In almost 40 years, the national population of incarcerated females increased by 700 percent. Many factors, like trauma, lack of education and systems of oppression, contributed to the substantial increase in incarceration rates between 1980 and 2017.
Female prisoners, especially women of color, are largely underserved while incarcerated-and their health suffers.
The New York Liberty, a part of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), hosted a panel to discuss the health of incarcerated women both during and after imprisonment. Held at YWCA Brooklyn, the event “Forgotten Behind Bars: Women’s Health Care, Family and Representation” united formerly incarcerated women, prison reform advocates and criminal justice system experts to raise awareness about women’s healthcare in prison.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), women in prison maintain high levels of mental illness and trauma history, higher likelihood of having minor children and unique reproductive and health care need. These and other factors create physical, medical and psychological challenges.
One of the biggest issues facing incarcerated women is a lack of access to mental health resources. Far too often, women in prison don’t get the professional help they need. Instead, they must turn to the community that surrounds them.
While community support is a powerful tool, it exemplifies the small pool of resources offered to women in prison.
During the panel, Jamila T. Davis, who co-founded womenoverincarcerated.org and is now pursuing a Ph.D. after being imprisoned for 10 years for a nonviolent offense, shared her experiences of trauma and incarceration.
“When you go through something so traumatic, you have to be tough,” Davis said. “They teach us, we can’t let anybody see our vulnerability, so for ten years, I had to act like it was okay. But in fact, I’m still not good.”
Even when resources are provided, some women in prison still face mental health stigmatization. They avoid seeking out services because they don’t want to be labeled as crazy.
“Going into prison and seeing all the women that were being criminalized because of substance misuse, almost 100 percent of women who were incarcerated have some type of mental health issue,” said panelist Topeka K. Sam. “It can stem from something as easy as anxiety or depression, and go all the way up to schizophrenia and bipolarism.”
Sam founded Hope House, a New York nonprofit that provides support and housing to formerly incarcerated women. She has also spoken publicly about the shame that’s tied to getting the health care products you need in prison.
In jails and prisons, women often have poor access to products like tampons and pads, which can be costly and limited.
Legislation has been introduced to attempt to make changes and increase the quality of life for incarcerated women. The Federal Bureau of Prisons even issued a memo to distribute free tampons and pads, but critics question the quality of those products.
The trauma of incarceration doesn’t end when a woman is released from prison. Panelist Norah Yahya, who was released in 2019 after a 20-year sentence, brought up her difficulties interacting with men once she was released.
In prison, most guards and authority figures are male, which can mean women often experience triggering situations or don’t know how to interact with men outside of prison. Yahya is now working through these issues in therapy.
After finishing her sentence, Davis discussed how impossible it’s been to secure an apartment, and how her relationship with her son has suffered due to her time away.
“No matter how much I accomplish, at the end of the day, for the rest of my life, I’m going to be punished for this crime,” Davis said.
The absence of a parent during a child’s adolescent and teenage years is extremely detrimental, and the fear of losing that parent again continues long after their release. This year, 2.3 million mothers will be in jail.
According to the ACLU, 80 percent of women in jails are mothers, and most are primary caretakers of their children. One of the panelists, Steven Montoya, shared his experience of visiting his mother in prison every weekend from the age of five to 18. Although he felt lucky to have her presence, albeit limited, in his life, that strain still affects their relationship today, years after her release.
As mass incarceration continues to threaten women’s health, familial relationships and futures, the first step toward improvement might be to stop viewing prisoners as less than and giving them the treatment and resources they deserve.
Featured photo by Denis Oliveira on Unsplash
Lauren Styx is a health magazine editor and freelance writer based in Chicago. Her storytelling explores health, culture, sustainability and the ways in which those areas intersect.