PICKNEYVILLE — In the last five years, Perry County has had a 1,000 percent increase in the number of women it sends to state prisons — the sharpest increase in the state. One group is trying to fix this.
Announced Wednesday, an all female, 100-person task force organized by the Women’s Justice Institute has pledged to take aim at the rising number of women being incarcerated — they plan to reduce that number by 50 percent over the next seven years.
In a news release announcing the task force, Deanne Benos, co-founder of the Women’s Justice Institute and a former state corrections official, addressed an alarming statistic about incarcerated women in the U.S.
“Women are the fastest-growing prison and jail population in the United States, and this effort is about uniting women to redefine narratives and confront these trends,” she said.
Benos said this trend is prevalent in Illinois, especially in the southern part of the state. She cited a Loyola University study conducted between 2012 and 2014, which said women were more likely to be arrested outside of Cook County than men. According to data provided by the WJI, the 1,000 percent spike in Perry County was an increase from one person in 2012 to 11 people in 2017. Numbers can be deceiving, though. Eleven may not seem like a big number on its own, but the community impact of even one woman going to prison is sizable, the group says.
“It’s very easy for a person to say it’s just one when they are not that person, the child of that person,” Alyssa Benedict, a Women’s Justice Institute cofounder and researcher said.
She said for every woman incarcerated, the circle of impact is wide, from dozens to hundreds affected.
“You can’t even look at that as one person,” she said.
Beth Cassity is a Perry County probation officer and supervises several other probation programs in other countries. She was asked to join the task force and said she sees the ripples of mothers going away to prison.
“It affects the kids, it affects the family, it affects the whole community,” she said.
The system can be self-feeding, Benedict said. She said when women are incarcerated it can have serious negative impacts on their children and, on a more basic level, are expensive to the taxpayer.
“When we incarcerate women we are incarcerating their families, their communities,” she said.
Benos and Benedict said the push for reducing women prison populations is not to diminish the suffering men endure with being locked up, but they said this focus has to do with the percentage of women who are the primary caregivers in their families, which increases the number of people affected.
Benedict broke the numbers down in an email to The Southern. She said nationally, more than 60 percent of women prisoners are parents and women prisoners are more likely than men to be the primary caregiver.
She said that according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, 77 percent of incarcerated women who lived with their children prior to imprisonment provided most of their daily care, compared to 26 percent of fathers — 88 percent of fathers surveyed identified the other parent as the primary caregiver compared to 37 percent of mothers.
According to the release, the task force is trying to meet their 50 percent goal through “prevention, diversion, recidivism reduction, disciplinary policy changes, and alternatives to incarceration.”
Benos and Benedict said in the first year they will be collecting as much data as possible and trying to break this down not only by gender, but also by county. Benos said numbers in Illinois often get skewed because of Cook County, but she said alarming rises in female incarcerations are happening across the state — she pointed to 46 total counties in the state.
Benos said when people talk about prison and inmate reform the discussion isn’t nuanced enough.
“A lot of people look for silver bullet solutions” she said. “We are all coming together because we recognize the solutions are not singular in nature.”
The representatives from WJI recognize they are not asking for anything small.
“We know that culture change is a huge part to this set of challenges,” Benos said.
Cassity said she hopes people in Southern Illinois will start to understand how complicated rehabilitation is.
“A shift in the community, hoping to get them to realize you know just sending people to prison is not the answer,” she said.
A big part of cutting women prison populations is understanding the cultural forces behind women going to prison in the first place.
Benos said 98 percent of the women in Illinois prisons have reported histories of sexual assault and domestic violence and 75 percent are diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
“It just tells us that there’s something we need to be doing better,” she said.
Part of the plan for the task force, after collecting data, is to help write legislation and regulations for prisons. Specifically they aim to change the way guards are trained to handle female inmates.
This means “treating women like women” according to Colette Payne, a task force co-chair. Payne also was a former inmate, serving time at Logan Correctional Center in the late '90s. She said a one-size-fits-all approach to discipline and inmate management just doesn’t work.
Pointing to the overwhelming statistics regarding abuse trauma among female inmates, Payne and Benedict said it is easy to revictimize women, which can lead to disruptive behavior.
“If you are a correctional officer and you are acting really aggressively, I can be triggered into looking at you as my abuser,” Payne said.
Benedict said that some disciplinary situations were created by staff in some cases. She said for example some strip searches, because of trauma, might trigger behavior that could be disciplined.
According to data provided by the WJI, this has led to huge numbers of disciplinary actions taken against women.
“Sanctions have ranged from disturbing numbers of days/years in segregation to longer prison stays (40,000 days were added to the prison stays of women at one facility each year from 2013 to 2015) to denied visits/phone calls with children,” according to the news release.
Benedict said this also means focusing on how transgender inmates are treated.
This is not to slam staff, though. It comes down to training. Benedict said one of the “most disturbing” things she has seen was that for guards transitioning from a men’s to a women’s facility, there was just a one-hour PowerPoint presentation for how to work with female inmates.
“The staff were so ill-prepared to work with the women,” she said, adding that this training did little to help the guards understand the unique behaviors of trauma victims. She said bad actions sometimes come out of a “(W)ell, I don’t know what else to do” mindset.
She said data has shown that the mental health of staff who are forced to interact with inmates in negative ways is impacted.
“Staff go home to their families very adversely impacted by the tools they are expected to use in the name of justice,” Benedict said.
Back-end solutions are good, but all interviewed for this report said this just treats symptoms without looking at the cause — helping women in prison is a positive, but preventing them from getting there in first place is even better.
"We have plenty of money to focus on incarceration, but we don’t spend it on the front end,” Benso said.
“There’s a confluence of factors that are unique to women,” Benos said, which need to be addressed.
This means looking at poverty, cycles of abuse, drug addiction — according to the WJI, women are more likely to be incarcerated because of “crimes of survival,” including drug and property crimes as well as crimes “committed in response to abusive and exploitative relationships.”
Payne said had she been given the help she needed living on Chicago’s southeast side, it could have prevented her from even entering the system.
“You have to take into account when you hear about crime it’s because people are living in poverty, people are desperate,” she said.
“They are going to do what they’ve got to do in order to survive and suffer the consequences later.”
Resources have to be there for people when they leave prison, too, the group says.
“It’s hard as hell if you don’t (have) the support to not try to survive,” Payne said.
Benedict and Benos said particularly in rural areas, something as simple as getting a ride or finding childcare can be the difference between following the conditions of parole or going back to prison. If a former inmate misses a meeting with her probation officer or drug treatment classes because she simply couldn’t get there or, in many women’s cases, was unable to find someone to watch her child, this can potentially lead them back into the system.
Big changes are needed to get the results the WJI task force are looking for, but it’s important to start because the numbers are sensitive to changes in policy — Benedict said shifts in laws but also in social epidemics such as meth and heroin use can send the numbers way up or way down.
“There’s something happening that can easily escalate,” she said.
To anyone looking to help, Payne said there is one thing she thinks should be kept in mind.
“Ask us what it is that we need in our communities,” she said. “Do not make decisions without us having input.”