Archive for Humane Exposures

Recent HUD Report Finds Housing Vouchers Best Way to Fight Homelessness

The most reliable method in the fight to end homelessness is housing vouchers, a recent Department of Housing and Urban Development report found. It also found that families with vouchers experience less distress and less domestic violence. The study examined 2,200 homeless families in emergency shelters in 12 U.S. cities to find out how they responded to different forms of help designed to help them exit homelessness. After 18 months, the families offered a housing choice voucher were less likely to re-enter homelessness or experience housing instability, the report said.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Jennifer Ho, a HUD senior adviser on housing and services, said the vouchers help reduce overall homelessness:

Sometimes we’ve thought of homeless families as needing a bunch of services to do better, but what we’ve found is that they need housing.

The study gave families four options: housing vouchers (known as Section 8 vouchers) to help pay for housing that they find in the private market; rapid re-housing, which helps families pay their rent in the short-term; transitional housing, which combines up to two years of housing with services to assist families; and usual care, which provides temporary shelter housing without many of the aforementioned services.

According to the report, families with vouchers stayed together in greater numbers and experienced reduced psychological distress, domestic violence and food insecurity. The children in families with vouchers were also less likely to be separated from their parents and experienced reduced school mobility.

Additionally, the HUD study reported that vouchers cost the same or even less than other forms of assistance. Ho said the voucher program costs more than rapid re-housing, but that comparatively, the long-term efficacy of the voucher program is what’s important.

Funding cuts have reduced the number of families receiving housing vouchers, with agencies assisting 100,000 fewer families by June 2014, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Ho said:

If we want to make an impact on this problem we need Congress to invest in a way that can address homelessness.

According to HUD, the number of families with children experiencing homelessness has declined 15% since 2010, and the number of unsheltered families fell 53%  during the same period.

HUD plans to continue to follow the families for at least three years and will report on 36-month outcomes in 2017.

The findings, Minneapolis-St. Paul advocates say, mirror the results they’ve seen in the Twin cities and the surrounding area—though they caution that vouchers remain in short supply and recipients face a tight rental market.

Mikkel Beckmen, director of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness, said:

If we had an abundance of federal housing subsidies, we would have a lot fewer homeless people in our community locally.

Across the country, demand for ­federal housing vouchers far outpaces the supply. The “Housing Choice” vouchers are available to qualifying low-income individuals and families, who put 30%  of their income toward housing. There’s no end date on a voucher; the program keeps running unless program participants move out of the required income restrictions.

The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) last opened its waiting list in 2008. In the 48 hours the list was open, the agency received 14,000 applications. Today, there are still 5,000 families on the waiting list.
 Rita Ytzen, the MPHA’s senior supervisor of the voucher program, said:

I truly believe if you can find a way to assimilate low-income families into communities without the stigma of identifiable low-income housing; that’s a perk for both the family and the program.

Although demand on local shelters and assistance programs remains high, there are some signs of improvement. In June, Hennepin County recorded 273 families in public and private shelters–down from 336 families last year over the same period.

Advocates say it is tough to pinpoint the exact number of homeless people in the area, in part because of varying census methods and because many people don’t turn up to ask for help, but instead rely on the help of family or friends to get by.
Kenza Hadj-Moussa, communications and development director for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, said vouchers are a useful tool for many families, though additional services are often required for people struggling with more complex problems, like substance abuse or mental illness. She said that while vouchers can be more cost effective than other approaches, it’s important for agencies to maintain flexibility in how they serve individual families.
Local advocates said they are hopeful the study will draw more attention to the need for more stable housing solutions for families in need.


Reports: Juvenile Justice System Grossly Fails Native American Youth

The juvenile justice system is failing Native American15327471373_b4f21a1f07_o youth. That’s what a series of recent reports have shown. In June the Tribal Law and Policy Institute reported that state courts are twice as likely to incarcerate Native teens for minor crimes like truancy and alcohol use, than any other racial and ethnic group. All three recent reports call for reform.

The Navajo juvenile detention center in Tuba City, at a recent visit, was empty. Corrections Lieutenant Robbin Preston said even though they have 36 beds at the facility, the average population is only one or two teens a day:

The Navajo Nation is reluctant to send youth to these facilities. It’s used more as a last resort, so our population has been very, very low.

Preston said the low jail population doesn’t reflect the number of troubled Navajo youth who need help, and that help is nearly impossible to find on this reservation and most others. The Navajo can’t afford the rehabilitative services, treatment programs and case workers that are provided for youth at detention facilities around the country.

Addie Rolnick, a law professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, says:

It’s a misnomer to say there’s a juvenile justice system in Indian Country. Native youth arrested face a maze of legal jurisdictions — tribal, federal and state. There are two or three different governments in charge of dealing with kids, and they may or may not talk to each other. Where the kids end up being sent may not be a good place for them.

The majority of Native American youth live in communities with alarmingly high rates of alcoholism, domestic violence and suicide. They suffer from post traumatic stress at a rate higher than military personnel who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Rolnick said incarceration should be the last option for kids exposed to so much violence:

If you have a population of kids who have suffered trauma and violence and abuse, and that’s true for a lot of kids in the justice system, especially a lot of girls, it’s really true for native youth, the last thing you want to do is lock them up put them in places where they’re watched by cameras and guards all the time.

The U.S. Attorney General’s Advisory Committee On American Indian/Alaska Native Children Exposed To Violence said prevention and treatment programs have proven to be more effective than incarceration. But most tribes rely on federal funding sources. And it’s easier to fund a jail, a building, something tangible than it is to fund a program.

The Navajo Nation, the country’s largest tribe, does provide limited funds to run one prevention program called Dine Youth–an after-school program that keeps kids out of trouble.

Theresa Hatathlie, who has worked with Dine Youth for more than a decade, says:

I listen to a lot of the kids’ stories, and a lot of times they just need somebody to hear them and to acknowledge them.

Dine Youth puts a strong emphasis on learning Navajo culture, language and philosophy.

All three reports concluded that’s what Native youth are missing is a connection to their heritage. The researchers pointed to the painful legacy troubled youth have inherited. For centuries the federal government forced Native Americans off their land and youth into boarding schools to erase their Native identity. That trauma has compounded over generations.

Law professor Addie Rolnick said lawmakers need to look beyond jails and courts, because it’s investing in treatment and prevention programs like Dine Youth that are going to make a difference with kids.

Scotland Finally Realizes Female Imprisonment is Counterproductive

Female imprisonment reform in Scotland has been a long time coming, but now at last there is acceptance that incarceration provides no significant reduction in re-offending.

Sixteen years ago, then chief inspector of prisons Clive Fairweather said Scotland’s female prison population should be reduced from 200 to 100, on the basis that many prisoners were low-level offenders.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Built in 1975, HM Prison Cornton Vale comprises a total of 217 cells in its five houses. It now houses almost all female adults and young offenders in Scotland.  In April 1999, the separation of adults and young offenders was attained.

Cornton Vale has been criticized for overcrowding–with 353 inmates being held there in November 2005–and the high number of suicides which have taken place there. Between 1997 and 2002, 11 women killed themselves while serving sentences at Cornton Vale. In 2010, Brigadier Hugh Munro declared the prison in a “state of crisis”, citing overcrowding, two-hour waits for the toilet, cold meals, lack of activities and a deep problem of prisoner boredom which was impeding rehabilitation.

In 2006, 98% of the inmates had addiction issues, 80% had mental health problems and 75% were survivors of abuse. The prison also holds children, in particular the babies of inmates, who are imprisoned alongside their mothers, and teenagers where there is no suitable accommodation available in young offenders institutions.

In 2006 it was announced that the practice of “double cuffing” all inmates who are in labor to a custody officer until second stage labor and immediately re-handcuffed after giving birth, had ended.

But it was not until 2012 that radical reform became a realistic prospect. A comprehensive report by the Commission on Women Offenders, led by former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Agiolini, made 37 recommendations, including the closure of Cornton Vale, its replacement with a smaller prison and the addition of regional units.

At the report’s heart was a recognition that the existing system was of little benefit to either those punished or to the public. Dame Elish highlighted the “significant cost to society” of locking up women whose addiction or mental health problems were not going to be helped by a stretch in jail.

Locking up those who break the law is, of course, a deterrent, but jailing women can have a severely negative impact on families and on children in particular. This can perpetuate and extenuate circumstances which contributed to the offending in the first place.

The commission found that 75%  of prisoners were sentenced to six months or less, but their rate of re-offending was a desperate 80%. Imprisonment did not reform female inmates’ characters; it merely consolidated low self-esteem.

Hearteningly, Dame Elish’s key findings are behind the course of action taken by the Scottish Government very recently, albeit only after the scrapping of plans for a new women’s “super prison” earlier this year. A new national prison taking up to 100 inmates will be built on the Cornton Vale site, along with five small custodial centers across the country which would give the female prison population a maximum capacity of 180.

It is also encouraging that the units will provide “intensive support” for those affected by alcohol and drug addictions, mental health problems and domestic abuse trauma.

These measures are designed to break the cycle of re-offending, which is the key to any kind of progress on this issue. Time will tell if it works, but we know for sure that the existing arrangements do not work. Imprisonment reinforces rather than treats habits, and a new method of addressing these problems has to be attempted.

Critics will question whether 180 jail places in Scotland are sufficient. The answer depends on how successful these attempts are at achieving rehabilitation, but the reduced figure should help to focus minds on using prison only as a last alternative from now on.

Raleigh Addresses Answers to Homeless Food Insecurity

Recently, on the same day Raleigh’s much-awaited, $20 million affordable housing plan was unveiled, a panel of activists gathered to discuss another set of intricately linked issues that the city faces: homelessness and food insecurity. Panelists discussed the root causes food insecurity—which is defined as being without reliable access to safe, nutritious, sufficient food in order to live a healthy life—as well as what Raleigh is doing to address these issues and what the city could be doing better.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Nation Hahn, president of the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation which works to promote leadership in poor and hungry communities, said:

We know there’s a need, but too many people are unseen, unheard, unrecognized. Can we build the public will? Can we build public awareness of solutions that exist and actually go forth and take action?

According to the January 24, 2015 Point-in-Time count, there are 887 people currently experiencing homelessness in Raleigh. In 2013, Raleigh’s homelessness crisis and the city’s management of it were thrown into the national spotlight, when residents showed up en masse to a City Council meeting to show their support for Raleigh’s homeless residents and their desire to solve the problem.

A year later, the city opened the Oak City Outreach Center, which serves meals to homeless residents on the weekends, when the City’s shelters are closed. The Outreach Center is temporary, and in his report to Council on affordable housing, Larry Jarvis, director of the city’s Housing and Neighborhoods Department, laid out a plan to open a permanent, one-stop services center for homeless people to access by 2018. It’s a good step, but the panelists agreed it will take much more to end homelessness and food insecurity.

“We are compassionate, but our actions don’t meet our ideals,” said the Rev. Hugh Hollowell, the founder of Love Wins Ministries, which serves as a faith-based community for Raleigh’s homeless residents. “Our policies don’t represent the best of what we believe.”

Erin Byrd, the founder of the Fertile Ground Food Coop in Southeast Raleigh, when asked what the city could do better to address homelessness and food insecurity, answered:

I have a list: It includes better transit, slowing gentrification, paying workers a living wage of $12-$15 an hour, creating small cooperative economies and passing laws to prevent discrimination on worksites.

Shana Overdorf, the executive director of the Raleigh/Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness, suggested:

We could look at existing resources and look at how we could use them differently. Is it converting abandoned buildings?Converting hotels? Is it tiny homes? That’s where I would like to see some change.

Erin White, the founder of Community Food Lab, a design and consulting firm focused on local food systems, says taking advantage of underutilized resources is the way to solve hunger problems as well. He asks:

All the food that we throw away before it’s actually bad–can we get smart about diverting that to get to the people that are hungry? Can we use space that we don’t use and grow food there? We are surrounded by open space in this city that’s not getting used.

Hollowell believes homelessness is cheaper to end than it is to manage:

But it requires a commitment of funding for a long period of time before you begin to see savings. The places that do this better honor peoples’ agency. Most of us make the best choices we can given the information we have available. If we want to improve peoples’ situations, we need to fight to increase the number of options they have available to them.

Powerful, Informative Comedy in Prison: Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals

If you don’t mind salty language, you may really like, as we did, Comedy Central’s Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals at Brazos Co. Jail. Very funny, touching and informative. Since mental hospitals put a million patients on the streets in the ’70s, most now live on the streets or in prisons. The vast majority are in for non-violent drug crimes.
Jeff did “roasts” in a Women’s section and a Men’s. One interchange blew us away: He asked a very pretty young girl what she was in for. “Theft.” was her answer. “What did you steal?” Ross asked. Her answer: “Baby formula.” He then joked, “Did you steal it from a baby?”

Three Bills on Illinois Governor’s Desk Would Greatly Reform Juvenile Justice

The Illinois Legislature has passed and sent to Gov. Bruce Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing TimeRauner three bills of significant reform legislation right-sizing the criminal justice system and expanding restorative justice opportunities to keep juveniles out of the system. Among the measures sitting on Gov. Rauner’s desk are bills designed to reduce the number of juveniles automatically transferred to adult court as well as those who automatically join the adult prison population.

Should they become law, none of the bills would mean that juveniles could no longer be tried as adults or that the most dangerous and violent among them would be allowed to join other juveniles in detention centers. Proponents hope these pending laws will increase the opportunity for more juvenile offenders to get the services they need to become contributing members of society rather than puting their feet on the path to adult criminal activity.

Gov. Rauner’s office has said he will thoroughly review the bills. Given his pledge to reform Illinois criminal justice system and his appointment of a commission charged with doing so, many are optimistic they will become law.

Here are the three most relevant bills::

– SB1560 would bar juveniles charged with misdemeanors from being automatically sent to state juvenile prisons, where they often advance to more serious crimes after their release, and instead hook them up with rehabilitative services in their own communities. Some 110 youths each year would be impacted by the switch.

– HB3718 would end the automatic transfer of many young offenders to adult prisons and instead let juvenile judges make that call for crimes that do not involve physical harm to a person. Transfer to youth or adult prisons for more serious crimes including murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault and aggravated battery with a firearm would remain automatic, but only for 16 and 17-year-olds. A judge’s review would be required for those ages 15 and younger.

These proposed changes came in response to concerns expressed by the Illinois Supreme Court regarding the lack of judicial discretion to deal with such cases. And not only will those changes increase our chances to catch kids before they are hardened by the adult system, but it also will reduce overcrowding.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who championed the change, has said it would result in a 70 percent reduction in automatic transfers of juveniles to adult court in Cook County. She told a Chicago gathering last December:

Automatic transfers are devastating to our young people and our communities. We have a responsibility to ensure a juvenile justice system that is fair and responsive to our young people. The lack of due process robs young people of the fair hearing to determine whether or not they are suitable for the juvenile system’s rehabilitative opportunities.

– HB2567 would help keep children younger than the age of 13 out of juvenile detention by requiring local authorities to contact the Comprehensive Community-Based Youth Services network. Only if such services could not be secured would the youth be placed in detention.

If these three bills are signed by the governor and become law, the reforms will be another welcome giant step Illinois took to reform the way it treats juvenile offenders after the state agreed as part of a court settlement to ban solitary confinement at state detention centers.

In a recent editorial, The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus Wrote:

As we said in response to that overdue reform, if the notion of rehabilitation is to be more than fiction, we must pursue policies which help to turn lives around. It’s not about coddling criminals. It’s about not creating hardened, lifetime ones and instead fostering productive adult members of society.

We salute juvenile justice advocates, members of the General Assembly led by sponsors including Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, and Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, for working to return Illinois to its leadership role in providing fair and effective juvenile justice. And we urge the reform-minded governor to sign them into law.

Finger-Pointing Hampers Efforts Against Homelessness; Increasing Public Awareness Can Help

Orlando-based homeless advocate Thomas Rebman was homeless in nine cities over 75 days and found that in all of them (including Pensacola, New Orleans, Houston, Phoenix and Los Angeles) the blame game hampered efforts to combat homelessness.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

He writes:

In every municipality I visited, members of the groups trying to fix homelessness — government, continuums of care, service providers and even homeless advocates — are arguing over polar views on how to deal with the problem in their locale. This creates a natural divide among the stakeholders that cannot be overcome. In communities that have made significant and measured progress; it has been accomplished in spite of this fact.

Rebman believes that homelessness will never be solved in today’s political and social environment. He thinks that every community, despite its commitment to the cause, is completely immobilized by a cycle of blame. Entities are arguing over extreme views and pointing fingers at each other, because our society requires it for them to remain viable as an organization. So nothing gets done. He adds:

We expect the people trying to help the homeless to give us one-minute sound bites on why they are the organization that should be funded, so we can get back to our lives. How can they unite to solve the problem when they must compete for their survival?

Governments are under pressure to justify their behavior, not actually solve the problem. Law enforcement is painted with a broad brush as uncaring and even aggressive, to gain support. Advocates for the homeless are relegated to sensationalism to achieve anything at all for the people they serve.

The sad truth is that the public, knowingly, apathetically or through coercion, allows known lies to proliferate and destroy any chance we have for success. We convince other people that it is the fault of social service agencies, which attract the homeless. Or it is the government officials who are greedy, or law enforcement acting mean to them. Perhaps it is those left-wing homeless advocates who exaggerate the problem, or the business leaders who want them out of the city just to make more money. Finally, the majority of citizens tell themselves the ultimate lie: It is the homeless who are to blame; they are lazy and take advantage of the system.

So how does Rebman believe we will succeed in  eliminating homelessness–besides providing homes for them, which has worked in Utah, Alberta, Minnesota, Massachusetts and elsewhere?

It is very simple, yet almost impossible. We need to destroy stereotypes caused by the constant finger-pointing necessary for financial survival. We do that through public education and awareness. True education and constant exposure of the problems will quickly lead to sustainable solutions. The problem is our only common ground; it is the only point on which we all agree. Put public awareness first, not last.

Review: “Wentworth” a Dramatic Aussie TV Series on Imprisoned Women

Wentworth dvd box

Franky, Bea, Jacs

At a time when Orange is the New Black is delighting U.S. audiences and media, while drawing attention to the shocking plight of women behind bars—much as Bad Girls did in Britain—Australia’s Wentworth (in some countries titled Wentworth Prison and in Poland called Wiezienie dla kobiet) is a compelling, edge-of-your-seat drama down under.

Currently, Netflix is streaming two seasons (22 episodes; 2013-2014) of this series—including this episode season . A third 12-episode season is airing in Australia now and a fourth has been ordered.

Wentworth just won two of Australia’s top TV honors (Logies) for Most Outstanding Drama Series (two years running) and Most Outstanding Dramatic Actress (lead Danielle Cormack). The show has also taken the Best TV Drama Series ASTRA Awards for the past two years. The program has been nominated for 19 other awards, including TV Choice Best International Show and 13 acting noms for eight cast members, including two for creepy Kris McQuade as ubervillainess Jacs Holt.

Wentworth serves as a contemporary re-imagining of Prisoner, which ran for 692 episodes on Australian TV from 1979 to 1986. Set in modern day, the current series centers on Bea Smith (Cormack) who is imprisoned for attempted murder of her abusive husband.

Unlike the situation in real U.S. prisons, where 60% of female inmates are in for non-violent drug or drug-related theft crimes, these Aussie gals have mostly done the heavy stuff.

Wentworth has received a mostly positive reception from critics, and the first episode became the most watched Australian drama series premiere in Foxtel history. The series was picked up by 20 countries so far.

Ben Pobjie writing in Australia’s The Age wrote“so rarely in Australian TV do we see well-written characters collide with dead-on casting and tense, atmospheric direction as they have here. Wentworth is a powerful, almost cinematic drama with its own identity that incorporates echoes of the original Prisoner series.”

The plot follows several compelling story lines, but the main one is the path of newbie Bea Smith who soon learns that she has to deal with the top-dog prisoner, tough-as nails, lesbian Franky Doyle, who heads a gang of gals and brooks no nonsense. Early on, in an unexpected prison riot, the “governor” (warden) is mysteriously murdered. She was the wife of guard Will Jackson (twice-nominated ASTRA Award Best Actor Robbie Magasiva) and the secret mistress of guard Matthew Fletcher (twice –nominated Best Actor Aaron Jeffrey). She is replaced by a new governor who tries some reforms, while having an adulterous lesbian affair with prisoner Franky.

Before long, Franky’s power is seriously challenged by the arrival of Jacs Holt, matriarch of a major crime gang on the outside and instant head of a tough rival posse inside. Overt and covert warfare ensues, and Bea finds herself caught in the middle.

Jacs orders her son Brayden, who is secretly dating Bea’s beloved daughter Debbie and shooting heroin with her, to kill her with an overdose. Revenging this act sets in motion the main plot of both seasons, although a hell of a lot of good and evil stuff goes on simultaneously.

As in Orange is the New Black, one of the most compelling characters is a transgender woman (wonderfully played by Socratis Otto) who becomes a key figure in plots and counter-plots, foiling a murder attempt and trying desperately to get a reliable source for her needed female hormones.

Following the end of the first season, it was revealed with much Aussie excitement that notorious Prisoner character Joan “The Freak” Ferguson, a sadistic, lesbian prison officer, would be introduced in the second season as the new governor. She meddles in everyone’s lives and schemes against prisoners, guards and even her boss on the prison board of governors. Tall, imposing Pamela Rabe, who is greatly hateful in the role, was ASTRA-nominated this year for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor.

I peeked at the plot synopses for the episodes of Season 3 already aired, and Ferguson’s back raising hell with Bea, who is now top-dog, after having bested Franky in a major knife fight. I can’t wait for Series 3 to come to Netflix later this year or next, although you can already catch some episodes on YouTube.

Plot elements in the white-knuckle first two seasons include drug smuggling, attempted murder, successful murder, attempted and successful suicide, all kinds of violence, sarcasm, sex in a garden shed, caring for a sick magpie, a clever prison escape, matricide and many more of the things that today’s viewer craves. Highly recommended, except for the very squeamish.

Important issues crying out for prison reform include abuse of solitary confinement, drug smuggling and abuse, sex between prisoners and guards, sadistic wardens, limited programs and privileges and no on-site contact with children.

How Proliferation of Female Inmates on TV Makes Us Care

Women-in-prison drama’s like “Orange Is the New Black” (OITNB), Australia’s “Wentworth” and Britain’s “Bad Girls” and investigative documentaries like Diane Sawyer’s “A Nation of Women Behind Bars” highlight life in lockdown and have opened up a national conversation about the lives and treatment of female prisoners.

When it comes to portraying women in prison, television either heightens the reality as seen in “OITNB,” the U.K.’s “Bad Girls” and Australia’s dark drama “Wentworth” or takes us behind the concrete walls and barbed-wire fences to see the real faces of female prisoners in America. Both approaches humanize incarcerated women and help us understand how they are more than criminals– that they are mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and best friends.

Episode of fFoxtel Australia's thrilling, dark drama "Wentworth"

Episode of Foxtel Australia’s thrilling, dark drama “Wentworth”

In the alternate reality of Danbury Prison, where “OITNB” takes place, life behind bars is sometimes portrayed as a strict summer camp where friendships are made, alliances are formed, and sing-alongs and dance parties help break up the monotony. Other times we are led down the darker corridors of prison life, repositories of assault, abuse of power, gang wars, suicide, murder, paralyzing fear and desperate loneliness. The same is true of the British and Australian dramas set in this harrowing millieu.

The Washington Post has observed:

In a nation whose justice system often offers little more than one-size-fits-all injustice, a television series that inspires viewers to see convicts as fellow human beings can help us better understand and perhaps have a bit more empathy toward them. We should not confuse a TV program with a criminology course, but ‘Orange is the New Black’ goes a long way toward narrowing the gap between our perceptions of convicts and the sometimes surprising reality.

Balancing the public perception is a selection of reality docu-series that take a long, hard look at real women serving out real sentences in real time. TLC aired several specials that explore different issues faced by female prisoners. “Babies Behind Bars” looked at prisoners taking childcare classes in preparation to one day take care of the children they gave birth to in prison. ”Breaking Down the Bars,” helmed by Oprah’s OWN network, looks at daily prison life and focuses on therapy and rehabilitation. Producers even brought their own clinical psychologist to work with inmates.

Most recently, FOX’s hit “Empire” joined the ranks of shows portraying the impact of prison on American women. Its matriarch, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), the powerhouse who brought her family to fame and fortune, developed her chops the hard way during her time in prison. Cookie represents the substantial number of black mothers who are separated from their children while serving prison sentences.

Cookie’s character highlights the impact of incarceration on mothers and the children they must leave behind while incarcerated–an issue that is reaching epidemic proportions. Not only does America currently have over 200,000 women serving sentences–the largest female prisoner population on earth–but about 56 percent report being parents. And today there are two African-American women behind bars for every white female inmate.

The US female inmate population has soared over 750% in the last three decades, nearly twice the rate of increase that men experienced. Today one out of every 100 black women in the U.S. is incarcerated, nearly three times the rate for women overall.

Not only do shows like “OITNB,” “Empire, “Bad Girls” and “Wentworth”" make female prisoners real to us, but they also highlight the additional societal issues that contribute to the epidemic of women behind bars in The U.S., U.K. and Australia. Economic status, race, and education remain factors for criminal activity and subsequent incarceration. In an age when we often congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come, it’s important to be reminded that our enlightenment as a nation has not yet come to fruition.

Both the numbers and the images of women behind bars can feel overwhelming and discouraging, but the impact of media and audience interest in the plight of female prisoners is shedding a light on issues that may not otherwise be addressed. Several real issues have been explored in these series, including violence, abuse of solitary confinement, guards using their power to trade favors for sex and the rights of transgender inmates to receive prescribed hormone therapy while incarcerated.

Huffington Post blogger Sarah Pike declares:

The more we are exposed to the realities of life for female prisoners, the more we will be mobilized to work for fair treatment, reasonable sentencing and support for both prisoners and their families. If you’ve been inspired to make a difference for women prisoners, there are a variety of ways to become involved, including work with at-risk girls and women who may be able to avoid a life behind bars.

“Working as a tutor or mentor with at-risk girls or young women who have just become involved in the court system can help make an impact before it’s too late. Check with state organizations to find out how you can become involved in building self-esteem, cultivating social skills and improving educational performance. The Women’s Prison Association also offers a multitude of volunteer options that range from community involvement to active work with female prisoners and parolees.

“Thanks to recent television exposure, the national conversation about women in prison is louder and more active than ever before. While America is undeniably facing a challenge when it comes to the proliferation of female prisoners, there is hope that we will mobilize as a nation to curb the tide. Television may not be the answer, but it is certainly a catalyst for awareness, activism, and change.

Female Prisoners Suffer Disproportionally from Depression, PTSD and Other Mental Illnesses

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections recently released the results of its study revealing major differences in the mental health of male and female inmates. According to the data, nearly 60 percent of female inmates show signs of mental illness, about twice the percentage of male inmates. A total of 3,104 women and 25,620 men were in the corrections system at the time. Women also suffer disproportionately from depression — 64 percent versus 59 percent of men.

But the most striking difference occurs with trauma disorders. PTSD is the second most common mental illness among incarcerated women, with about one in five showing symptoms, or five times the rate for men. Nationally, women are

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

twice as likely as men to suffer from PTSD because they tend to face more emotional and sexual abuse, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

In prison, the effects can be worsened by separation from family or children, the stressful environment and failure to get consistent, quality treatment, other than psychotropic drugs, inmates and mental health experts said.


Kimberly Cummings, of Just the Beginning, a Tulsa-based nonprofit that helps women released from prison, says:

No fault in the prison system, that’s just what they’re trained to do: ‘Here, take this pill.’ Because it will numb them. It will numb that pain from trauma.

Women in prison also can easily get illicit drugs, which allow them to avoid confronting trauma issues. They’re good avoiders, and drug use itself is a good way to avoid.

A new challenge for prisoners is the decline in the number of therapy sessions in recent years. From 2012 to 2014, the average number of mental-health group therapy sessions per month in Oklahoma prisons fell by nearly 50 percent, to 176. The average number of offenders in those sessions per month also dropped. Corrections officials attributed the decline to a shortage of psychiatrists, which occurred even as the prison population increased to well above official capacity.

For years, Oklahoma has incarcerated more women per capita than any other state in the nation. Two prisons house female inmates: Dr. Eddie Warrior in Taft, with 965 inmates in late March, and Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, with 1,206 inmates.

Eddie Warrior offers a substance-abuse program called Helping Women Recover that includes trauma therapy. Funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the program has curricula called “Beyond Trauma” and “Beyond Violence” that are “trauma informed.”

Trauma disorders afflict women more than men for several reasons. Young girls and boys are equally vulnerable to trauma, but as they enter puberty, boys get bigger and stronger, so their likelihood of experiencing sexual trauma and abuse starts to decline. But the likelihood for women remains the same. Also, when men are victims of violence, it’s often perpetrated by strangers, such as in the military or a bar fight. But women’s trauma often is inflicted by someone close to them who probably expresses affection for them.

More than half of female victims of rape reported that at least one perpetrator was a current or former intimate partner, according to a 2010 national sexual violence survey by the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A lot of Women in Recovery participants have very complex trauma histories. They’re suffering from the effects of not just one traumatic event, but from a series of them, and that can play out over a lifetime. Sending nonviolent offenders to prison while they’re struggling with trauma-related mental illness will only worsen their symptoms. About 62 percent of female inmates showing signs of serious mental illness were nonviolent offenders, according to corrections data.

At Eddie Warrior, one inmate was in an open dorm with about 90 other women. She complained that loud noises and women talking over other women would trigger her severe anxiety. But today, with counseling and more control over her life, she feels a lot more stable and a lot more normal, than she did in prison.