Nationally, women are the fastest growing prison population. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), there are now more than one million women nationwide behind bars or otherwise under judicial system control (such as through parole supervision). Since 1980, the rate of incarceration for women has increased by more than eight times—nearly twice as fast as for men.
Decarceration programs have had less than stellar results for men, but the shortfall for women is even greater, as these programs typically fail to address the unique needs of women and their families. Illinois aims to change this by creating gender-responsive safety net programs that keep women out of prison.
In 2018, the Women’s Justice Institute (WJI), an organization that advocates for women and girls impacted by the criminal legal system, convened a statewide coalition to develop a strategy to end the mass incarceration of women. Known as the Women’s Justice Task Force of Illinois, the group is comprised of impacted women, children and their families, scholars, social service providers, health professionals, judges, prosecutors, policymakers, academics, religious leaders, and more. The group aims to accomplish its goals both by disrupting false narratives and by re-evaluating state policies, practices, and procedures.
Now, with more than two years of research at hand, the Task Force has created a detailed, 250-page plan to directly address the needs of system-involved women. The report, entitled “Redefining the Narrative,” outlines three major goals:
- Cut the women’s prison population by at least 50 percent
- Reduce the harm caused by current policies and practices
- Improve health and well-being for women, their children, families, and communities
To meet these goals, ensuring impacted women were centered throughout the entire process was of utmost importance. The Task Force’s structure reflected this priority. For example, the Redefining Narrative Working Group consisted only of system-involved women. Through photography and writing workshops, group members were able to develop their own ideas and propose policy solutions. Members created content interspersed throughout the report, provided insight to guide the work of other working groups, and reviewed and approved the report’s final recommendations.
For some, the group’s goal of halving the number of women in Illinois’ prison may appear audacious. However, the Redefining Narrative Working Group asserts that their “vision is not one of reform; rather, it is one of transformation. We seek to create a bold, innovative system of justice for and with women. This requires that we dismantle justice system practices that harm women, children, families, and communities.”
Buttressing the case is the fact that COVID-19 illustrated that rapid decarceration is possible. To slow the spread of COVID-19, Illinois in 2020 paused prison admissions, issued commutations, and reduced the number of arrests, reducing the number of women in prison by over 37 percent.
The Task Force asserts that the number of women in prison could be cut by another 50 percent within seven years if COVID-19 emergency measures were expanded upon and made permanent. Along with many other strategies to accelerate and sustain decarceration efforts, the group suggests implementing alternative responder models that do not involve police, launching mass commutation initiatives to release survivors of gender-based violence, and expanding access to reentry housing.
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As outlined throughout the report, a holistic approach is required: indeed, many of the biggest levers of change exist outside of the prison system. Created by the Women’s Justice Institute, the Women’s Justice Pathways (WJP) model—see the illustrated graph below—identifies five fundamental rights and needs of women. These are: 1) supported families; 2) relationship safety; 3) health and wellbeing, 4) safe and sustainable housing; and 5) economic security and empowerment. When these five fundamental needs are met, women’s chances of social reintegration after incarceration—or avoiding prison in the first place—increase substantially.
All told, the coalition offers more than 50 recommendations. Fundamentally, as the group reiterates throughout the report, durable progress requires ongoing investment in community supports, such as housing, childcare, jobs, and healthcare. This is a marked shift from Illinois’ decades-long carceral approach that has not only been ineffective but strains an already cash-strapped budget. From 2010 to 2020, the Illinois Department of Corrections spent approximately $1.4 billion on women’s prison and parole costs. Even so, state prisons still face staffing shortages, increasing capital costs, and degrading infrastructure.
One common, yet false narrative that continues to drive incarceration is the belief that prison saves the lives of the incarcerated. However, in reality, prison rehabilitates few and harms many women. This can be seen in recidivism statistics. In Illinois, more than 25 percent of women return to prison within a three-year-period after their release due to either new offenses or technical parole violations. The cause of their return to prison is often connected to gender-based violence and a lack of needed social supports.
Prior to prison, many women faced significant harm. Research indicates that women are 50 percent more likely to experience multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) than men—and, as with men, exposure to trauma for women greatly increases the likelihood of incarceration. These harms often accelerate entry into the prison system as women frequently are incarcerated due to their attempts to resist gender-based violence. Upon entering prison, the violence that led them there is often reinforced with sexual and verbal abuse from prison staff.
In a first-person narrative for the report, Strawberry Hampton recounts the harm she endured before and while in prison. Hampton notes,
As a trans woman, I’ve always had to defend myself. I’ve had to deal with abuse and discrimination, not being able to get a job or go to school or do anything. When I defend myself, I am portrayed as the aggressor.
In prison, I got tickets that said I am the problem, when I am the one being abused. In prison, I was constantly harassed and discriminated against. I was held in solitary confinement for months. During that time, I became more depressed. I was self-mutilating and even attempted suicide. When I had a crisis call, I was put in segregation, and only saw a psychologist for five minutes a week. Segregation made me want to commit suicide. It was very traumatizing. They did not have to isolate me.
Imprisonment, the report finds, fails to address the core reasons why women end up in prison. For this reason, the coalition calls for significant investment in holistic solutions that directly address root issues driving incarceration—especially racism, gender-based violence, and poverty. To achieve this, the Task Force calls for the creation of a Women’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative (W-JRI). The core idea is to move public funding from carceral systems to women-centered services and interventions that avert incarceration in the first place.
To date, the Task Force’s research has already informed successful policy and practice throughout the state of Illinois, including new investments in legal services for survivors, the development of peer-led housing for women, and the enactment of two state laws that aim to reduce incarceration and the harm it causes to mothers, children, and families. With strong support from a broad state coalition and backing from the Pritzker administration, advocates hope to make significant improvements occur in Illinois women’s lives and to serve as a model for other states of what transformation can truly look like.