The Special Committee on Criminal Justice Reform, chaired by Councilmember Curtis Jones, heard testimony on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019, regarding the needs of incarcerated women, including the importance of a more trauma-informed focus in the criminal justice system.
Rep. Morgan Cephas opened the hearing by discussing the nearly fivefold increase in the incarcerated population in America between 1970-2014, which included a fourteenfold increase of incarcerated women, growing from 8,000 in 1970 to 110,000 in 2014.
“Like men in jail, these women are disproportionately people of color, overwhelmingly poor and low-income survivors of violence and trauma and have high rates of physical and mental illness and substance use,” Cephas said.
Compounding the problem, Cephas said 80% of these incarcerated women are mothers, primary caregivers, and single parents to young children.
Due to her experiences as a member of the Philadelphia Women’s Commission, Cephas discovered a dearth of policies relating to the needs of female prisoners, particularly in regards to the inhumane handcuffing of women in labor and a lack of access to feminine hygiene products.
“The stories of women with lived experiences inside and outside of prison walls might haunt you,” Cephas said. “[A story like] that of Mary Baxter, who has repeatedly shared her experience of giving birth while shackled, and was then placed in solitary confinement post-delivery because the facility in which she was house had nowhere else to put somewhere in her condition.”
According to Cephas, many women are entering prison with mental health issues, and 80% of incarcerated women have experienced some sort of sexual trauma. With this in mind, there is a movement to teach prison staff who work with prisoners trauma-informed care techniques.
“When (women) are going into these facilities they’re oftentimes very traumatized,” Cephas said. “This has an impact on their behavior impact on their ability to rehabilitate.”
During her testimony, Prison Commissioner Blanche Carney stated that the number of incarcerated women had increased over 700% nationwide from 1984-2014, but Philadelphia had managed to decrease this population recently.
“There are 365 women in our care, [making up] only 7.91% of our prison population,” Carney said.“And this number has steadily decreased with the help of our criminal justice partners since 2015.”
Carney said the Philadelphia Department of Prisons was increasing programming for pregnant and parenting women, including parenting classes, doula services, and a lactation program.
Carolyn Temin, the First Assistant district attorney, said the Trump administration is criticized for separating families, yet the criminal justice system has been doing it for years by incarcerating mothers.
“We have to look for an alternative,” Temin said. “We’re looking at programs in women’s prisons to see if they really, practically reintegrate them into society.”
“[Women] have to pay for female specific necessities like bras and feminine hygiene products,” Zhang said. “Even if they don’t have to pay, they still have to ask for these products and that creates the potential for embarrassment, humiliation, and abuse.”
After the meeting, Jones said he was encouraged by the testimony offered at the meeting but noted one of the biggest issues impeding progress was a disconnect between city agencies.
“Whether it’s DHS, or the school district of the city of Philadelphia, whether it’s courts, all of them have a role to play,” Jones said.
To help address the poverty that leads to incarceration, Jones said he will use upcoming budget hearings to ask city departments what steps they have taken to help alleviate poverty.
“So, I will sit there and not just think of it from nuts and bolts of budget,” Jones said “And we’ll think about a performance budget ([hat] addresses some of the ills.”
Cephas said the conversation regarding incarcerated women would not stop with the hearing.
“As a result of the report that’s going to be produced from stakeholders and experts that were on this panel, hopefully we will be able to get some recommendations that [will allow us] to make some changes on the state and local level,” Cephas said.
Cephas said the committee hopes to produce a report with a list of 10 recommendations by February.
Lawrence McGlynn is a recent graduate of Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication where he earned a Master’s in Journalism. For the next several months he will be reporting out of City Hall on various council and committee meetings, the city’s budget, and how these impact the daily lives of Philadelphians.
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