Dispatches from the Field: Women in Prison – An American Growth Industry.
From Nation of Change – Human Rights
Edited by Ellen Shahan via Trine-Day Publishing
Who says “American Exceptionalism” is dead? Not when it comes to incarceration. Nowhere on Earth — except the USA — does a country put more of its citizens in prison. And, increasingly, those citizens are female.
In 1980, before the War on Drugs became big business and prison corporations were allowed to regain a toehold, there were 12,300 women incarcerated in the United States. By 2008, that number had grown to 207,700. The rate of increase between 1995 and 2008 alone was a staggering 203%. The $9 million dollars it cost to incarcerate female offenders in 1980 has now ballooned to over $68.7 billion.
Who are these women, and how did they come to be caught in the web of the prison-growth industry?
By and large, these are young women who have less than a high-school education, have a history of being battered and/or sexually abused, and, with that, a resultant history of drug abuse. They are more likely to be HIV positive or infected with Hepatitis C, have either symptoms or a diagnosis of mental illness, and prior to incarceration were unemployed. While young African American women are the fastest growing incarcerated population, roughly 49% of women in prison are white, 28% are African American, and almost 17% are Latina. More than two-thirds are incarcerated for drug, property, or public order offenses. And the vast majority are mothers of minor children.
Here’s one such story.
Oklahoma, Not OK
On New Year’s Eve 2009, in rural Kingfisher County, Oklahoma, Patricia Spottedcrow, a 24-year-old Cheyenne mother of four, and her mother, Delita Starr, sold a “dime bag” of marijuana out of Starr’s house for eleven dollars. Two weeks later, the person who sought them out for the first buy came back for a twenty-dollar bag. The buyer turned out to be a police informant.
Spottedcrow and Starr were charged with distribution and possession of a dangerous controlled substance in the presence of a minor, and were offered a plea deal of two years in prison. Having no priors, meaning they’d never been in trouble with the law, and having been busted for such a small amount, they turned the deal down. Both women pled guilty, thinking they’d get “community service and a slap on the wrist.”
Unfortunately, as is too often the case, it didn’t play out that way. Though it was a piddling amount of money and a first offense, in the eyes of Kingfisher County Judge Susie Pritchett, because Spottedcrow’s mother made the actual sale of the “dime bag,” and Spottedcrow’s nine-year-old son made change, Spottedcrow had involved three generations in a “criminal enterprise.” Seeking to teach her a lesson for selling thirty-one dollars’ worth of marijuana (and showing up for sentencing with traces of marijuana in a coat pocket), Judge Pritchett gave the young mother twelve years in prison — ten years for distribution and two years for possession — to run concurrently, with no probation. In addition, she fined Spottedcrow $4,077.89.
Starr was given a thirty-year sentence, suspended so she could care for her grandchildren. She was also saddled with five years of drug and alcohol “assessments,” plus $8,591.91 in court fees and fines. At $50 a month, she’s now paid off $600 of it. Her monthly income is $800.
Believing she would be released on probation, Spottedcrow made no preparations for her incarceration. When her sentence was handed down, she was taken into custody without having a chance to say goodbye to her children, shackled, and transported three hours away to Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, where she became a minimum security prisoner at a cost to Oklahoma taxpayers of $40.43 a day — ten dollars more per day than the total cost of marijuana sold in two separate incidents combined, and $25 more per day than it would have cost the state to provide drug treatment, were that available in Kingfisher County.
Eddie Warrior, a state-run facility that opened its doors in 1989, was built to house fifty women to a dorm, one or two to a cubicle. Just six years later it was at capacity. In the four-part documentary, Women in Prison, Eddie Warrior case manager Teri Davis states that shortly thereafter, with the facility already full, “they started hauling people in.” Now there are a hundred-and-twenty inmates to a dorm, some with serious communicable diseases, living in rows of bunks four feet apart.
“The inmates don’t like it,” says Davis. “And who would? Crammed up with another inmate in your face, coughing because she’s sick, coughing all over you . . . packed in like sardines in a can, with no amenities.”
Perhaps most disturbing about conditions at Eddie Warrior is that they are not unusual. Lurking behind the injustice of Spottedcrow’s harsh sentence is a darker story of human rights violations in America’s female prisons. In Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons, compiled and edited by Robin Levi and Ayelet Waldman, female inmates speak of atrocities “ranging from forced sterilization and shackling during childbirth, to physical and sexual abuse by prison staff.” Describing their lives as harrowing and rife with misogyny, author Peggy Orenstein declares their treatment “utterly unacceptable in a country that values human rights.”
For the privilege of living in these deplorable conditions, Spottedcrow’s sentence means a burden to taxpayers of nearly $150,000 in incarceration costs alone. This is the price to an already strapped society for a person’s having sold 0.105821 ounces of an herb that is considered harmless on the one hand, and highly beneficial on the other. Multiply that by the thousands incarcerated in Oklahoma, and then multiply that by the other forty-nine states. In fact, Oklahoma attorney Josh Welch, who is working for Spottedcrow’s release, predicts that if Oklahoma continues its current practice of incarcerating “anybody who comes before a judge” for drug-related offenses, even for a first offense, “it will bankrupt the state.”
However high the cost of justice, the cost of injustice is greater still.
Read entire story at Nation of Change.