By Gargi Padki
In Patricia O’Brien’s article, We Should Stop Putting Women in Jail for Anything, she advocates for the abolition of women’s prisons by arguing that female offenders are better served by alternatives to incarceration programs. Additionally, their imprisonment poses specific problems to their communities and to their own recovery. O’Brien points to the fact that a mere 7% of the current prison population is female, and this number comes after a 646% increase in female incarceration over the past 30 years. There were 15,118 women in prison in 1980, but 112,797 women were jailed in 2010.
At first glance, it could appear that O’Brien’s argument advocates gender exclusivity. In reality, O’Brien highlights how the glaring failures of the American prison industrial complex specifically impact women. Although she could expand her argument to include men, she focuses on breaking the cycle of criminalization that disempowers women.
The majority of incarcerated women are found guilty of prostitution, drug possession and distribution, drug abuse, or property crimes–all non-violent crimes. The bulk of these women have histories of violent trauma and addiction. Many of them are responsible for the lives of children. Central to O’Brien’s argument is the belief that losing a woman to jail impacts a community differently than losing a man does. O’Brien contends that if women were systematically empowered and given the opportunity to become economically independent, they would be better able to serve their communities and their families.
O’Brien calls for the abolition of female imprisonment because the prison system is ineffective at rehabilitation. Alternatives to incarceration are shown to have beneficial long-term effects on women’s wellbeing. O’Brien proposes enlightened alternatives to incarceration that work with the inmate, providing services including addiction counseling and trauma therapy. Programs such as Women In Recovery in Oklahoma provide comprehensive mental health services to trauma survivors.
Increasing access to mental health services and connecting survivors to counseling is the most effective way to deter women from committing crimes in the future. Harm reduction programs help people understand their own patterns and behaviors, allowing them to regain control of their lives. The ability to make decisions for oneself is novel for trauma survivors. Empowering women by recognizing and validating their trauma can radically shift their perspectives and allow them to take back power in their lives.
The United States prison industrial complex needs to make a cultural shift and come to respect rehabilitation as an effective form of combating violence. O’Brien argues that the rehabilitation model has improved the lives of many women and should be put into practice on a large scale. Starting with non-violent female offenders, we can shift to a more empathetic and trauma-sensitive model of rehabilitative criminal justice.