By Clark Gerhartsreiter
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem says women and girls are the fastest growing incarcerated population in the United States, and this needs to be dramatically changed.
“About 60% have been convicted of non-violent crimes, like possessing or selling illegal drugs. And many of the women convicted of so-called murder actually killed a violent partner in self-defense,” Steinem wrote in the Oct. 12 Ms. magazine.
“In four decades women’s state prison populations have grown more than 834% — more than doubling the rate of growth in men’s prisons,” she wrote.
She also reported she started the Ms. magazine Prison and Domestic Violence Shelter Program to help protect women.
Women face serious isolation in prison, and Steinem wrote that she is working to get them subscriptions to Ms.
The program sends copies of Ms. to 5,418 incarcerated women, funded by charitable contributions. “That’s a fraction of the total, but it’s a number we’re proud of and hope to keep growing,” Steinem wrote. The Ms. website features a link for community members to buy gift subscriptions for incarcerated women and women in domestic violence shelters.
The program, the 88-year-old activist wrote, “lets women on the inside know they are not alone. Every American should be ashamed that this country puts a greater proportion of its citizens in prison than any other nation on earth, because of racism, sexism, and also because in many states, the prison industrial complex allows corporations to build and run prisons for profit.”
A co-founder of Ms., Steinem called herself “a writer, speaker, and organizer” active with the Women’s Media Center, with Equality Now, and with Donor Direct Action. Ms., a magazine wholly owned by the Feminist Majority Foundation, acts as a de facto organ for grassroots feminist justice.
The article listed statistics about incarcerated women, including: In prison, 58% of women have children (the number rises to 80% in jails) and about 5% give birth in prison. Steinem wrote that 23 states do not have anti-shackling laws, which requires incarcerated pregnant women to give birth in chains.
Steinem blamed such laws for the explosive 834% growth of incarceration of women in state prisons since the early 1980s, double the growth rate for men. “The incarceration rates for women of color outpace their white counterparts by 100 percent,” according to the article.
Ms. has previously reported on the cash bail system as a dominant driving force of such vast increases. Steinem said that 66% of jailed women who cannot afford bail “are mothers of minor children, and the majority are primary caregivers for their families. They remain locked up because they cannot afford to pay bail (at a median bail of $11,700),” according to the article.
Steinem called the cash bail system a contemporary version of 19th century debtor’s prison. She wrote that data has shown that women who cannot afford bail are more likely to end up convicted and given a longer sentence. Steinem added, “Many women also tend not to benefit from plea-bargaining simply because they cannot afford a lawyer.”
Incarcerated women find themselves subjected to “higher rates of sexual victimization and violence by staff assigned to protect them,” Steinem continued, while mental and physical health of incarcerated women often deteriorate and most basic women’s hygiene and reproductive needs remain ignored.
Steinem believed that reading individual subscriptions to Ms. would provide incarcerated women with a viable alternative to reading “books and magazines they must share with hundreds of other women.” She added that “Women in prison often spend 17 hours a day isolated in their cells, with no reading material except [a] Bible.”
“Nothing can replace systematic remedies, and nothing can replace reaching out to women in prisons and shelters right now,” Steinem said.