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Stemming the Tide: Lessons from a Policy Forum on Incarceration’s Multigenerational Impact on Women, Girls, and Communities

By Marianne Fray, | May 9, 2019

The public face of mass incarceration is overwhelmingly male. Despite the fact that the number of incarcerated women in the U.S. increased by more than 700 percent between 1980 and 2016, the issue of incarceration is rarely focused upon from the perspective of women and girls, and by extension, their families and communities.

Motivated in part by a growing movement of child- and family-serving systems to work toward more holistic approaches to addressing social challenges, last month the Stoneleigh Foundation and Maternity Care Coalition (MCC) hosted a joint policy forum, “A Rising Tide: Understanding Incarceration’s Multigenerational Impact on Women, Girls, and Communities.” With more than 200 system leaders, service providers, policymakers, funders, and advocates in attendance, the forum set out to accomplish three main goals:

  • To highlight the root causes and effects of incarceration from the perspective of women and girls;
  • To share effective and innovative work happening in Philadelphia and around the country; and
  • To generate solutions to tackle over-incarceration with a gender-responsive lens.

Forum speakers and attendees engaged in dialogue and in-depth analysis throughout the day. A few key themes that stood out to the Stoneleigh and MCC teams included:

  1. Equal treatment does not mean equitable treatment

In our opening keynote conversation exploring the criminalization of gender and gendered prosecution and sentencing, Juvenile Law Center’s Chief Legal Officer Marsha Levick emphasized that the equal treatment of females and males in the justice system does not guarantee their equitable treatment. Gender disparities persist across the full continuum of justice-involvement—from what drives women and girls into the system, to the conditions of their confinement, and ultimately to the impact of their incarceration on families and communities.

  • In terms of system drivers, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner highlighted the law of self-defense as an example of a policy that, when applied equally to women and men, can result in vastly different prosecutorial consequences. National Crittenton President Jeannette Pai-Espinosa also underscored the importance of not placing girls in detention in the interest of “protecting” them—itself an idea rooted in gender-specific norms and perceptions—since this can propel girls more deeply into the justice system.
  • While in jail or prison, women are often served the same meal portions as their male counterparts, leading to an average weight gain of 17 lbs. during the first year of their incarceration. The long-term health repercussions of this policy, including poor cardiovascular and behavioral health outcomes, can persist even following release from confinement.
  • Finally, the collateral impact of women and girls’ incarceration on their families and broader communities can be substantial. Consider this: Only 10% of men who enter jail or prison are single parents, compared to 70% of incarcerated women who serve as the primary caretaker for their children. It is clear that the consequences of women’s incarceration reverberate across multiple generations.
  1. Pregnant and parenting mothers who are incarcerated face unique challenges

Women and girls who are pregnant and parenting during incarceration have specific physical, reproductive, and behavioral health care needs. While progress has been made in the treatment of and services available to these mothers, the U.S. still lags behind its peers. In Europe, mother-child units within prisons are commonplace, and in Uzbekistan, a pregnant woman cannot be incarcerated; instead, her sentence is delayed until her child is three years old.

  • Currently, there are no programs in Pennsylvania that allow incarcerated mothers to remain with their children. Since the experience of separation from a child is a traumatic one, MCC Advocate Bridget Biddle emphasized the importance of providing mothers with trauma-informed OBGYNs and prenatal care specialists, and supporting ongoing parent-child bonding during confinement.
  • Pregnant and parenting mothers also need access to nutritious food options and regular physical activity. Charmaine Smith Wright, Medical Director of Christiana Care’s Center for Special Health Care Needs, explained how new initiatives are infusing a culture of health into correctional institutions, leading to better outcomes for both mothers and their babies. MCC’s “Fit Beginnings” program, for example, is empowering incarcerated women to embrace healthier lifestyles through good nutritional habits and exercise.
  • Pregnant and parenting women and girls with substance use disorders have historically faced punitive treatment, including: involvement in the child welfare system; separation from their children; and unassisted, forced detoxification during incarceration. Given the current opioid crisis, evidence-supported approaches to addressing this challenge are critical. MCC’s Senior Director of Programs Colette Green spoke about the promise of Medication Assisted Treatment, in conjunction with group and individual therapy, as an effective intervention for those struggling with opioid-use disorder.
  1. Incarceration is an intersectional issue

While our policy forum specifically focused on the issue of incarceration using a gender lens, we also explored how the interplay of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and class influences how and when individuals come into contact with the justice system.

  • Angela Irvine, Principal Consultant at Ceres Policy Research, reflected on the ways that race has intersected with sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression to result in health disparities and mass incarceration in communities of color. For example, a staggering 40-50% of girls in the justice system are LBTQ/gender non-conforming. And for every one white straight girl in the justice system, there are seventy-one Black LBQ girls.
  • As part of her Stoneleigh Emerging Leader Fellowship at Community Legal Services, Kee Tobar is working to leverage civil legal services to fight youth homelessness in Philadelphia. Kee noted that LGBTQ/gender non-conforming youth are disproportionately impacted by homelessness and justice-involvement. Furthermore, these young people often eschew the very services meant to assist them, if they feel unsafe, isolated or discriminated against because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. That’s why the Philadelphia Office of LGBT Affairs—one of only four of its kind in the nation—and its Executive Director Amber Hikes are prioritizing trainings for all City departments to create safe and inclusive spaces for LGBTQ/gender non-conforming individuals.

The good news is that despite the many challenges we face, leaders in Philadelphia and beyond are finding new, effective ways to meet the needs of women, girls, and communities impacted by incarceration. Encouragingly, while the rate of women and girls’ incarceration nationally has been rising over the last few decades, Philadelphia has seen a decline in its numbers, in part catalyzed by the City’s participation in the MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge.

So how can we leverage the learnings and momentum from this convening to continue to stem the tide of mass incarceration? Here are just a few promising ideas for actionable and sustainable reform that emerged during our forum:

  • Expand the use of restorative justice practices, alternatives to incarceration, and home visiting services, particularly for pregnant and parenting mothers.
  • Ensure access to Medication-Assisted Treatment, individual and group therapy, and long-term recovery housing for pregnant women and girls struggling with substance abuse disorders.
  • Train public systems and service providers to create safer, more inclusive, gender-responsive, and trauma-informed spaces and collect more robust demographic data on individuals who are justice-involved.

In organizing this event, our two organizations came together to spur conversation and generate meaningful change. We recognized that MCC’s work on behalf of pregnant and parenting women has significant implications for the trajectory and life outcomes of the young people who are at the center of Stoneleigh’s mission. Similarly, criminal justice policy and practice can have a powerful influence on the health outcomes of the women and children that MCC and its partners serve.

We hope that our colleagues and partners from government, advocacy, philanthropy, social services, and industry will continue to do the same—reaching across the silos of our own creation to find solutions to our community’s biggest challenges.

Ronnie L. Bloom is the Executive Director of the Stoneleigh Foundation, which awards fellowships to exceptional researchers, policymakers, and practitioners who work within and alongside youth-serving systems to catalyze change. www.stoneleighfoundation.org

Marianne Fray is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maternity Care Coalition, which works to improve the health and well-being of pregnant women and parenting families, and enhance school readiness for children 0-3. www.maternitycarecoalition.org

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