Women’s Prison Reform

As women have become the fastest growing segment of the prison population, the Women’s Project has emerged to address the unique problems and inequities faced by women prisoners. The Project consists of four current initiatives including an education and empowerment series, legal advocacy, community building, and developing a resource manual for women in prison.

Critical Facts on Women in Prison

Invisibility is a fact of life for women in prison. All too often when we envision an inmate behind bars, we see a male face. The reality is quickly changing, however, as prison inmates are increasingly female. Since 1980, the number of women entering U.S. prisons has risen by almost 400 percent, roughly double the increase for males. This exponential growth has resulted in a situation where thousands of women are trapped in a system that is designed for and dominated by men. Consequently, the system fails to address the often vastly different concerns of women prisoners.

In the early 70s, there were about 200,000 people locked up in the U.S. Today’s prison population of 1.8 million represents a growth of over 800% in the past 30 years.

This national crisis has not escaped women. As of January 2000, there were over 6,000 women in the state criminal justice system (including prison, parole, probation, and community-based authority). These women need advocates. The Women’s Project at PRAC is designed to exclusively address women prisoner’s needs, by making them visible, providing them with information, and empowering them to solve their problems.

Curent Project Initiatives

The Women’s Project is aimed at addressing the unique problems and inequities faced by women prisoners. The Project currently consists of four primary initiatives:

1) Education and Empowerment Series. The Education and Empowerment Series is an educational seminar that serves as a vehicle for disseminating legal and other practical information to women prisoners. Through the Series, participants are encouraged to explore the issues in their lives that keep them tied to the revolving door of the penal system. The Series focuses on helping participants analyze problems, seek appropriate help, and craft effective solutions.

2) Legal Advocacy. A natural outgrowth of the Education and Empowerment Series is the opportunity to assist women with their personal legal needs, including child custody and support, divorce, and re-entry issues. In an effort to help meet these needs, PRAC serves as a referral source by connecting these women to legal aid organizations and pro bono attorneys willing to take on their cases.

3) Community Outreach and Coalition Building. The Women’s Project aims to educate women’s organizations about the similarities and overlapping concerns of women in the community and those incarcerated. In addition, the Project’s goal is to strengthen the links that exist between advocates for women prisoners and to identify new advocates. Because public interest organizations are under-resourced and over-worked, there is often precious little time to establish and nurture the coalitions that are increasingly necessary to effectuate change in the area of prisons. The Women’s Project fills this need by acting as a liaison between these groups and promoting introductions and communications between them. Finally, as this coalition of statewide advocates continues to be strengthened, the Project’s long-term goal is to extend ties to regional and national advocates as well.

4) Resource Manual. The Women’s Project will culminate in the production of a resource manual based on the information provided in the Education and Empowerment Series. The resource manual will collect the information from the Series and arrange it in a manner that women prisoners and advocates will find easy to use. It will include both legal and practical information, as well as the names and phone numbers of individuals and organizations who may be of assistance to incarcerated women and those recently released.

The Women’s Project Influencing Debate on Key Criminal Justice Issues

On a national and even international level, the subject of women in prison is gaining visibility. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have recently turned their attention to women in U.S. prisons. Even the national press is covering prisons generally, and women in particular. Finally, women’s magazines – from Glamour to Ms. – have begun to cover stories about women in prison. As a result of this publicity, momentum is building around the subject of women’s incarceration. However, it is up to local, grassroots organizations to turn this momentum into meaningful change for individual women prisoners and their families. Likewise, it is up to grassroots organizations to channel the energy of national campaigns, such as Critical Resistance and Mothers in Prison/Children in Crisis, to the local level. The Women’s Project at PRAC is designed to accomplish these very things.

In addition to exploiting the gains made at the national and international levels, the Women’s Project is committed to developing new ways of addressing the gendered dimensions of imprisonment. Scholars and activists who address issues of imprisonment seldom acknowledge the expanding population of women prisoners. The Women’s Project intends to reverse this trend by entering the public discourse and aggressively addressing the unique consequences of imprisonment for women and their families. To this end, the Project’s efforts are consciously grounded in and shaped by the experiences of women prisoners.