The United State of America is the undisputed world leader in putting its citizens behind bars. In 2010, 7.3 million people -- one in every 31 adults – were in a county jail or state prison or were being monitored by a probation of parole officer. And over the past two decades, women have been incarcerated at an even faster rate than men. Why has this happened, and how can this trend be reversed?
Those are the issues sociology professor Eileen Leonard and her students are tackling in a course called “Women: Crime and Punishment.” “What’s happening in our prison system is certainly unprecedented,” Leonard says. “This course is about looking for ways we can do better.”
Topics covered in the course include a statistical analysis of the prison population and the demographics of those who are imprisoned, with a focus on the plight of women in prison and their families. As is the case for men in the criminal justice system, black and Hispanic women in poverty are much more likely to be imprisoned than more affluent white women, even those convicted of similar crimes, statistics show. In the course, Leonard asks students to consider some possibilities for fundamental changes in the nation’s criminal justice and penal systems.
Leonard begins the course by pointing out that this explosion in the prison population is a relatively new phenomenon, triggered largely by the war on drugs, which spawned mandatory prison sentences for many nonviolent offenses. In addition, many sentences are significantly longer than they were for the same crime just a generation ago. “The result is we have a lot of people in their 70s and 80s in our prisons,” Leonard tells her students. “We’d have to let 80 percent of the people out of prison just to get back to the levels we had in the 1970s.”
The tougher laws and mandatory prison sentences for drug-related crimes are largely responsible for the growing number of women in prison, Leonard says. In many cases, women face lengthy prison terms after they are caught holding large quantities of drugs for their male friends. In addition, statistics show that many women serving prison terms for violent crimes committed those crimes against men who had been abusing them.
In the course, students are assigned to read essays written by incarcerated women who say they are sometimes better off behind bars, either because they are receiving treatment for drug addiction or because prison affords them safety from their abusers. During a class discussion of these essays , Leonard notes that if this is true, it means these women aren’t receiving adequate drug treatment or protection from their abusers outside of prison, “and that’s something that must be addressed.”
Students in the class say they’re discouraged by what they’re learning. “This population faces disproportionate rates of substance abuse, mental illness and histories of physical and sexual abuse,” says Kathleen Gould ’15, a sociology major from London, England, “yet few gender-responsive programs are utilized within prisons.”
Gould says she’s discouraged by the apparent lack of programs for many women, especially those of color from poor neighborhoods that could address some of the root causes of criminal behavior. ”The criminal justice system unfairly and disproportionately criminalizes minority individuals. This is telling about America’s idea of justice more broadly, an idea that differs greatly from other countries,” she says. “We focus on retribution and punishment rather than rehabilitation, and this ideology stems from our racialized view of crime.”
Michelle Zhang ’15, a neuroscience major from Libertyville, IL, says she had taken other sociology courses at Vassar that touched on prison issues but was interested in learning more about how these issues affected women. In her final paper, Zhang will explore safe and practical ways to address criminal behavior without putting so many men and women behind bars. “Certainly, there will always be a need to keep some people isolated from society,” Zhang says, “but society would be better served spending money on remediation, including drug treatment and mental health care.”
She says she’s convinced addressing these issues in a more proactive way would save taxpayers the much higher cost of putting so many people in prison. But convincing government leaders to shut down prisons also has ramifications. “Prisons are big business. In many rural communities, they are the primary employer, and shutting them down would have a major economic impact on those regions,” Zhang says.
Leonard says changing the system will be particularly difficult because almost no one is advocating for the men and women who are most likely to be imprisoned. “No politician is going to stand up and vow to be ‘soft on crime,’” she says. “We have a system where many marginalized people are threatened, but most of us don’t think about them. It’s a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind.’”