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Critical Analysis of Women Behind Bars Essay

More and more women-mothers, grandmothers, wives, daughters, and sisters are doing hard prison time all across the United States. Many of them are facing the prospect of years, decades, even lifetimes behind bars. Oddly, there’s been little public discussion about the dramatic increase of women in the prison system. What exactly is happening here, and why? This paper will be a critical analysis of the book, “Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System. This paper will


Journalist Silja Talvi’s Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in The U.S Prison System is an overview of issues affecting incarcerated women. The goal of the book Women Behind Bars is to increase the awareness about the growing population of women prisoners. Women Behind Bars presents a number of important issues regarding women prisoners. Incarcerated women’s stories represent a distillation of the larger forces that affect free women like racism, sexism and economic pressure.

For these reasons, Silja Talvi explains, “incarcerated women should not be forgotten, despite the stigma of their criminal convictions and their physical removal from the community” (Talvi, 2007). Additionally, though incarcerated women may be locked up, they should not be overlooked. Women Behind Bars succinctly illustrates some of the important connections involving the War on Drugs, racial disparity, medical neglect: physically and psychologically, and the high rate of substance abuse and physical and sexual abuse among incarcerated women. Silja Talvi’s aim is to “shed light on what has contributed to this historic phenomenon of the mass incarceration of women in the United States” (Talvi, 2007).

This paper will give background on how Silja J.A. Talvi researched the increase of female incarceration. This paper will also give insight surrounding the problems of the women, who Silja J.A. Talvi interviewed, faced while incarcerated. Additionally, outside resources pertaining to the issue of women in prison will be mentioned throughout this paper.

Finally, an informed opinion based on the collection of outside information and what was learned from the book will be presented. Silja J.A. Talvi bases her account on interviews with women prisoners. Silja J.A. Talvi had in-person and phone interviews with roughly one hundred women prisoners over a two year span. She also received letters from approximately three hundred women behind bars. In addition, she interviewed more than a dozen women who has been releases form jail or prison. Silja J.A. Talvi stayed in regular contact with fifty women locked up in state and federal prisons in seventeen states.

In addition, Silja Talvi visited he women’s county jails in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as the Seattle/King County detention facility for juveniles. Silja Talvi also spent a fair amount of time talking with and learning from low-income women on Seattle streets who were willing to talk about their encounters with law enforcement and incarceration. Internationally, Silja Talvi was also granted permission to visit three women’s prisons, including the European Union’s biggest women’s prison, Holloway, in London, England; the sole female prison on Hameenlinna, Finland; and a provincial Canadian prison in British Columbia.

Silja Talvi focuses on these women because she believes “that incarcerated females are the most misunderstood population in the vast U.S. incarceration system” (Talvi, 2007). These accounts from the women interviewed will further the insight on the realities of female incarceration. Further on this topic of incarceration, the author, Silja J.A. Talvi has stated that the United States has more people in prison than any other nation. “By mid-2006, the total number of women and men in prison rose to over 2.24 million, representing a significant increase from earlier year” (Harrison & Beck, 2006).

Relatively speaking, more than one thousand prisoners are added to the prison and jail system every single week (Harrison & Beck, 2006). Meanwhile, “the number of incarcerated adult women has jumped by a shocking 757% since 1977, at nearly twice the rate of male prisoners” (Harrison & Beck, 2006). “The number of women in prisons and jails has reached a milestone,” explains Kara Gotsch, director of advocacy for the Sentencing project in Washington, DC.

One of the main reasons why women are being locked up at an alarming rate is a result of a policy of mass incarceration. “Mass incarceration is a rate of incarceration so high that it affects not only the individual offender, but also whole social groups.” (American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2011) Pursuing further, another main reason of the increase of incarceration of women are the sentencing policies brought about by the “war on drugs.” “At the Federal level, prisoners incarcerated on a drug charge comprise half of the prison population, while the number of drug offenders in state prisons has increased thirteen-fold since 1980.

Most of these people are not high-level actors in the drug trade, and most have no prior criminal record for a violent offense.” ( According to an excerpt in the Journal of Criminology, women are more likely to serve time for drug-related offenses and are less likely to serve time for violent offenses. (Lalonde & Cho, 2008) In addition, with the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, women began to be arrested and charged with impunity, and were threatened increasingly with conspiracy charges if they didn’t snitch on their husbands, boyfriends, family member and acquaintances. Women were interrogated and threatened if they did not cooperate and these women would face serious repercussions.

(Talvi, 2007) Many of the women that in state or federal prisons are first-time, non violent offenders sentenced on drug conspiracy charges. These women are serving far longer sentences than most first-time offender rapists, child molesters, or even murdered convicted of second degree murder or aggravated manslaughter. Furthermore, to a far greater degree than men, women come into the system with histories of sexual, physical abuse, domestic violence, rape, and mental illness.

In this sense it is believed that our country is in crisis. Undoubtedly, because there are so many women locked up, there are a plethora of problems that incarcerated women face on a daily basis while in prison. Some of these problems include sexual assault and misconduct, medical neglect, deficient mental health treatment, and also discrimination based on gender, race and sexual orientation.

Experiences of extreme violence and sexual abuse in women’s prisons are far worse and far too common than most American’s realize. In the United States, sexual assault by guards in women’s prisons is so notorious and widespread that it has been described as “an institutionalized component of punishment behind prison walls” (Davis, 1998). “Today it is estimated that at least 40% of guards in women’s prisons are men. In some female prisons, the majority of employees are men.”

(Talvi, 2007) In these kinds of settings, there are violations of women’s privacy, as well as visual and verbal abuse by the male guards. Today, “one in four women reports having been sexually abused while being in jail or prison” (Talvi, 2007). In addition to reports of violent restraint and punishment resulting in abrasions, cuts, bruises and even broken bones, women stated that they were subjected to humiliating strip searches and verbal harassment. Talvi explains that most of the women she interviewed in these prisons are in fear to even say anything about their abuse because of the likeliness to face the wrath of prison guards.

The prison guards will cut visitation and phone privileges, take away prized possessions, and threaten these women and their families with bodily harm. On another note, According to Kim Shayo Buchanan, in an article called, “Beyond Modesty: Privacy in Prison and The Risk Of Sexual Abuse” basically explains, if women are being victimized by male guards in prison, it does them no harm to expose the problem by saying so. It is pointed out that black women are often discouraged from speaking out about sexual abuse because of concerns that, by speaking out about sexual harassment by black men, black women “will reinforce negative racial stereotypes about Blacks in general and about Black men in particular.”

(Buchanan, 2005) Furthermore, ineffective formal procedures, legislation and reporting capacity within the United States prison system account for much of the ongoing sexual abuse of women. In several instances, guards who were disciplined for the abuse of women were reprimanded to the minimum degree. The frequency of sexual harassment and abuse in a prison environment is a constant reminder of how little power the women have over their lives once they are sentenced to do time.

The sexually intrusive or abusive nature of these experiences in prison has a devastating impact on a women’s likelihood of achieving a healthy and successful reentry in society.

When women leave jail or prison, with even more traumatic experiences heaped upon their life experiences, these women might endure low self-esteem issues, shame and rage. Within the book, Silja Talvi explains, “that these women who do re-enter into society, manifest any number of serious problems: continuing mental and/or physical illness the likelihood of an interruption of their treatment and medicines; loss of custody of their children; limited education or career opportunities; a lack of safe or stable housing; and the temptations to indulge in drug use or criminal activity.” If these factors are in place, it is believed that these women will find themselves back in the prison system intertwined in a vicious cycle.

Secondly, a problem that is also plaguing women’s prisons is medical neglect and carelessness. While medical care for all prisoners is poor, the situation is far worse for women prisoners. Because prison health care systems were created for men, routine gynecological care, such as pap smears, breast exams and mammograms, is extremely rare in prisons. (Talvi, 2007) Care is frequently only administered once the situation becomes an emergency. In addition, women are denied essential medical resources and treatments, especially during times of pregnancy and/or chronic and degenerative diseases.

There is also failure to refer seriously ill inmates for treatment and delays in treatment, cutbacks in budgets, lack of qualified personnel, inadequate supplies, and use of non-medical staff, charges for medical attention, inadequate reproductive health care, and lack of treatment for substance abuse. In the same sense, a factor that magnifies the severity of physical illnesses and disease is a nutrient poor, high fat diet. Fruits and vegetables are nearly non-existent in prisons. Relatively speaking, “the extensive overcrowding in some of these prisons lends itself to a concentration of mental and medical health problems that the prison system was never designed to handle” (Talvi, 2007).

Thirdly, deficient mental health treatment is a serious issue when dealing with the incarceration of females. “48-88% of women inmates experienced sexual or physical abuse before coming to prison, and suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. Very few prison systems provide counseling. Women attempting to access mental health services are routinely given medication without opportunity to undergo psychotherapeutic treatment.” (Amnesty International, 2011)

The overuse of jails and prisons to treat mental illness in society is problematic itself. Many of these women would be better served by intensive treatment programs and community based care rather than being thrown in prisons. The environment of prison can make an inmate’s mental health worse, not better. “Most prison systems lack treatment settings and programs for these prisoners.

For instance, most state prisons, refused admittance to a psychiatric inpatient unit if inmates have a record of violent episodes” writes Kupers in Prison Madness. “they tend to wind up in super maximum confinement, where the harsh conditions and forced idleness worsen their mental disorders, followed by more disruptive behaviors on their part and even longer terms in lockup.” (Kupers, 1999) A majority of the corrections employees are not trained in any extent in psychology or social work, and are most generally uneducated about the common symptoms of various psychiatric disorders and states of emotional distress. In these prisons that Talvi had visited she felt that there is high level of ignorance and outright hostility toward the mentally ill.

The separation between mental health and disciplinary is lacking in many of the prisons. In a book called Prison Madness, Terry Kupers, an expert in psychiatric issues in prison criticizes this issue of mental illness treatment within prisons. “When behaviors on the part of mentally disordered prisoners-including suicide attempts, self-mutilation, rule breaking, and even some minor violent incidents-are secondary to their mental disorder, they should not be handled entirely as disciplinary infractions requiring punishment.

Too often, disruptive acts are merely punished and the possibility that they reflect an imminent psychotic episode or a need for immediate psychiatric attention is never even considered.” (Kupers, 1999) In light of the issue surrounding the treatment of the mentally ill prisoners, suicide rates within in these prisons are at an increase. An investigator appointed by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton took a look into the mental healthcare in the state prison system, and to find out a reason behind the increase in suicides.

It was found that prisoners in overcrowded and understaffed Administrative Segregation units are killing themselves in unprecedented numbers. Confining a suicidal inmate to their cell for twenty-four hours a day only enhances isolation and anti- therapeutic. (Talvi, 2007) In addition to insufficient substance abuse and mental health services, educational and vocational programs are also in short supply. Several studies (Pollock-Byrne, Morash, Haarr, and Rucker) found that female prisons offered fewer vocational and education program opportunities when compared to those offered in male institutions.

Educational program opportunities could help successful integrate these incarcerated women back into the community. Lastly, discrimination based on gender, race and sexual orientation is a significant matter of contention in women’s prisons. The growth in incarceration has had its greatest impact on minorities, particularly African Americans. “Over a five-year period, the incarceration rate of African American women increased by 828%.” (NAACP LDF Equal Justice, 1998.) Also, according to Amnesty U.S.A, the racial disparity revealed by the crack v. powder cocaine sentences insures that more African American women will land in prison. Although 2/3 of crack users are white or Hispanic, defendants convicted of crack cocaine possession were 84.5% African American.

Crack is the only drug that carries a mandatory prison sentence for first time possession in the federal system. ( Women are most vulnerable to different forms of discrimination, including sexual harassment or abuse. Women that do not fit the norm, such as lesbians, face increased risk of torture and abuse. Many of the prisoners Silja Talvi had interviewed expressed their grief about always getting taunted because of their sexual orientation.

The issues facing lesbians and bisexuals in the criminal justice system aren’t just limited to what goes on behind bars. One study conducted by Victor Streib, a professor of law at Cleveland State University points to the possibility that lesbians, or women who do not appear to appear feminine, may be victims of harsher sentencing. In addition, lesbian or non feminine women who had entered the prison system may very well have less if a shot at an early release. (Streib, 2002)

Human Rights Watch has documented categories of women who are likely targets for sexual abuse. Perceived or actual sexual orientation is one of four categories that make a female prisoner a more likely target for sexual abuse, as well as a target for retaliation when she reports that abuse. (HRW, 2010) These issues facing these women in the criminal justice system are not just limited to what goes on behind bars. In conclusion, based on the information provided from Women Behind Bars and many outside resources, the incarceration of women is at an all time high. Most likely, the number of incarcerated women will increase in the upcoming years unless the problem of mass incarceration is solved permanently.

I feel as that as a result of drug laws, women are now a fast growing segment of the U.S. prison population. It is my belief that women are particularly vulnerable to such policies as mandatory minimums, because they are more likely than men to be incarcerated for drug-related or petty, non-violent property crimes. It is these arrests that are driving their high rates of incarceration.

The problem of women in prison is directly tied to current US drug policy. For the last ten years, researchers have argued that the war on drugs has become a war on women (Belknap, 2002; Bloom & Chesney-Lind, 2000; Owen, 2000 & 1998, Cheney-Lind, 1997). In my opinion, one of several alarming statistics is, The Bureau of Prisons reports that almost 80% of their female population is incarcerated for drug-related offenses. Relatively speaking, I think factors of poverty, psychosocial problems, mental illness, histories of trauma and abuse, and involvement in abusive relationships can lead up to a life of criminal behavior in women.

Furthermore, based on information, statistics, and stories provided from the book Women Behind Bars and also from outside resources, it is my conclusion to say that many things could be altered within the prison system. First of all, I believe there are simply far too many women in prison for enough people to be drawn to the difficult job of guarding and rehabilitating these women and addressing their needs. With the information that has been researched, women’s prisons are poorly equipped to deal with the range of issues and needs of an ever-increasing female population. One of the things that struck me when reading the book is the degree to which jails and prisons have become America’s new mental health facilities.

Also in regards of the issue of incarcerated mentally ill, I believe that basic education could be provided to correctional staff. Furthermore, guards could be taught to calm and talk the dangerous mentally ill women down from fits of paranoia, anxiety, or distress. Also, many of these women would be better served by intensive treatment programs and community-based transitional care, instead of just being thrown into the prison system. Furthermore, I feel that the extreme abuse of women in prison is a serious problem.

I believe this action also harms society because it decreases the legitimacy of the justice system. If society cannot trust those responsible for guarding our prisons to behave properly, there is little hope for the rehabilitation of women in prison. Personally, I feel the prison has a place, but it is not in the persecution of non-violent females. I think there can be a lot more rehabilitation for these women. Many of these women in prison have emotional and psychological issues and because of the abuse, discrimination, and medical neglect, it is only going to make matters far worse. An excerpt from Silja Talvi’s Women Behind Bars that I found captivating that summed up a lot of what the book was about is, “Imprisoned girls and women deserve a chance to heal from past abuse, and to learn from their life experiences and the nature of their crimes.

Before women and released, they must be given the tools to ensure that their reintegration into society is not fraught with immediate economic and social struggle, and to help increase the odds that they will be released into families or communities that will actually support their reintegration. Former prisoners must be given the productive tools to become productive members of society; that is, if they weren’t productive already, and if they even needed to be locked up in the first place.

In general, women in prison aren’t given one iota of the emotional, social and vocational skills they need to overcome the vast hurdles awaiting them beyond the gates that have confine them for years or decades on end.” (Talvi, 2007) In closing, I never realized to a great extent of the problem of women in prison. This book, Women behind Bars and also many outside resources has enlightened me on the growing issue of female incarceration. Women in prison is a problem in itself, then leading to all of the other problems these women face while in prison. I believe the struggles that women go through, go unnoticed, and more people should be aware of the increasing problem.

Finally, I feel that Silja J.A. Talvi’s book Women Behind Bars can help focus attention on this growing population of women prisoners, and maybe one day something can be done about this increasing issue.

According to the text, women represent the fastest growing segment of the criminal justice system increasing 757% between 1977 and 2004, a rate nearly 2 times the percent increase in the male offender population. The number of women involved in the US criminal justice system doubled during the 1990s (Beck, 2000). An estimated 68 in every 100,000 U.S. women are serving time in a state or federal prison with increased rates to one in every 100 among black women in their late 30s.

Women currently represent about 7% of the overall state and federal prison population and 24% of individuals on community supervision. Substance use and abuse have been consistently reported as major contributing factors in the increasing population of women offenders. Some have argued that increased attention to substance users during the late 1980s and 1990s during the war on drugs had particular adverse consequences for women. A majority of women offenders have a history of drug use and drug-related offenses. Conclusion

In closing, the writer never realized to a great extent of the problem of
women in prison. This book, Women behind Bars and also many outside resources has enlightened on the writer of the growing issue of female incarceration. Women in prison is a problem in itself, then leading to all of the other problems these women face while in prison. The struggles that women go through, go unnoticed, and more people should be aware of the increasing problem. Finally, this book, can help focus attention on this growing population of women prisoners, and maybe one day something can be done about this increasing issue.

The writer believes that alcoholism and addiction is a disease. Because it is a disease, communities should address it as a health issue and not a criminal justice issue. Imprisonment only removes a symptom, but does not cure the problem. The number of women incarcerated is steadily rising at frightening rates. When you incarcerate a woman, most often, you are also incarcerating a mother. The state not only pays to house the offender, but often pays for the care of the children of the offender as well.

Women offenders have special needs many of which revolve around their children. Corrections should be perceived as a positive and helping connection, not a punitive one. In our present system, unfortunately, the women must often first fail before they are given the level of treatment they needed in the beginning. A new approach to corrections, one that offers a highly structured environment and stresses accountability, as well as, addressing the individual needs of each offender will not only save money, but also more importantly, it will save lives. In addition, communities should take responsibility and become involved in getting and giving education, reaching out to their communities to offer assistance helping addicts find hope through programs that take a holistic approach to their disease.

Addicts need programs that heal body, mind and, most importantly, their crushed spirit. If needs are responded to on a personal level, in a way that engenders trust and confidence, women offenders can begin to hope again and the lives of families can be rebuilt.

If people do not have hope, there is nothing to strive for, no reason to change. Instead of incarceration, I believe it would be more cost-effective to put women offenders in a community based program similar to the work release program that is used for prisoners after incarceration. These programs would allow the individual to
maintain a job, yet they would be held accountable for all their time. They would receive counseling on an individual basis geared toward each one’s individual needs. The best programs combine supervision and services to address the specialized needs of female offenders in highly structured, safe environments where accountability is stressed.

In conclusion, I believe that if communities would make an effort to educate themselves and their communities about the disease of alcoholism and addiction, they would begin to understand the magnitude of the problem. Although there are no easy solutions, one must accept the responsibility of educating our children, offer new and innovative programs that heal holistically, and most importantly, accept responsibility that as citizens one must reach out to help those in our communities who are struggling, offering them hope, support and encouragement.


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