By Kenia Miranda Verdugo

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 58% of women in the United States’ prisons are mothers, and nearly 150,000 women have been separated from their families by the justice system. In 2021, the total number of incarcerated women was five times higher than it was in 1980, the Vera Institute found.

On a state level, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) plays a crucial role in administering justice and rehabilitation; however, despite strides made in recent years, there remains a glaring disparity in the support provided to incarcerated women. This issue is particularly pressing when considering that many women in the prison system are not only serving their sentences, but also they are fulfilling the roles of primary caregivers and providers for their families. Unless we enhance support for incarcerated women in California, multiple generations will continue to be impacted by the incarceration of mothers.

The Landscape

As recently as 2020, the Vera Institute found that most incarcerated women are serving time for non-violent offenses: 32% are related to property charges, 29% drug, and 21% public offense. For many women, the reason they are still incarcerated and not with their children is due to the inability to pay bail.

Limited Opportunities for Incarcerated Women

Incarcerated women face a myriad of challenges, from limited educational and vocational programs to insufficient access to mental health services. Unlike their male counterparts, women inmates often find fewer opportunities for skill development and rehabilitation. Investing in comprehensive programs tailored to the unique needs of women can empower them with the tools necessary to reintegrate successfully into society.

Disproportionate Impact on Women as Heads of Households

As women have increasingly become the primary breadwinners and heads of households, the incarceration of a woman often has a more significant ripple effect on families compared to male incarceration. As a result of their incarceration, many women lose their jobs and their ability to provide for their families. The CDCR must recognize and address this gender-specific impact to break the cycle of generational disadvantage.

Parental Responsibilities and Family Ties

Maintaining meaningful relationships with children during incarceration is essential for the well-being of both mothers and their offspring. The CDCR should prioritize initiatives that facilitate regular communication, visitation, and parenting programs to strengthen family bonds and reduce the long-term negative effects on children.

Mental Health Supports

Many incarcerated women have experienced trauma, abuse, or mental health challenges prior to their imprisonment. Without mental health support, the cycle of trauma, addiction, and instability perpetuates; unfortunately, the correctional system often falls short in providing adequate mental health resources. By investing in mental health programs specifically designed for women, the CDCR can address the underlying issues that contribute to criminal behavior and promote rehabilitation.

Sentencing Policies

Examining and reforming sentencing policies is crucial for achieving a more equitable system. Non-violent offenses that disproportionately affect women, such as drug-related charges, should be reconsidered with a focus on rehabilitation rather than punitive measures. Alternative sentencing options and diversion programs can be more effective in addressing the root causes of criminal behavior.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation must acknowledge the unique challenges faced by incarcerated women and take proactive steps to address them. By investing in gender-specific programs, vocational training, mental health services, and reforming sentencing policies, the CDCR can contribute to breaking the cycle of recidivism and empower incarcerated women to rebuild their lives. It is a matter of justice and a step towards creating a more equitable and compassionate criminal justice system that recognizes and supports the diverse needs of its population.

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation working toward equity for underserved and historically underrepresented communities by expanding access to educational and employment opportunities, increasing affordability of educational programs, and ensuring the necessary supports are in place for individuals to thrive. To do so, we work in the following verticals: Digital Equity, Intellectual Property, Smart Justice, Student Basic Needs, and Open Educational Resources (OER). Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.

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