Kamala Harris speaks at the Women Unshackled conference at Washington, D.C. Peak Johnson/Billy Penn

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Women in prison have it hard. Often harder than men. And as the number of incarcerated women has grown in Philadelphia, lessons learned from last week’s Women Unshackled conference in Washington, D.C. can provide insight into some of the issues within the prison system, as lawmakers and advocates continue to search for solutions.

Featuring national political voices like Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), the conference brought together more than 600 advocates, students, politicians and former inmates to focus on the challenges that incarcerated women face every day.

It wasn’t all Democrats on the agenda; Republican Congresspeople Mia Love (R-UT) and Doug Collins (R-GA) attended as well. As Rep. Collins remarked, these days it’s hard to get both sides of the aisle to agree on the color of the sky. But criminal justice reform has long been an issue in which Republicans and Democrats can find common ground, as fewer people behind bars means the government is spending less money to put and keep them there.

Many acknowledged, however, that their focus is often on men. More than 85 percent of those incarcerated in the U.S. are male, but over the past two decades, there’s been a 744 percent growth in female incarceration rate — almost double that of men, according to the executive director of the Justice Action Network, Holly Harris. One in five is pregnant or was pregnant at the time of arrest.

The problem is acute for Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC), there are about 2,500 female inmates in the system. As of last month there were 376 females whose committing county is Philadelphia.

Just last year, 46 women who were pregnant entered the DOC. So here are six important takeaways from the conference, and what some of them could mean for PA and Philly:

Staying connected is really hard, and families suffer

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Miyoshi Benton, a former inmate and now a communications student and an associate at the nonprofit Women & Justice Project, talked about how, while in prison, she was paid around nine cents per hour for her work. Sometimes she had to choose between buying stamps, sanitary napkins or calling home. A five minute call, at that time, she said, cost $25.

State and federal prisoners are housed an average of 100 miles from their homes. When children and loved ones are able to visit, they are often prohibited from touching each other. In some facilities, if a child crawls onto her mother’s lap during a visit, the women is subject to a demerit.

According to Sen. Kamala Harris, studies have shown that when a mother is incarcerated there is an average two-thirds decline in the total family income. Having a parent in prison, particularly a mom, makes a child more likely to end up in prison later in life. Eighty percent of current U.S. prisoners have had some experience with child services or the foster system.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, there are approximately 65 percent of Pennsylvania state prison inmates who have at least one child. There are 5,349 children in PA who specifically have a mother incarcerated.

Phone calls for inmates in PA prisons are .93 cents for 15 minutes. Inmates can also buy tablets on which they can send and receive emails. Visiting rules vary from correctional facility to facility.  PA has a virtual visitation program that is used as a way for family members and prisoners to connect. Working with Scotland Yard, the state DOC negotiated a six-month extension [from July to December] to ensure that there is no disruption in inmate-family communication.

With parents in prison, you grow up fast

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From the same session, a young woman in her early 20s was invited on stage to speak and discussed how she was only two years old when both of her parents were given life sentences. She added that though she was young, she had to become an adult rather quickly.

The woman’s grandparents raised her and, wanting to shield her from an uncomfortable truth, told her that her parents worked for the government but that she could not speak to them because they were on a secret mission at an undisclosed location. She only found out the truth by way of the children at school teasing her. That bullying made her act out in school and when the principal asked why she was misbehaving, she replied that she wanted to get arrested and sent to jail to be with her parents. “I wanted to get locked up,” she said. She also recalls feeling worthless — because if the system didn’t take her well-being into account when sentencing her parents, then what value does she have in this world?

Eventually she got her life back on track, and now at age 20 is studying chemistry at the University of Virginia. She said, “I’m the exception to the rule. When your parents are in prison there’s an expectation that you’re supposed to be there too.”

Per a spokesperson from the PA DOC, there are roughly 22,000 children in Philadelphia with at least one parent in prison.

Some women are shackled during childbirth

Benton told of how she was two months pregnant at the time of her arrest, explaining how it felt to be ripped away from her other young child.

Seven months later she gave birth to her daughter — while shackled. Her baby was taken from her almost immediately after birth. After sending her home, with her son already behind, Benton said that it was the worst day of her life.

Years later, upon her release, Miyoshi went on to spearhead a movement that led to the passing of the most progressive law relating to the treatment of pregnant prisoners.  Pennsylvania passed a law just a few years ago that stopped the shackling of pregnant inmates after their second trimester and during labor. Thanks in part to a group of advocates and legislators, the Healthy Birth for Incarcerated Women Act, became law.

Pennsylvania is one of 21 states that have anti-shackling laws. However, there are still eight states where women are shackled while giving birth.

Oklahoma has mental health courts

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Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin discussed her state’s drug and mental health courts that places people away from prison and into treatment. By reducing prison stays, she said, some states also have reduced the crime rate.

Some states include Texas, Georgia, South Dakota, Utah and Kentucky. The Stepping Up Initiative is a collaborative led by the Council of State Governments (CSG), the Justice Center with support from PA’s Departments of Corrections and Human Services. The focus is to gather data on how people with mental illness interact with the criminal justice system.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported back in April that Philadelphia is not currently part of the Stepping Up Initiative.

With the help of others, Senator Cory Booker developed a new bill

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“How could this nation that professes freedom and liberty be the incarcerating capitol of the globe, incarcerating more people than any nation has done in human history?” Booker asked of the crowd. “How can we have that shame?”

Booker was invited to speak, in part, because of his recent Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, co sponsored by Senators Elizabeth Warren, Richard Durbin, and Harris. The bill was introduced on July 11, read twice and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.

Here’s a brief summary of a few things that the measure, called Dignity for Incarcerated Women, would do:


  • Require the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to consider location of kids when placing incarcerated persons in prison facilities.
  • Require BOP to create better visitation policies for primary caretaker parents.


  • Prohibit the solitary confinement of pregnant women.
  • Ban the shackling of pregnant women.


  • Require BOP to provide parenting classes to primary caretaker parents.
  • Mandate BOP provide trauma informed care to individuals who are primary caretaker parents and train correctional officers on how to handle victims of trauma.
  • Allow returning citizens to mentor current incarcerated people and assist with reentry.

It’s all about the trauma

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In order to adhere to the needs of incarcerated women, the prison system needs more trauma-based care. Elizabeth Swavola from the Vera Institute said “once women become involved in the system, it’s incredibly destabilizing.” Policies that appear gender neutral can actually disadvantage women to a greater extent than men, such as the use of cash bail, extensive fines and fees.

Last year, Philadelphia received a $3.5 million MacArthur grant to develop a plan to reduce the city’s prison population. One of the objectives of the grant is to assist the city with looking at different alternatives to cash bail.

Swavola added that almost “90 percent of women in jail have experienced sexual violence, many have experienced domestic violence and experienced violence as children.” Being in jail and being supervised by male officers, being shackled and being searched can really trigger a lot of that trauma. And as you get further into the system, women are not supported in being successful.

Programs are often not designed for women, but are designed for men, Swavola said.  That can be often difficult for women to navigate and they are often left alone to figure out how to work through their criminal justice responsibilities, as well as other social services.