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The growing costs of women in jail

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More Americans are now jailed than in previous decades, yet little attention has been given to the fastest-growing population behind bars: women.

That finding comes from a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. Jails today hold about 745,000 people on a daily basis, including about 110,000 women versus 8,000 in 1970, the report found. About half of all incarcerated women in America are held in jails, which primarily hold people awaiting trial for the crimes they’re charged with and are run by counties or local governments. 

While groups including policymakers and activists have called for jail reform, very little attention has been paid to the specific issues of women who end up there. Those issues range from basic health needs to how jail affects their families and children, said Elizabeth Swavola, one of the report’s authors. Many of the women who go to jail are already financially disadvantaged, and jail fees and other costs can add to their financial woes, she noted.

“When we dug into the data into the increase of number of people in jail, we were shocked to see that the increase of women has been so dramatic,” Swavola said. “What research does exist suggest a few factors that might be contributing, such as an increasing focus on low-level, nonviolent offenses” such as loitering and disorderly conduct in some communities.

While the report doesn’t break out the cost that communities are paying to jail women, in a 2015 report Vera looked at what taxpayers shelled out for jails. It found that local communities are likely paying far more than the $22 billion estimate from the U.S. Department of Justice because counties budget costs across many different departments. For instance, New York City spends about $1.1 billion annually on its Department of Correction, but it leaves out $1.3 billion spent on jail employee benefits and health care and education programs for inmates.

Aside from the daily cost to taxpayers for jailing 110,000 women, the women themselves are often paying for everything from drug testing to fees for spending nights in jail, Swavola said. “All these fees can add up to tens of thousands of dollars,” she said. “The system is deepening that disadvantage” that many impoverished jailed women already face.

Conditions in jails aren’t geared toward female inmates, the report noted. Jails often don’t provide feminine hygiene products or toilet paper, among other items. In one Michigan case filed by the ACLU, women held in the Muskegon County Jail alleged they were denied menstruation hygiene products, toilet paper and underwear.

“I requested toilet tissue and sanitary napkins from jail officials on several occasions but my requests were ignored,” said Londora Kitchens in a statement at the ACLU website. “For example on July 13, 2014, I was menstruating and was out of sanitary napkins. During this period, Officer Grieves told me that I was ‘s**t out of luck,’ and I better not ‘bleed on the floor.’

Jails are designed for the “majority of people in jail, which are men,” Swavola said. A lack of toilet paper and menstruation supplies “is not only a risk to health, but really dehumanizing.”

Women are also penalized by the growing reliance on imposing cash bail as a condition of release because many women who end up in county or municipal courts aren’t able to make bail. More than one-third of women jailed in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts were incarcerated because they couldn’t afford bail of $500 or less, the report noted.

The growing reliance on cash bail “disadvantages people who are poor,” Swavola said. Wealthier Americans can “buy their way out of jail, they can continue with their employment. But the same can’t be said for those who are too poor to post a cash bail. That includes poor women.”

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