The story of a prisoner’s death in Arizona over the summer popped up in the national media for a single news cycle and disappeared without provoking much outrage. Marcia Powell died after being left in an outdoor holding cell in triple-digit heat for more than four hours. She had a history of mental problems and was serving a 27-month sentence for prostitution—a crime for which we can assume none of her clients were prosecuted.
Women are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. prison population, and sexual violence is often at the root of the events that put them behind bars. Women and girls are victimized at all income levels—one in three experiences some form of abuse by age 18—but for those who enjoy economic stability, the protective layers of good schools, safe neighborhoods, and access to mental health services tend to be a buffer from further exploitation. For women and girls at the margins, sexual violence too often starts a cycle of drug use, delinquency, and despair that eventually lands them in the criminal justice system. And along the way, many become mothers.
A recent Oregon Social Learning Center study of chronically delinquent girls found that the average age of first sexual encounter among detained girls was 6.
I first encountered these most vulnerable women and children as a law student trying to think about how to bring the issue of women’s rights as human rights home to the U.S. During those years, I met young women in Washington, D.C., Ohio, and California who had been brutally trafficked, abused, molested, and raped, just like women and girls in developing nations. Yet they were not usually perceived as victims. Instead they were cast as “hos,” prostitutes, or “cracked out” mothers, and dispatched to youth detention centers and prisons. Nobody was talking about educational initiatives, micro-loans, psychiatric services, or human rights for them.
I also discovered that few people were aware of the barbaric conditions the U.S. justice system inflicted on pregnant women, forcing them to be shackled during labor and delivery (even for a C-section birth) and whisking away the newborn child a few minutes after delivery, with only single Polaroid for the mother to keep.
That’s why in 2003 I founded the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a national advocacy organization working to reform the criminal and juvenile justice systems and improve the child welfare and public health services available to these fragile families. The Rebecca Project started with two full-time staff sharing one desk and a $25,000 fellowship from the Ford Foundation. Today we have a staff of seven and 11 state chapters around the country, and hundreds of low-income women and girls are part of our advocacy efforts
According to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), as many as 88 percent of female inmates have experienced sexual or physical abuse before coming to prison. And by and large the mothers behind bars are not gang-bangers, murderers, or drug kingpins. They are first-time, nonviolent offenders, arrested for untreated addiction. With the drug wars and the passage of mandatory minimum sentences, the incarceration of mothers has skyrocketed.
Similarly, in the juvenile justice system, 73 percent of girls have been subject to sexual abuse prior to incarceration. A recent Oregon Social Learning Center study of chronically delinquent girls found that the average age of first sexual encounter among detained girls was 6. And most of these girls are behind bars for offenses related to sexual violence. They are detained for prostitution or running away from abusive homes or foster care placements—not for being violent or joining gangs.
What a senseless, and inhumane, approach to vulnerable women and girls’ lives.
Mothers with a history of sexual violence and substance abuse do not belong in the criminal justice system. They need a chance to heal, and they need addiction programs they can attend with their family. It costs about $14,000 a year to put a mother and her children into a family-based treatment program, compared to $30,000 to put her behind bars—plus another $35,000 to place her child in foster care. These family programs have significantly better outcomes for family stability and child well-being than the criminal justice system, yet very few of them exist.
Placing sexually victimized girls behind bars is also wrongheaded and cruel. Like girls in India, Costa Rica, and the Congo, they are victims—gang-raped, cut down by incest, physically beaten, and sex-trafficked. Underage prostitutes in this country deserve the same interventions and safe space to heal that young victims of sex trafficking abroad are deemed entitled to. Nor do very young girls belong in the juvenile justice system because they ran away from abusive homes. We advise victims of domestic violence to flee from their batterers, and that’s exactly what these girls have done. They deserve safe havens and trauma-responsive programs, not punishment, for their courage to leave.
Since 2003 the Rebecca Project has worked to shine a light on women and girls at America’s margins. We have single-handedly increased federal funding for family-based substance abuse treatment 16-fold. We have helped pass major legislation in Congress on prison re-entry programs and child welfare reform. We ended the draconian practice of shackling mothers during childbirth in all federal correctional facilities.
But there is still so much to be done. The pipeline that channels vulnerable young girls from cradle to sexual abuse to prison must be completely dismantled. The mass incarceration of mothers for nonviolent, drug-related offenses must be stopped—and replaced with access to family treatment programs. And we must all agree that even the most marginalized women and girls are too sacred to be left to die under a hot Arizona sun.
Malika Saada Saar is the founder and executive director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a national legal and policy organization that advocates for justice, dignity, and reform for vulnerable families.