of their children is enough punishment for a woman who is incarcerated. They get feelings of helplessness knowing they are not able to provide and care for their children. The system usually keeps these inmates drugged on medications as opposed to dealing with the problem.
Furthermore, the health system for women in prison is very poor. “Womens prisons also lack proper medical services. Yet, compared with men, women usually have more serious health related problems, because of their socioeconomic status and limited access to preventative medical care” (Clear, Cole, & Reisig, 2009). This system was created by men for men. The health care needs of women such as mammograms, pap smears, and routine care is very rare. In prison there is no obligation for the staff to administer preventative health care. Medical conditions are not treated unless they are life threatening. This also applies to the medical services in the male prisons. In female prisons the percentage of inmates with HIV is higher than in male prisons.
Finally, women have to deal with physical abuse from other inmates as well as from guards who are usually male. “As the number of women prisoners has increased, cases of sexual misconduct by male correctional officers have escalated” (Clear, Cole, & Reisig, 2009). Women in prison are vulnerable to sexual abuse because it is usually done by the correctional officers supervising them. The correctional officers use their control over the female inmates to convince them to have sexual relations with them. “Guards had also used their near total authority to provide or deny goods and privileges to female prisoners to compel them to have sex or, in other cases, to reward them for having done so” (Clear, Cole, & Reisig, 2009).
The male prison experience is far different than from that of a female. To begin with, male inmates are considered to be more violent than female inmates.