The Trouble With Women in Prison

The Trouble With Women in Prison

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In my reporting career, I have covered many facets of life as a person of color in the United States. From health to education to the environment, I have searched out and chronicled what it means to exist in the margins politically and economically. But, in 20 years, I was never as moved to act as I was when I began covering the disaster that is our criminal justice system.

A crib sheet of the crisis looks like this: local jails process 12 million admissions yearly. Six hundred thousand people are sentenced to prison every year. Another 600,000 are released, most to start life again from zero. Thirty percent of people in custody suffer from a severe mental illness. Seventy thousand military veterans are currently in prison. Most of the people in the system are black and brown, and poor. Women are the fastest-growing population in jails and prisons.

We sent reporter Nissa Rhee to look at the problem in Oklahoma, where women’s incarceration has become an untenable situation.


On any day in 1970, there would be about eight women in the Tulsa County Jail. By 2017, that number climbed to more than 300.

Read More: Three Ways to Fix Our Criminal Justice System 

“Women coming into the criminal justice system face very different challenges than men,” Rhee tells us in “Putting Women Already in Jail First,” the episode of our 70 Million podcast featured on Tidal today.

“They’re more likely to have a history of trauma and abuse and have higher rates of mental health and substance abuse disorders,” she adds. “They’re also more likely to have been the primary caretakers of their children before going to jail.” One in five women in jail is a mother.

“Even a short time in jail can be devastating for a mother and her family. She might lose her job, access to food stamps and even Medicaid. Her children are often placed in foster care,” Rhee says. And the effects continue long past the mother’s time in lockup. Children with parents behind bars are six times more likely to eventually enter the criminal justice system.

In this episode, Rhee profiles several women who had a recent arrest and some who were being helped by an organization called Still She Rises, which focuses on getting mothers through and out of the criminal justice system.

You’ll hear their full stories in the episode and learn more about how they landed in custody. But I thought it’d be instructive to know that their stories continue. As of this writing, one of them was re-arrested in September and is still in jail as of this afternoon. One of the other cases is still ongoing. But, after the episode aired, she was arrested for a probation violation for not paying her DA fees. A donor Still She Rises found covered the fees, so she’s free now. If she can remain out of trouble, her probation will end in November and all her legal obligations will be behind her.

Another woman is still going to court, and a judge imposed a batterer’s program, “despite the fact that she herself is a victim of domestic violence,” Rhee says. “She should be done with the program by the end of this year and then will have to finish her probation before she is done with court involvement.”

I created 70 Million to address the miseducation of the general public about the ineffectiveness and injustice of our criminal justice system. And right now is the best time to produce 70 Million because there’s a national awareness about the need to undo the decades of damage caused by misguided policies, intentionally harmful laws, and racialized social and economic exploitation of generations of Americans who were warehoused by an industry that trades and thrives on the backs of powerless populations.

What’s more, the 2016 elections started a snowball effect that has grown into an avalanche of activism around uplifting disenfranchised, oppressed and exploited groups. That’s all part of the mission and vision for the work.

Thank you for listening.

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams is the creator and executive producer of 70 Million, an open-source podcast that chronicles how criminal justice reform is taking root around the United States from the ground up. The podcast is made possible by a grant from the Safety & Justice Challenge at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
(Photo credit: Nissa Rhee for 70 Million)

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