86 percent of women in jail are sexual-violence survivors

When speaking of mass incarceration, men are usually the default, it’s time that change

November 11, 2017

"According to a recent study, 86 percent of women who have spent time in jail report that they had been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. As well, while women represented just 13 percent of the jail population between 2009 and 2011, they represented 67 percent of the victims of staff-on-inmate sexual victimization. Sexual violence is so pronounced among jailed and incarcerated women that Sen. Cory Booker, (D-NJ,) labeled the overarching phenomenon as "a survivor-of-sexual-trauma to prisoner pipeline."

These numbers come from the Vera Institute of Justice, which authored a survey last year titled "Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform." Given the rising numbers of incarcerated women, specifically in local jails, and the lack of research on them, the Institute wanted to examine who those women were and what adversities they faced. Other findings were equally as alarming as those above.

Two thirds of the women in jail are of color, and the majority of that population is also low-income. Further, nearly 80 percent of the incarcerated are mothers, most of them raising a child without a partner. Eighty-two percent were incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, while 32 percent have serious mental illness and 82 percent suffer from drug or alcohol addiction. Finally, 77 percent of those polled were victims of partner violence and and another 60 percent experienced caregiver violence.

First Lady of New York City Chirlane McCray, who works with women at Rikers Island, added that in addition to the prevalence of sexual assault, abuse and trauma present in the lives of the majority of incarcerated women, "women are often trapped in a lower-paid status," she told Salon on a recent episode of "Salon Talks."

This economic reality is often what inspires the crimes that end up landing these women in local jails in the first place. Laurie Garduque, the criminal justice director of the MacArthur Foundation, which co-published the survey, told Salon that many women end up in jail because of "crimes of poverty." During the survey, she encountered women who were jailed for reasons like unpaid parking tickets, stealing discount clothes for their children and for failing to show up to court.

"A lot of people are there because they haven’t paid their fines and fees, haven’t paid their child support, have outstanding bench warrants," she added. Beyond that, many are forced to stay in jail awaiting pre-trial because they have no resources to pay cash bail.

The survey found that in 2012, 36 percent of women were being held in a pre-trial unit in Massachusetts because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500. Given that Black and Latina women live at low-income rates disproportionate to the white population, they are also the cohorts most impacted by the cash bail system.

Simply, the economic realities for women compounded by the economic realities for people of color, combine to create a system where members of certain at-risk populations awaiting trial, may spend significant time behind bars for minor offenses they were compelled to commit regardless of whether they are convicted or not. "It’s really a revolving door," Garduque said. "Even a short stay in jail can be very disruptive for women." ...

Read full story at Salon

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