On July 16, the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held a hearing on “Women and Girls in the Criminal Justice System” to examine the exponential growth of women being incarcerated for nonviolent offenses since the 1980s. In Chairwoman Bass’ (D-CA) opening statement, she noted many consequences of mass incarceration, such as women losing parental rights to their children when they are in foster care for over 18 months while incarcerated, prison’s inabilities to provide proper care for pregnant women, and 50 percent of children of incarcerated parents end up becoming incarcerated themselves.
Testimony was provided by Jesselyn McCurdy, Deputy Director of the ACLU in Washington, DC; Cynthia Shank, who was formerly incarcerated for 9 years; Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black; Aleks Kajstura, Legal Director of the Prison Policy Initiative; and Patrice Onwuka, Senior Policy Analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum.
Ms. Shank’s testimony detailed her experience of being incarcerated and the toll it took on her young family. Shank was indicted while pregnant with her third child five years after her original charge for conspiracy to sell drugs with her deceased boyfriend who locked her in their home for over a year. When she was first incarcerated, she was able to get visits from her family every six to eight weeks, but was then transferred further away from her family and was only able to see them once a year. At this time, her husband filed for divorce. She noted this put a tremendous strain on her family, especially since her daughters were young and she was unable to be with them. She did note that she was fortunate to have their father care for them so that she did not lose her parental rights because they were in foster care for this time.
During the questioning portion of the hearing, several questions addressed the effects that incarcerating women is having on families and children. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) asked about policies regarding women who give birth while incarcerated, and Ms. Shank described that the day following birth, women are separated from their child and sent back to their cell, often placed in solitary confinement. She advised that there be programs where women can go into safe spaces with their babies after birth since it is a crucial time for both the mother and the baby. Congressman Ted Deutch (D-FL) described an instance in which a Florida woman almost gave birth alone in a cell because she was not transported to a hospital as soon as she went into labor. Following this anecdote, Ms. McCurdy noted that 4-5% of incarcerated women are pregnant and that prenatal care needs to be provided to these women and it should begin before the hours leading up to a birth to ensure healthier outcomes for mothers and babies.
Congresswoman Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) asked if providing childcare for women who are on probation and must go to check-ins would be a substantial help. Ms. Kajstra stated, while this could help women in many cases, if a child needs to be picked up from school or must be taken to the emergency room, this could violate a woman’s probation agreement, causing a very stressful situation for the family.” She advised that there be a policy change that could account for the unexpected events that occur with children. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) asked Ms. Shank how being incarcerated specifically weakened her family and she described the difficulties she had even communicating with her daughters, as they were too young to email or write her letters, she was only allowed 300 minutes a month to talk on the phone, all of which she had to pay for, and that all of her daughters entered play therapy as young children to deal with the trauma of being separated from their mother. Ms. Shank advised that part of rehabilitation programs should involve getting to play with children on visits and that family therapy should be available when the parent is released to help strengthen the family again.