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December 28, 2005 - Herald Democrat (TX)

Our Women Behind Bars Need Help

By David Yount, author of "Celebrating the Rest of Your Life: A Baby Boomer's Guide to Spirituality" (Augsburg).

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Other than the queen herself, the only woman pictured on Britain's currency is Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker lady who is acknowledged worldwide as the inspiration for modern penology.

What she achieved in the humane treatment of imprisoned women in early 19th century England, was extended to male prisoners throughout Europe during her lifetime.

If Mrs. Fry, mother of 12, were to return to 21st century America, she would have to start all over again. The number of women has soared, the reasons for their incarceration have changed, and the difficulties of rehabilitation have increased.

In Fry's time, many women were imprisoned for mere vagrancy, which is to say, homelessness. Others were huddled into mass cells for prostitution and petty theft, prompted by poverty.

They were typically joined behind bars by their minor children.

Today, in the U.S. alone, the female prison population in state and federal prisons has doubled in the past 10 years to 100,000 a annual increase of 4.8 percent compared with just 3.1 percent of male prisoners. Whereas we imprison men to solve a social problem, the incarceration of women actually creates a problem.

What kind of women are in prison today? Forget any preconceptions about lusty "babes behind bars" or polite white collar criminals such as Martha Stewart.

The typical American woman in prison today is a victim of physical or mental abuse, often leading to alcohol or drug addiction. Three out of every four women in local jails and state prisons are African-American. Few of the women are violent threats to society.

Most women behind bars are mothers who have been forced to leave their children behind, furthering weakening the family. At the moment, about 2 million American children have a parent in prison a whopping 50 percent increase since 1991.

For more than one in 12 of these children, it is their mother who is behind bars. Because prisons for women are in relatively short supply, it is often necessary to hold mothers far from their homes, making it difficult for their children to visit them.

The increase in the incarceration rate of women is largely due to tougher enforcement of drug violations, coupled with mandatory sentencing. One-third of female prisoners are there for a drug offense, compared to just one in five men.

Although violent crime is on the increase among women (accounting for one-third of prison sentences), over half of male prisoners are incarcerated for violent offenses.

Elizabeth Fry focused public attention on the treatment of prisoners after she forced way into notorious Newgate prison, where she found women and children huddled into two rooms, unemployed and at the mercy of their jailers.

With the help of women volunteers, she taught them hygiene, child care, self-government, and needlework they could sell so they would have a nest egg once they were released.

Today many male prisons have virtually abandoned efforts at rehabilitation. But women can be saved if we will only try.

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