August 16, 2017: JHA Statement on the Federal Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act

August 16, 2017:  JHA Statement on the Federal Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act

In July of 2017 the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, S. 1524[1] (the Act), was introduced by U.S. Senators Corey Booker (NJ), Kamala Harris (CA), Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Illinois’ senior Senator Richard Durbin. As Illinois’ only independent, non-partisan prison watchdog and advocate for a fair, humane and effective criminal justice system, the John Howard Association of Illinois (JHA) applauds this step. Many of the changes proposed in the Act for the federal prison system echo recommendations that JHA and others have long advocated for within Illinois, recognizing the need for greater supports for women, parents, families and children affected by incarceration.

As JHA has consistently reported, the vast majority of female inmates come from backgrounds of serious trauma and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Incarcerated women are also more likely than men to have mental health and substance use disorder issues.[2] Frequently, the ways in which women enter the justice system are different than men, owing to histories of trauma, abuse, and undiagnosed or treated mental illness. Most are mothers, and many were the sole parental provider for their children prior to incarceration. Child placement away from their mothers during incarceration raises complicated economic and emotional issues, including grief attendant to separation of families.

Both nationally and in Illinois, women’s incarceration is trending upwards. The number of women incarcerated from 1980 to present has increased sevenfold, outpacing the rate of increase for incarcerated men.[3] Because women traditionally have made up a small percentage of the total incarcerated population, most policies and institutions in the carceral system are designed with male prisoners in mind. For too long the unique needs of female prisoners have been overlooked and ignored. Fortunately, this issue is finally gaining increased recognition. For example, in 2015 Illinois conducted a Gender Informed Practice Assessment at Logan Correctional Center[4] with the goal of improving outcomes for incarcerated women, most of whom are mothers. During JHA’s facility visits, administrators estimated that almost three-quarters of the women at Logan have children under 18-years old, with an average age between just four and seven years of age.[5]

The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act will increase support for women in prison, who typically are the primary caretakers of children. However, the Act also includes benefits for men in federal prisons, particularly those who parent children. A majority of Illinois inmates, approximately 62%, are parents. More than 70,900 children in Illinois have a parent incarcerated.[6] Increasing support and rehabilitative opportunities for incarcerated parents ultimately benefits children, families and communities by reducing the risk of children becoming justice-involved, helping to stop the perpetual cycle of incarceration that destroys communities and jeopardizes public safety. Illinois would do well to look to the compassionate, ambitious reforms of S.1524 for inspiration. The legislation presents a model of reform that prioritizes human dignity, rehabilitation, and reducing recidivism though opportunities that foster individual growth, development and accountability.

The Act recognizes that the vast majority of incarcerated people have themselves been victims of trauma and calls for more resources to support rehabilitation and successful reentry, including parenting classes, expanded enrollment in residential drug abuse treatment programming, and greater trauma-informed care. Illinois too has recently recognized the need for enhanced gender responsiveness and trauma-informed practices within our prisons, and legislation awaits the Governor’s signature to ensure that these policies and practices are implemented within our State’s female prisons.[7]

While much of the Act applies to both male and female prisoners, provisions of the Act pointedly address basic issues of women’s health, hygiene, and dignity that have historically been overlooked in prisons. To that end, the Act provides that women prisoners should be supplied with free feminine hygiene products, and sets out additional protections for pregnant women. While women in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) are provided with some free feminine hygiene products, as JHA has reported, incarcerated women consistently state that the sanitary napkins and feminine hygiene products provided by the State are inconsistently provided or insufficient to meet their needs.[8] Women who are lucky enough to have money in their commissary accounts may be able to buy additional hygiene supplies; however, women who are indigent and do not have outside monetary support from family can experience unconscionable humiliation and extreme discomfort during menstruation without adequate feminine hygiene products. In addition to attempting to address this issue, the federal Act broadly prohibits shackling of pregnant women, as is already generally banned by law in Illinois.[9] Further, the Act proposes to ban use of solitary confinement for pregnant women, as is also recommended by federal guidelines[10] and the United Nations standards, which JHA urges Illinois to adopt. Unfortunately, reliable information regarding the number and treatment of pregnant women within IDOC has not been systematically tracked or made available. However, encouragingly, the Department has recently partnered with an academic researcher to collect and make public more of this data.[11]

One of the primary strengths of the Act is its formal recognition of the importance of family visits and regular communication between prisoners and families in building relationships that will support future success for both inmates and their children. The Act acknowledges the significant role that visits and communication play in maintaining healthy interpersonal connections and the psychological wellbeing of individuals and families impacted by incarceration. It also recognizes the unfairness and potential damage to vital relationships between prisoners, families, and communities in allowing phone calls and video visitation to be monopolized by unregulated for-profit companies, whose predatory and exploitive consumer practices can greatly reduce family contact by making communication between prisoners and families cost-prohibitive.

The Act recognizes the importance of fostering connectedness and strong relationships between prisoners and their families and communities in a number of ways. First, the Act would require consideration of housing a prisoner close to family, and provide more generous visitation rules including a pilot overnight visiting program for federally incarcerated parents and their children. Federal inmates currently may be housed throughout the country, far from friends and families. Likewise, in Illinois inmates are commonly housed hundreds of miles from their homes, making visitation extremely difficult and expensive for families and loved ones. JHA has repeatedly recommended expanding visitation hours, along with other visitation improvements within IDOC. In particular, IDOC facilities that do not provide the option of evening visitation make visitation especially difficult for working family members and families with children, forcing families to have to choose between visitation and work and school. Improving and expanding visitation should be a priority because it can reduce prisoners’ stress and resulting aggression, incentivize good behavior, foster family connectedness, and improve reentry outcomes.

Second, recognizing the financial burdens prisoners face in trying to stay connected with their families, the Act intends to provide free phone calls and video conferencing to federal inmates. In 2016, Illinois passed a law that will limit telephone rates within IDOC and ease the burden of this cost for families.[12] Similar legislation is currently being considered both federally, as introduced by U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth from Illinois, and in the Illinois state legislature, to prevent private contractors from imposing excessive rates and unfair fees for video visitation, as the capacity for this technology continues to expand.[13] JHA supports the use of new technologies to supplement traditional forms of prisoner-family communication, such as mail, telephone, and in-person visitation. However, because prisoners and their families lack consumer choice options, and do not have access to an open, competitive commercial market for telecommunications, they are particularly vulnerable to financial exploitation and price gouging by for-profit companies. For this reason, JHA believes that Illinois must carefully regulate and scrutinize any commercial enterprise or for-profit telecommunication contract that impacts communication between prisoners and families.

Last, the Act specifically requires the prison system to introduce ways for formerly incarcerated individuals who have succeeded in building productive lives in the community to mentor incarcerated people. JHA believes that involving people who have lived first-hand the experience of incarceration, and who have built rewarding, meaningful lives in the community despite the daunting challenges of reentry, is essential to increase understanding of what works and what is needed to successfully reform the criminal justice system.

The Act goes a long way towards ensuring that the unique needs of female inmates are addressed, that inmates who are successful upon release can use their experience to benefit others leaving prison, and in supporting families through the incredibly difficult experience of having a loved one incarcerated. Further, the Act recognizes the importance of family relationships and support as well as fortifying prisoners’ connections to the outside community in anticipation of successful reentry from prison.

To best ensure that policy manifests in practice, visiting places of confinement and speaking to those who live and work in prisons remains a vital and illuminating experience, and one that we encourage every lawmaker to undertake. Less than a month after taking office Governor Rauner visited Logan Correctional Center and tweeted, “Many problems to address. We have work to do.” While many reform efforts stalled and budget stalemates persisted in Illinois, bipartisan support for humane criminal justice reforms continues to provide a glimmer of hope and across the aisle collaboration. In vising with female prisoners in California, Senator Harris acknowledged, “[t]o be relevant in elected office, I strongly believe you have to have an acute sense of how your proposal will impact real human beings.”[14] As Illinois’ only independent prison watchdog organization, we echo this sentiment, and believe that  lawmakers who craft criminal justice policies should observe conditions of confinement first-hand and talk to prison inmates, staff and administrators to better understand the day to day experiences and realities of those who live and work inside correctional institutions.

Finally, to ensure real and lasting change, JHA believes in the foremost importance of independent oversight mechanisms within corrections, and we commend and support the Act’s proposal to create an Ombudsman to oversee federal prisons to ensure that these and other vital reforms are implemented and maintained appropriately.

                                                                        ###

For more information about JHA
Please visit our website at www.thejha.org
Or contact:
Jennifer Vollen-Katz
Executive Director, John Howard Association
312-291-9555; jvollen@thejha.org


[2] See e.g., Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) Special Reports, Indicators of Mental Health Problems Reported by Prisoners and Jail Inmates, 2011-12, (June 2017), https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/imhprpji1112.pdf, and Drug Use, Dependence, and Abuse Among State Prisoners and Jail Inmates, 2007-2009, (June 2017), https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/dudaspji0709.pdf.]

[4] Logan Correctional Center is a mixed-security facility and Illinois’ largest of the two remaining female prisons, housing approximately 1,800 women and operating the state’s female reception and classification center. See the National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women (NRCJIW), November 2016 report, The Gender Informed Practice Assessment (GIPA), Summary of Findings & Recommendations, Logan Correctional Center, Illinois Department of Corrections, http://womensjustice.net/illinois. See generally, JHA’s 2014 Special Prison Monitoring Report, Overcrowded, Underresourced, and Ill-Conceived: Logan Correctional Center, 2013/14, discussing issues at the facility http://thejha.org/sites/default/files/Logan%20Correctional%20Center%20Report%202013-2014.pdf.

[5] Ibid. p. 6.

[8] See e.g. JHA’s Survey Analysis for Logan Correctional Center, p. 18, Q28, with 69% of the women surveyed reporting inadequate access to hygiene products, http://www.thejha.org/sites/default/files/JHA%20Survey%20Analysis%20for%20Logan%20Correctional%20Center%20June%202016%20Final%20Report.pdf; and JHA’s 2016 IDOC report, Part II, p. 4, http://www.thejha.org/sites/default/files/JHA%202016%20Adult%20Prison%20Monitoring%20Report%20Part%20II%20Final.pdf. Note that the Act includes provision of hygiene products other than pads and tampons to all inmates (e.g. soap), which is a welcome model, as JHA has found that both men and women in IDOC report similar concerns regarding access to such items.

[9] Illinois law circumscribes use of restraints with pregnant and postpartum women. See 55 ILCS 5/3-15003.6, http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/documents/005500050K3-15003.6.htm.  

[10] See the Department of Justice’s January 2016 Guiding Principles for use of restrictive housing, p. 9 https://www.justice.gov/archives/dag/file/815556/download.