The number of women in prison has exploded over the past 30 years. According to the ACLU, there are more than 8 times as many women behind bars today than there were in 1980. More than a million women populate U.S. jails and prisons. More than 40 per cent of female inmates are convicted for drug crimes, and many of them are there because of romantic connections to criminal men. The next-highest percentage of women are in prison for non-violent crimes such as burglary, larceny and fraud. Female prison life has its own challenges.
Women prisoners have different needs from male prisoners, and prison reform has been slow to react to these particular needs. While some changes have been made — the shackling of pregnant prisoners, for example, has been outlawed in 21 states — the system has a long way to go to address where it falls short for female inmates.
Many women in prison are mothers who many lose custody of their children due to the length of their incarceration. The cost of long-distance phone calls to keep in touch with their children can be sky-high, preventing some families from staying connected, and destroying relationships between mothers and children.
A number of inmates are incarcerated while pregnant. For these woman, a community residential program called Mothers and Infants Nurturing Together (MINT) is available. Program eligibility is based on a number of criteria. If the inmate is in her last three months of pregnancy, has less than five years left to serve on her sentence, and is eligible for furlough, she can participate in MINT. The program is based in a residential reentry center and encourages bonding and teaches parenting skills.
Women have specific needs regarding pregnancy care and birth control, as well as child custody and abortion. The Bureau of Prisons supplies the medical and social services needed. Each inmate is also screened for pregnancy on intake. Pregnant inmates usually give birth in hospitals outside of the prison.
Mothers can spend three months residing at MINT with their newborns before returning to prison to complete their sentences. MINT and social services agencies can help assist women in finding placement for their children.