Substance abuse, poverty, economic disadvantages, and mental health issues have contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of women incarcerated in Texas in the last three decades, community leaders, law enforcement officials and attorneys said Wednesday.
Criminal justice officials and experts discussed the challenges women face in and outside of jail at Women Unshackled, a day-long forum held at the University of Texas at Austin. More education about these issues is key to keeping women out of prison, they said.
Getting to the root of why a woman, for example, becomes addicted to drugs can help prevent more people ending up in jail or prison, said Keeda Haynes, a public defender in Tennessee.
“If we’re not talking about why the women are addicted to the drugs that they are doing, we’re only defeating half the battle there,” Haynes said, noting addiction is often a manifestation of a larger issue happening in incarcerated women’s lives.
In Texas, the number of women incarcerated increased 908 percent, from 1,240 in 1980 to 12,508 in 2016, according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
Once women are placed behind bars, the problems they face are different from those of men given the role as caregivers they often play in their families, said Texas 4th Court of Appeals Justice Rebeca Martinez. A significant portion of the women incarcerated in Texas are mothers, according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Haynes said children of parents who are incarcerated are often put into foster care.
Additionally, many women are victims of abuse or sexual assault, which can cause them to cycle in and out of the criminal justice system, said Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez.
“Our prison system and our jail system are just not equipped to deal with all the issues women are facing now,” Haynes said. “I think we all have to be super sensitive when we deal with women, because they have issues men don’t have to deal with when they become incarcerated.”
Brittany Barnett, the attorney for Alice Marie Johnson, who was recently released from prison after her sentence was commuted by President Donald Trump, said her mother’s incarceration was the “worst experience we’ve had in our lives.”
“It was devastating,” said Barnett, who was 22 when her mother was jailed.
The impact on children who have parents confined in jails and prisons is large and negative, she said, noting it was heartbreaking to see the love young girls showed their moms when visiting them in prison.
“It just showed that to us, the love is unconditional and that it’s still momma and that they’re not bad women, they just made bad choices,” Barnett said.
Additionally, Hernandez said, having more women in positions of power is important to help incarcerated women and better understand the problems they face.
“I believe that, we as women, are more compassionate. We ask the why. We dig into things,” she said. “I believe that we need more women as sheriffs. I believe that we need more women at the capitol. I believe that we need more women getting involved.”