The number of women incarcerated in the United States has exploded over the past 30 years, with growth almost twice that of incarcerated men. This problem is particularly acute in Texas, which now incarcerates more women than any other state in the country, and where the number of women incarcerated has increased by almost 1,000% since 1980. The impact of such high levels of incarceration is devastating for families and communities across our state – especially since 81% of women in Texas prisons are mothers. And while the number of women imprisoned in Texas has increased, their unique needs have not been met.
Limited care during pregnancy, insufficient hygiene products, disincentives when seeking medical services, and limited visits with children are some of the struggles women face in the Texas justice system. When we fail to provide women with the health and family-centered support they need, we compromise their ability to successfully shake off the stigma of incarceration, hampering positive reintegration into society and jeopardizing the long-term community well-being.
In 2018, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition launched the ““Justice for Women” Campaign to shed light on the unique needs of women in the justice system. Over the next 18 months, we worked with our partners on the Texas Smart-On-Crime Coalition, as well as a statewide coalition of formerly incarcerated women, to lobby lawmakers and justice system practitioners to make meaningful changes that would reduce women’s participation in the system and improve the results for women who are ultimately incarcerated. As a result, and thanks to the hard work of countless people over the past year, eight new women’s justice bills have officially become Texas law.
Some of the new laws focus on improving the conditions of confinement for women incarcerated by the state. For example, the law now requires screening for a history of trauma, prohibits chaining and isolation of pregnant women and new mothers, and ensures that incarcerated women have expanded access to free feminine hygiene products. Another fills significant gaps in the number of services available to incarcerated women by expanding access to vocational, educational and rehabilitation programs that increase the likelihood that women will lead productive and successful lives upon release. A third changes the annual fee from $ 100 for medical services in prisons to $ 13.55 per visit, removing a significant deterrent for incarcerated people seeking medical care.
Other new laws focus on reforms at the local level, such as one that ensures that county jails support obstetric and gynecological care for women and limits the use of restraints on pregnant women or those who have recently given birth. Another will expand access to quality feminine hygiene products for women in county jails and improve data reporting to inform future decision-making on services for women.
Of course, there is still work to be done. The weak point of this legislative session for women’s justice was Governor Greg Abbott’s disappointing veto on Bill 3078, which would have altered the leniency process to provide fairer treatment to victims of domestic violence and commercial sexual exploitation. The bill, passed unanimously by the House and Senate, would have made a tangible difference for women who have already suffered significant trauma. Another important proposal would have prioritized probation or community supervision with deferred adjudication – rather than incarceration – for women who are the primary caregivers of minor children; this bill was not heard in the Senate.
Ahead of the next state legislative session in 2021, a bipartisan group of lawmakers formed the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, which has the potential to improve Texas’ justice system and build community support outside of it. . We hope the caucus will re-examine leniency for survivors, as well as alternatives to incarceration for key custodians, and similarly address other issues that will reduce women’s entry into the justice system and improve outcomes. results for them, their families and the communities of Texas.