International Women’s Day Event: Gender in the Justice SystemInternational Women’s Day Event: Gender in the Justice System

As the state of the U.S. educational system is scrutinized and debated, effective parenting is cited as a necessary element in student success. Yet this year, thousands of mothers in the United States will not have the option of waiting for their children at the bus stop. They won’t attend open houses, and they will not check in nightly to ensure their sons and daughters are doing their homework — because they are incarcerated.

The 14th Annual International Women’s Day Breakfast at Simmons College examined the treatment of female criminal offenders and their families in a discussion titled Unequal Treatment Under the Law: Women in the Criminal Justice System. The topic prompts the following question: Should the policies of the criminal justice system be shaped by the gender of inmates? Certainly, time in prison restricts the rights of male offenders, but does a prison sentence present unique difficulty to women and their children?

Erika Kates, a featured panelist at the event and a researcher at Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW), explained that compared with male offenders, “Women face different challenges and women of color are disproportionately represented throughout the US and in every other country.” According to a report by WCW, 84% of women’s offenses are non-violent, yet female offenders are more likely to be held far from their communities as they await trial.” In addition, they have higher rates of mental health issues and histories of sexual and physical abuse than their male counterparts.

The unequal treatment of female prisoners has implications for children as well. The WCW report states, “When women are arrested their children are automatically displaced, unlike the children of male prisoners who typically remain with their primary caregiver.” Kates explained that some inmates are even required to give birth in shackles. The system could be improved, she stated, by providing better visitation rights between inmates and their children, and by seeking alternatives to imprisonment.

Another panelist who spoke at the Women’s Day breakfast, Dawn Coleman, is a former participant of the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars Program. The program is significant in that it provides guidance to mothers and children affected by incarceration. According to the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars website, “Parents and their daughters take an active leadership role in the planning and implementation of Girl Scout program activities and also participate in facilitated discussions about family life, conflict resolution, and the prevention of violence and drug abuse.” Thus, the program addresses the causes of women’s offenses, and begins the healing process for their families.

While the majority of the U.S. prison population is male, the annual rate of increase for women is twice that of men, according to the WCW report. As this problem grows, it is necessary to reevaluate how healthcare, childcare and legal counsel are provided to female prisoners. In celebration of International Women’s Day, it is important to recognize that progress through the feminist movement has been made by giving a voice to disenfranchised members of society. The stigma carried by those who have broken the law is hard to shed, but it is in the interest of society as a whole to fight for better treatment of female prisoners. In their own right, and as caretakers of the children who will shape the future, women deserve equal treatment under the law.

Other panelists at the International Women’s Day Breakfast included Representative Kay Khan of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Sheriff Andrea J. Cabral of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department.

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