BANSAL: Prisons need better gender-specific care

Opinions Column: Call for Change

While the prison systems in the United States are flawed in many ways, one of the most prevalent issues today is the treatment of women in prison. After a recent study in 2012 found that women made up only about 9 percent of the population of prisons, it was discovered that there are countless differences in the way correctional facilities treat their female inmates compared male prisoners. Because of the low proportion of female inmates in prisons, women tend not to get the specific attention they need. One major issue is the neglect of women’s physical and mental health.

While men are more prone to be incarcerated for violent offenses, women are most often incarcerated because of drug and alcohol abuse. Because 69 percent of women in jail are dependent on alcohol or another substance, they are more likely to develop mental health issues. Women in prison are more likely to harm themselves and fall into relapse cycles. Rehabilitation and support counseling are not available for these women and their needs are ultimately neglected and ignored.

Women with young children also suffer from mental health issues while in prison. Women who are separated from their children are susceptible to substantial stress, anxiety and a myriad of other psychological disorders. It’s shown that  73 percent of females in federal prisons have mental health problems, compared to the lower statistic of 55 percent for men. While both are problematically high percentages, there is a reason that women have a significantly higher number. Many women are pregnant when taken into custody and then give birth while serving their sentence. This results in the newborn babies being taken away from their mothers a few hours after birth. Most states mandate that new mothers in prison only receive 24 hours with their newborns after giving birth. One woman even reported that she was handcuffed and taken away 30 minutes after delivering her baby, unable to nurse her newborn or cope with the loss. Consequently, these women face higher levels of postpartum depression and major depressive episodes, as well as increased substance abuse. No one should be taken away from their families like this, especially not women who are sentenced for nonviolent offenses.

The physical health conditions for women in prisons are below par, to say the least. Although it’s impossible to list all the complications that correctional facilities go through with women’s care, we’ll start with the lack basic care for women's health. Because only 54 percent of prisoners are receiving prenatal care, correctional facilities neglect to supply basic care which works against a woman’s health, as well as that of the fetus.

Perhaps the most inhumane act of gendered neglect is that many prisons withhold feminine hygiene products for women who are menstruating. Being forced to share and ration only 10 sanitary pads among inmates is not only unsanitary and humiliating but completely inhumane. Sharing sanitary pads leave women susceptible to toxic shock syndrome in many cases, or other painful, irritating infections. The lack of sanitation is arguably a constitutional violation of human rights. In addition, a healthy prison system would require regular reproductive system screenings for all. The unfortunate truth is that too many women in prison develop breast or ovarian cancers that go undetected and spread quickly.

It should be apparent that women require certain special treatments that differ from men. Neglecting the gender-specific treatment that is required for women is neglecting basic human rights, which other countries successfully address. Norway, for example, provides places for female prisoners to stay with their children, as well alternatives to prison for pregnant women or new mothers. Because Norway focuses on rehabilitation, women in Scandinavian prisons are offered better sanitary conditions and larger shared spaces, which prevents the spread of disease and prevents tension between inmates. The United States has a flawed prison system that neglects women’s needs and violates several basic human rights. With proper widespread awareness, we can amend the conditions in which hundreds of thousands of women experience daily.

Priyanka Bansal is a Rutgers Business School first-year double majoring in business and journalism and media studies. Her column, “Call for Change,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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