I place one small foot in front of the other, proudly calling out, “Dad!” My uncontrollable laughter sends my cheeks tipping to the sky. “Look, Daddy, look!” Finally, after days of practice, I’ve mastered the art of skipping. As he watches me skip down the street, he notices a police cruiser turn onto our block. My father senses trouble and ushers me into the house. “Baby, go inside.” He’s parked his blue Nova backward on the wrong side of the street, and more than eighteen inches from the curb. There is a small chance the police are going to ticket him or tell him to move his car.
My dad is arrested, but not for violating parking laws.
I was five so I remember that day in fragments. The day remains vivid for one of my brothers who peeked out the window and saw our father shoved into the police car. Ultimately, my father served nearly three decades in prison.
As a child, I got used to the barbed wire gates and the officer holding a rifle in the gun tower. I knew prison guards would make me undo my hair in the preposterous hopes of finding heroin tucked in the folds of my braids. I knew I’d have to use a spoon to cut the hamburger my father and I shared in the visiting room because officials feared plastic knives would be taken back to the yard and used as shanks. My father’s life sentence in prison forever changed the very fabric of our family unit. Yet, my experience as a child of an incarcerated father has widened the lens in which I witness the world and vastly improved my ability to understand and report on the far-reaching effects of mass incarceration.
Today, I’m a journalist and the author of The Shadow System: Mass Incarceration and the American Family (2020). For years, I’ve reported on the fears, challenges, and small victories of families — Black and white, poor and middle class — struggling to survive within the confines of a brutal system. My work is intended to illustrate the shadow system of laws and regulations that dehumanize the incarcerated and profit off their loved ones – from mandatory sentencing laws and restrictions on prison visitation, to astronomical charges for brief phone calls and more. The criminal legal system snatches at the seams of the family fabric, often leaving it in tatters.
One of the most sobering realizations I had while reporting for The Shadow System was the unparalleled experience women have behind bars. I met far more women than I was able to write about. When I met Melissa in Kentucky, she was on the long road of reentry and recovery. Melissa, a mother of two, had two oxycodone pills tucked in her pocket when she was searched by police. She was arrested on two trafficking charges and a complicity charge because she was in the same room as her then-boyfriend when he trafficked drugs. Melissa received a 10-year prison sentence. In the end, she served a fraction of her time, but 15 months in prison irreversibly changed her life. The conditions, the distance, the costs, but most of all, the loss of custody of her children – each took an emotional toll.
Melissa’s story is emblematic of the vastly different experience women face while behind bars. For anyone who cares about criminal justice reform, understanding the experience of women behind bars is critical.
America is the world’s leader in incarceration, with 2.3 million people currently behind bars. For many, the mass incarceration crisis has become synonymous with men. It’s true that men make up 92 percent of the incarcerated population but women are the fastest-growing segment of people put behind bars. The racial disparities that exist throughout society are also prevalent here. In 2010, Native American women made up 0.7 percent of women in the U.S. but 2.5 percent of women incarcerated. White women born in 2001 have a 1 in 111 chance of incarceration, while Latinx women have a 1 in 45 chance. White women are locked up only half as often as Black women – and while the imprisonment of Black and Latinx women has declined over the last 20 years, the incarceration rates of women of color show a persistent inequity.
Overall, the imprisonment of women in the U.S. has seen a 475 percent increase over the last 40 years, from 26,000 in 1980 to 153,000 by 2020 – a rate of growth that is twice as high as that of men. The Sentencing Project attributes the skyrocketing numbers to “more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws, and post-conviction barriers to reentry that uniquely affect women.” In 2016, almost two-thirds of women in state prisons were confined for nonviolent offenses, including many drug-related crimes. Sixty-two percent of women in prison, and nearly 80 percent of women in jail, are mothers. An estimated 58,000 women every year are pregnant when they enter facilities. Depending on where expectant mothers are housed, they might still be subject to shackling during labor.
U.S. prisons and jails were originally designed to hold men. Even with their expansion and the development of women’s facilities, they rarely meet the needs of women. Research indicates women in jails report higher rates of mental health issues when compared to men, with 1 in 3 experiencing “serious psychological distress.” More than 75 percent of women have experienced abuse and violence at the hands of men prior to their incarceration. Once confined, their traumas are often unaddressed. Those circumstances can lead to deadly outcomes: when the mental health problems of incarcerated women go untreated, the women are at a greater risk of suicide. Yet they are less likely than their male counterparts to have access to mental health care, substance abuse treatment programs, and other services.
Added Impact for Mothers
Compounding the issues women face behind bars, serving time can be especially consequential for mothers. Nine in 10 fathers in state prison reported that their children lived with their mother, while only about one in four of mothers in prison identified their child’s father as the current caregiver. When mothers are incarcerated, their children are at greater risk of being displaced, so even a few days in jail can set off a chain of events that jeopardize parental rights.
When mothers are behind bars, their children are more likely to go into foster care. When they do, the mothers face the often-insurmountable challenge of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). A federal law, ASFA requires child welfare agencies to request the termination of parental rights whenever a child has lived in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months, with very limited exceptions.
Women Are Dying
In New York, incarcerated women are facing life-and-death issues at the Rose M. Singer Center, the women’s jail on Rikers Island. Women held at “Rosie’s” are housed in unsanitary conditions and denied medical and mental health services. Some have been sexually abused and raped by guards; others have died while in custody. Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman, died after having a fatal epileptic seizure while in solitary confinement when guards failed to respond immediately. In May, Mary Yehudah, died of an overdose while detained at Rosie’s.
Rosie’s is set to close in 2026, along with the rest of the Rikers Island complex. However, advocates say that’s not soon enough.
New York is not an outlier to the devastating impact incarceration is having on women. Over the last six months, women have died while in police custody or in local jails in cities across the country.
In Chicago, IL. London Marquez, a 31-year-old expectant mother, died while being taken to jail, and Irene Chavez, 33, died after an “attempted suicide.” In Louisville, KY, Stephanie Dunbar, a 48-year-old mother of 7, committed suicide after fights with other prisoners, and Rickitta Smith, a 34-year-old mother of 5, died after being taken to the hospital following a seizure. Other women at the facility were hospitalized after overdosing.
“There is so much pain and suffering in our jail right now,” said Judith Jennings of Louisville Family Justice Advocates (LFJA). “It is heartbreaking.” Discussing conditions in Louisville in terms that could apply to New York and a host of regions, Jennings said: “Suicide prevention, mental health treatment, and family connections are life and death issues.” They’re essential to respecting the human dignity and human rights of these members of our community.” Like its counterparts in New York, LFJA is calling on city officials to provide free phone calls for people held inside LMDC and stop profiting off of families.
Advocates Working for Change
Organizations across the country are working to increase the visibility, rights, and wellness of incarcerated women, undeterred by the dire circumstances those women face.
In New York, the #BEYONDRosies campaign to close the Rose M. Singer Center is directed by Women’s Community Justice Association (WCJA). Under the leadership of the Rev. Sharon White-Harrigan, LMSW, the nonprofit group aims to “improve the lives of women and gender expansive New Yorkers affected by mass incarceration.” Steering away from the failed punitive approach of jails, WCJA would see the Lincoln Correctional Facility on West 110th Street in New York City turned into a Women’s Center for Justice with a focus on therapeutic support, family reunification, skill building, and healing. That change of approach, Rev. White-Harrigan writes in the Queens Eagle, “would break the cycle of incarceration and put women and their families on a path to health and stability, making communities safer.”
The Osborne Association offers the “Visiting and Family Assistance Program” at Rosie’s. Women in the program receive in-person visits, video visits from office spaces with social work support, classes such as “parenting virtually” and “parenting from a distance,” and more. Led by Archana Jayaram, Osborne is a nonprofit that seeks to help “heal lives and communities impacted by incarceration,” also works to transform criminal justice systems. Osborne is a member of WCJA’s Justice 4 Women Task Force and supports the call for a standalone women’s jail with gender informed support.
Alongside direct support, Osborne advocates for legislative change, including the Connecting Families New York Act, which would provide incarcerated New Yorkers with access to free phone calls and emails to their loved ones; and The Elder Parole Bill, which would provide parole-hearing eligibility for anyone 55 years of age or older who has served at least 15-years.
The Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) initiative led by the Women’s Prison Association (WPA), offers programming designed to keep women in their communities instead of jail or prison. WPA president and CEO Caryn York, the first Black woman to lead WPA since its founding in 1845, writes movingly in The Cut of her mission to “lead the nation’s first organization to support women impacted by incarceration.” In Long Island City, Hour Children assists and advocates for women at the time of arrest, while behind bars, and during reentry. Led by Dr. Alethea Taylor, RhD, CRC, Hour Children provides numerous essential services to women and families impacted by incarceration. The Coalition for Women Prisoners is a statewide alliance made of over 100 organizations dedicated to making the criminal legal system more responsive to women’s needs.
In California, Susan Burton’s New Way of Life, a reentry program for women that offers safe housing, legal services, workforce development and advocacy; the Center for Restorative Justice Works holds an annual Mother’s Day event, Get on The Bus, which takes children to visit their mothers in prison; and Essie Justice Group holds an annual “Black Mama’s Bail Out” Day of Action. In New York, The Bronx Defenders, the Brooklyn Community Foundation, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, and other local organizations have raised funds to bail women out New York facilities.
Here and elsewhere, people who know the human toll of incarceration are doing leadership work to address its disparities and inequity. But the moral impact reaches beyond their communities, and the need for change is bigger than any community can manage alone.
I was led to this work because of what I experienced and witnessed as a child. I remain in this work because of what I continue to see and the reality that this issue is greater than me or any single story. My father has been free for nearly a decade. Still, I can’t ignore the racial bias and structural inequality embedded in our criminal legal system – or the way an entire segment of our population is treated as disposable.
It may not be your mother, sister, daughter, wife, or friend who experiences incarceration, but mass incarceration carries a cumulative social, emotional, and economic cost. Not just for those directly impacted, but all of us.
Sylvia A. Harvey (SAH) is an award-winning journalist reporting on the intersection of race, class, policy, and incarceration. SAH is the author of The Shadow System: Mass Incarceration and the American Family. She is a 2022 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow. Community Connections examines issues and ideas of meaning to diverse communities throughout New York City and across the United States. Presented by The WNET Group, home to America’s flagship PBS station.
The Power of a Pardon explores the intimate and, at times, nerve-racking journeys of five individuals as they show how life-altering a pardon can be when trying to build a life after prison. The series is part of Chasing the Dream: Poverty & Opportunity in America. The eight-part series Independent Lens: Philly D.A. focuses on criminal justice reform led by the office of District Attorney Larry Krasner in Philadelphia.