May 1 1994

Locked-Up Women Locked Out of Coverage

There is no shortage of reasons why women end up in jail. Women earn less, are responsible for more and are among the least well-protected people in the country. A recent article in Harper’s magazine (4/94) pointed out that a single mother is almost required to resort to illegal activity if she is to feed and clothe two children on the roughly $300 to $400 cash grant she gets per month from AFDC.

Yet some reporters still drag out the old tired feminist villain to explain the rise in female offenders. “Female Crime Rate Alarming, Law Officials Say; Drugs, Women’s Movement Called Factors in Arrests, Prosecutions”, an Arizona Republic headline announced (10/26/93). A Houston Chronicle report took a similar approach (5/10/92): “Some argue that the participation of women in crime parallels women’s entrance into previously male-dominated roles.”

The desperate stab at women’s rights activists would be funny if it didn’t mask a dangerous failure to investigate the reasons for women’s imprisonment. “Stereotypically, victims are female and criminals are male,” says Meda Chesney-Lind, director of Women’s Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. There’s little comprehension of why women end up in jail, says Chesney-Lind, because “women offenders are basically media roadkill.”

It’s not that there aren’t newspaper stories on women in prison– well-informed reports crop up regularly. But when the discussion is national crime policy, women–consistent with the media’s notion that they are separate from the category of regular humans–fade away.

A cover story in U.S. News & World Report (1/17/94) painted a picture of U.S. crime in which perpetrators were basically men. Apart from an unidentified African-American “gangster girl” in a photo collage, the only female profiled in the piece was one of four women who abducted a 12-year-old and tortured her to death. The “ringleader” of the group was reported to be Melinda Loveless, who “allegedly wished to kill the child because of her closeness to Loveless’ lesbian lover.” Hardly a representative offense, the sensationalistic Loveless story did satisfy the media’s taste for the vicious killer dyke.

“The [crime] story in the press is as if women don’t exist,” said Brenda Smith of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C. And that’s not just a problem for women, who still make up only 5.7 percent of the prison population–it’s a problem for the policy debate.

In 1980, the Bureau of Justice counted 13,420 women in federal and state prison. At the end of 1992 that number stood at 50,409–a roughly 275 percent increase, compared to 160 percent for men. According to the FBI’s statistics, women weren’t landing in jail for their participation in violent crime: Women’s share of arrests for murder, aggravated assault, robbery, etc. had barely moved, from 10.0 to 11.3 percent, in the same period. What did increase was women’s incarceration for non-violent crime: shoplifting, check forgery, welfare fraud, substance abuse crimes and “possession for sale” of illegal drugs.

A large part of this increase has been triggered by mandatory sentencing guidelines, under which judges are required to impose minimum sentences for certain federal crimes (including both welfare fraud and drug offenses) without discretion.

“Women offenders are being incarcerated where, previously, they would have been given different types of community-based sentences such as half-way houses or supervised probation,” Judge Gladys Kessler of the National Association of Women Judges told the Senate Judiciary Committee last June. Thrown into jail for their work at the lowest, most easily arrested rung of the drug crime business, the majority of these women, said Kessler, are “precisely the kind of offender who is usually an ideal candidate for community placement.”

A 1990 study by the American Correctional Association indicates that these women are overwhelmingly young, poor, women of color (57 percent) and mothers of children (75 percent). Female offenders are largely women who ran away from home; about a quarter have attempted suicide; more than half have been abused physically–and 36 percent sexually. Twenty-two percent had been unemployed in the three years before they went to prison. They’re in the same world as their brothers, only more so; unlike their brothers, the mainstream media don’t consider them part of the picture.

“What happens to the children of the incarcerated mothers?” Judge Kessler asked the Senate. What happens to the women? Dubbed “getting tough” in the press and by the politicians, mandatory sentencing remains a common plank in both the Senate and House Crime Bills, perhaps aided by scant coverage of the very people the policy has been proportionately toughest on.