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Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Growing Population of Incarcerated Women

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An invisible population, incarcerated women often face dehumanizing treatment while in prison and re-enter failing systems upon discharge.

By Courtney Runn, Illustration courtesy of Freehand Arts Project

This image was provided to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition by Freehand Arts Project, a nonprofit organization committed to bringing the creative arts to people incarcerated in Texas, and was created by a woman incarcerated at the Travis County Correctional Complex.

Lauren Johnson discovered she was pregnant days before going to prison. For the following eight months, guards escorted her, shackled, to Brackenridge Hospital once a month for her doctors’ appointments until she gave birth. She spent two days in the hospital with her son before returning to prison, where she spent the first year of his life.

“What I didn’t prepare for was how hard it was going to be to leave that hospital room,” she says. “If I was awake, I was sobbing. It was uncontrollable.”

Her 21-month stint in prison during which her son was born was not her first time in jail—and it wouldn’t be her last. Johnson began using cocaine and methamphetamine at the age of 14 and was incarcerated three times for drug-related charges. Her most recent relapse sent her to jail and took her away from “a life worth missing” with her husband and three children.

Her last incarceration had the most significant impact. If she was going to miss every birthday and milestone, she wanted it to count for something.

“I didn’t go through all that crap for nothing,” Johnson says. “All of that can be used for good, and that is what I aim to do.”

She began advocating for an invisible population of incarcerated women who are out of sight and out of mind and experiencing unjust treatment as inmates. Now she works for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas as a criminal-justice outreach coordinator, lending her voice to the thousands of women without one.

According to a 2018 Prison Policy Initiative report, Texas incarcerates more women by sheer number than any other state and ranks 15th among the other states for its incarceration rates. Texas Criminal Justice Coalition reports that from 1980 to 2016, female incarceration in Texas increased by 908 percent. These numbers are reflected at a global scale too. Only 4 percent of women live in the U.S., but 30 percent of incarcerated women worldwide are in the U.S. prison system.

In 2017, Lindsey Linder, a senior policy attorney with TCJC, discovered an extensive 2014 survey of women in the Texas prison system. As patterns emerged in the data, she could see a history of complex trauma behind the growing rate of incarceration. TCJC published two reports based on the responses; one studied the growth of this population in Texas, while the other examined the treatment of women in the system.

The reports revealed incarcerated women share a similar story: The majority are in prison for nonviolent crimes; 81 percent are mothers; 82 percent of the survey respondents experienced domestic violence and 60 percent experienced sexual assault; women report a high rate of mental health problems and a lack of access to “health care, basic hygiene products and enough food.”

TCJC published these reports last year on March 8, International Women’s Day. Linder, who focuses on justice for women and children in the prison system, feels hopeful that sharing these stories will humanize incarcerated women and shine light on their plight.

“Women are ending up in the criminal-justice system because they are being failed by other systems that should be addressing the root causes that are bringing them into the system,” Linder says.

She is partnering with Johnson and representatives this legislative session to address the systematic failures that result in incarceration and the lacking infrastructure within prisons. Currently, women have to pay a one-time $100 co-pay for health care instead of the previous $3 per-visit fee. With small or nonexistent commissary funds, women have to choose between seeking medical care, fans for non-air-conditioned cells, extra food or extra hygiene products. When women don’t receive medical care, whole units can become infected and treatable conditions spiral.

“I think people would be a little bit shocked to find out how dehumanizing being incarcerated is,” Johnson says.

Linder is working with Representative James White, R-Hillister, on HB 812 to reverse the medical fee back to its original price, along with a slew of other incarceration-related bills.

“We really feel like this is going to be the session for women’s justice, in my opinion,” Linder says.

There are two bills particularly close to Johnson’s heart: HB 650, an extensive bill sponsored by several representatives, including White, aims to restore dignity to female inmates, and HB 1389, which asks judges to consider parenthood when sentencing.

When Johnson recently received a parking ticket, her son retreated to his room in tears, scared his mom would be going back to prison. That fear drives Johnson to work with legislators and ask the community to consider the generational effects of caretakers going to prison.

“We have gotten so used to using jails and prison to solve problems, and it doesn’t actually solve problems,” Johnson says. “How do we shift from wanting revenge and equating revenge with justice to a perspective where we want everybody to do better? … When everybody does better, everybody does better.”

Both Johnson and Linder know it will take a culture shift to see humanity and justice fully implemented in the prison system. That shift starts with women like Johnson sharing their stories and giving people a glimpse behind prison walls.

“I think everybody generally has a perception that jail is where the bad people go,” Johnson says. “And if you could walk in there and be with those people for a day…that myth would be shattered.”

How to Start the Convo

• Call your senators and representatives and encourage them to support incarceration-focused bills this session.

• Attend Texas Criminal Justice Coalition’s Women’s Justice Day at the Texas Capitol March 8, when formerly incarcerated women will share their stories.

• Screen movies like 13th in your home to start difficult conversations in your community about systematic failures that lead to incarceration and injustice within the system.

• Volunteer with local organizations like Truth Be Told, Freehand Arts Project and Texas Advocates for Justice that work directly with and for women in the system.

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