Bringing "The Invisible Population" To Light: Justice for Incarcerated Women

In America today, some of the most neglected, underserved, and unseen women live behind bars.  Some have called these women “the invisible population,” as society often overlooks the stories of incarcerated females. Statistically, more men are in prison than women; however, female inmates face gender-specific challenges and have unique needs that compel Christian citizens and the criminal justice system to take action.

Over the last 35 years, the incarceration rate for women has increased by over 700 percent, with approximately 215,000 women currently incarcerated. This dramatic 700 percent increase should prompt us to ask what the stories of these women are, and how their lives have been shaped by prison. A majority of female inmates are in prison for nonviolent offenses, such as drug-related crimes. Further, there are socioeconomic and racial disparities worth examining, as women who are poor and women of color are overrepresented in our criminal justice system. In 2014, the pre-incarceration income for female prisoners was 41 percent less than a non-incarcerated equivalent in age and race. There are also vast racial disparities represented in the population of incarcerated women.  

According to the New York Times,

While incarceration rates soared for both black women and white women between 1985 and 2000, the burden for black women was particularly intense – the number of black women in prison per 100,000 people increased from 68 women in 1985 to 205 women in 2000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. From 2000 to 2015, however, the black female imprisonment rate declined by half – whereas the white female incarceration rate has only continued to rise. The current rate of white female imprisonment, 52 women per 100,000 people, is likely the highest in U.S. history.

Despite this figure, the rate of incarceration for African American women remains at twice that  of white women. Overall, female incarceration rates demonstrate a significantly disproportionate impact on poor women of color.

While significant socioeconomic and racial disproportionalities in female incarceration rates persist, some commonalities exist within the disparity. A widely shared characteristic of female inmates is motherhood, with approximately 60 percent of women in prison having children.  

Characteristics of class, race, and familial status significantly impact and diversify the female prison experience. Despite this, women in prison face common, shared challenges. Among these, two important yet often overlooked challenges are visitation policies and location of imprisonment.

Attempting to visit a loved one in prison is a process filled with unnecessary financial, bureaucratic, and geographic barriers. Visitation policies vary significantly from state to state, with their implementation often left to the discretion of a jail clerk. Many of these policies take advantage of vulnerable families; according to The Prison Policy Initiative, visitors to Arizona jails must pay a  $25 fee to see their loved ones. Additionally, many policies are insensitive to the emotional needs of inmates and visitors. In Washington state, prison officials are authorized to turn a visitor away for “excessive emotion.” The visitation policies of U.S. prisons must encourage and enable children and loved ones to visit their mothers, sisters and friends, rather than inhibit or burden them.

With an estimated 95% of prisoners one day returning home, the preservation of the family unit while a mother is imprisoned is of vital importance.

In addition to these problematic visitation policies, discrepancies in visitation rates also exist on a gendered basis. In a recent American Enterprise Institute (AEI) panel, John Huffington, the Director of Workforce Development at The Living Classrooms Foundation, stated that parents are typically heartbroken by the imprisonment of their child, yet families often take an “I told you so” stance when a woman in the family is incarcerated. Huffington previously served 32 years in one of the only co-ed prisons in the country, during which he observed male inmates frequently having friends and family members visit, while women seemed to have dramatically fewer visitors.

Further, Charlene Autolino, the coordinator of prison ministry at Rock Church in San Diego, California, describes the perception that it is more shameful for a woman to be incarcerated than it is for a male, demonstrated in the vast difference in the quantity of visitors received between men and women in prison. Inmates are also often incarcerated far from their community, a majority of their prisons being over a hundred miles away from home. Geographic distances and challenging visitation policies often lead to a significant lack in visits from family and friends for female inmates.

According to research, visits from loved ones, which preserve connection with the family, significantly reduce recidivism rates. With an estimated 95% of prisoners one day returning home, the preservation of the family unit while a mother is imprisoned is of vital importance. Incarceration is a detriment not only to the individual, but more pertinently to the family unit as a whole, particularly in the case of female prisoners.

The Center for Public Justice affirms family as, “the most basic human institution” and believes that “the government should recognize and protect the family.” Additionally, supporting families during childrearing years should be of particular concern for the government. While the government cannot easily reform perceptions and personal beliefs regarding incarcerated women through policies or law, it does possess the ability to examine visitation policies and geographic proximity to an inmate’s community - problems which The Prison Policy Initiative refers to  as “separation by bars and miles.” It is simply unacceptable to have women, particularly mothers, imprisoned upwards of a hundred miles away from their home communities if their families are to remain intact after they return home.

The present injustices in female incarceration rates, with poor women of color being disproportionately impacted, suggest that incarceration is a detriment not only to the family, but may also fuel the cycle of generational poverty. The government bears the responsibility to protect and uphold the institution of the family, especially the most vulnerable families that are more heavily impacted by female incarceration. For example, if a mother in a wealthy family is incarcerated, the family is likely to be able to pay the transportation costs for regular visits. However, for poor families, the distance between the incarcerated mother and the rest of her family creates a virtually insurmountable geographic and financial barrier to healthy family contact. This discrepancy between opportunities for family unity while mothers are incarcerated creates a trend which lends itself to the disproportionate degradation of poorer families.

The Church must affirm the value of women by refusing to abandon them during and after their incarceration.

Government is not the only institution that bears a responsibility; the Church has this responsibility as well. The Church must affirm the value of women by refusing to abandon them during and after their incarceration. This diligence in caring for women in the prison system is inherently rooted in the Gospel - that God persistently pursues his children with steadfast love, grace, and mercy, and the Church is called to do the same. Local churches must spur one another on towards caring and advocating for incarcerated women. A way this can be accomplished is through partnering with other organizations and nonprofits in one’s community; for example, churches could partner with Prison Fellowship’s Moms Behind Bars program, or facilitate restorative programs, such as Celebrate Recovery. Supporting women in prison aligns with the longings and vision of our God, thus it must also be a longing and vision of our Churches. God longs for the healing and restoration for all of his people, regardless of race, class, gender, or geography. As the body of Christ on Earth, we must care for what his heart cares for. Incarcerated women are not castaways to be severed from their families and communities - they are human beings created in the image of God, and demand the attention, resources, and heart of the church to achieve justice and shalom.

Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself.
Hebrews 13:3

-Kelsie Doan lives in Scottsdale, Arizona and is a recent graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary where she earned her M.A. in Intercultural Studies. When not pursuing her passion of educating and mobilizing the local church to do justice, she loves spending time at a good coffee shop and exploring new cities.