(Picture of me the day I was released June 25, 2014)
Women Trauma and Mental Illness in Prison
It’s now time to start talking publicly about the “Trauma to Prison Pipeline” and how it affects females. One of the most important issues that the President raised in his talk before the Congressional Black Caucus this year was the number of women (particularly women of color) incarcerated who have experienced sexual and/or physical violence in their childhood and adult lives prior to prison.
There is very little mental health treatment available in prison for women. And from my personal experience there is no consistent Trauma Informed Care or Education for female inmates or staff. In fact the trauma treatment that is available is only offered based upon one’s release date. Thus the longer amount of time a woman spends incarcerated the longer she will go without access to the misguided and/or lack of trauma treatment.
Unique Needs of Incarcerated Women
Women have very unique and different needs from men while incarcerated. For example, although most of incarcerated women have menstrual cycles, the first prison I was at only gives out eight pairs of new underwear a year (the second prison I was move to after I was attacked, only gives out four pair a year). Our clothing – all of our uniforms were originally designed for men – consisted of the following: four brown T-shirts, four khaki button down shirts (two long sleeves and two short sleeves), and four brown pairs of khaki pants. If you want to wear a dress, (and only one dress per inmate is allowed), you have to turn in a pair of khaki pants.
Laundry is done once a week at this prison. That means having four uniforms for seven days. On top of that, we often bleed through our underwear because the sanitary napkins that the prison is required to give out are the most useless pads ever created. No matter how you do the math, the majority of the women are wearing dirty garments a couple of times a week.
Women and Poverty in Prison
If you have money, you can buy extra underwear, bras, socks and new uniforms—from the women who work in Laundry and pilfer these desired items and sell them on the compound. If you have money you are able to buy bras (even special order them) and underwear from the commissary.
Women have children. Yet the Federal Bureau of Prison’s (FBOP) only pays $0.12 an hour. Women have to choose between buying hygiene (that is soap, shampoo, deodorant, hair products etc.) and calling their children. The cost at the time I was incarcerated (up and until 2014) was $3.45 for a 15-minute call ($0.23/per minute). The new federal regulations will only drop the amount by two cents and does nothing about the limited amount of time allotted per month for calls or the slave wages that are paid.
The FBOP only allots 300 minutes a month, so even if a woman has money, she does not have more than five hours a month to speak to her child(ren) or other loved ones, in increments of 15 minutes. Women who have money often pay inmates who do not have money, for their minutes. Which means the poor women often give up their time to speak to family to wealthier women. And of course if caught both the buyer and seller loses good days and their phone privileges are suspended for months.
I am only scratching the service, because it would take a book to write about poverty and wealth in prison amongst women. A disparity created by the federal government.
If Not Now Then When?
Trauma–pre-prison, during prison and during reentry –is real for women. If our judges are not educated about the direct correlation between trauma and incarceration, and the prison staff, psychologist and correctional officers do not receive training in Trauma Informed Care, then how do we expect the women to heal and become whole? It is time for the justice system, especially the jails and prisons, to become more transparent and to partner with outside agencies that are creating the Trauma Informed Care Movement.
In order to move this conversation into action and to truly help incarcerated girls and women heal from trauma the justice system can begin by opening up the prison doors and bringing in organizations to train, treat and advocate for incarcerated females. Impartial organizations such as: The National Center for Trauma Informed Care, Aces Too High, and Disability Rights DC at University Legal Services’ Jail and Prison Advocacy Project.
The time is now and the need is urgent because trauma does not just lead to incarceration, it too often ends in death.
I have some thoughts and ideas to make this change. I hope you will join those of us that are on the ground fighting for a just and equal society for all–that means including women!