Women in Prison Face Severe Civil Rights Violations

Supermajority Education Fund

March 5, 2020

While the rise in the population of women in prison is well documented — their numbers are growing at twice the rate as men in prison — there has not been consistent research on a national level about incarcerated women’s experiences, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In February, the commission brought more visibility to this population’s challenges in the report “Women in Prison: Seeking Justice Behind Bars.” The study found that women disproportionately face injustices before they enter prison, while incarcerated, and after they re-enter society.   

In prison, women face severe civil rights violations such as inadequate access to medical care, vulnerability to rape and sexual assault, punishments for minor offenses, and lack of access to re-entry programs tailored to their specific needs. Women of color, especially Black women, and LGBTQ people, especially transgender people, are disproportionately incarcerated in prisons and are at risk of facing harsher punishments, such as solitary confinement.

These practices are especially harmful to women in prison because they are more likely than men to have a history of substance abuse, to be survivors of sexual assault and rape, and to have higher rates of mental health issues when they enter, according to the commission.

“Testimony to the Commission included that many current discipline practices in prison are difficult for women inmates who have mental health challenges, and in some instances, the discipline itself might produce mental health challenges that did not exist before incarceration,” Catherine E. Lhamon, the commission’s chair, told Supermajority News

Along with the report, the commission held a public briefing on Feb. 22, featuring experts who discussed constitutional protections, sexual abuse in the prison system, the treatment of women while incarcerated, and rehabilitative opportunities for women while in prison. 

At the briefing, Lashonia Thompson-El, the executive director of Women Involved In Reentry Efforts, who is also a formerly incarcerated woman, testified that prisons place women in solitary confinement for minor infractions that men get away with doing.

“I served 30 days in SHU [Special Housing Unit, or solitary confinement] and los[t] my telephone privileges for calling my minor daughter on a three-way call,” she said. Thompson-El said other women inmates were punished with solitary confinement for “removing fruit and vegetables from the kitchen or covering a cell window for privacy when male guards are present.”

Placement in solitary confinement often leaves women with physical and psychological harm and could lead to losing credits that would reduce their time in prison, access to programming opportunities, and prison jobs that could “decrease their time incarcerated or ease their reintegration with society after release,” Lhamon explained.

The report also made several recommendations such as giving inmates free or low-cost phone calls to family members; implementing the Prison Rape Elimination Act; providing adequate gynecological and prenatal care and mental health programs; and ending the practice of placing LGBTQ people, women of color, and those with mental health challenges, in solitary confinement for discriminatory reasons.