Earlier this summer, a stomach-churning plumbing catastrophe straight out of “Orange Is the New Black” occurred in all-too-real-life when a leaky pipe sent sewer water into the living spaces at Logan Correctional Center, where most of the state’s incarcerated women are housed.
The plumbing was fixed in less than a day, an Illinois Department of Corrections spokesperson said. Yet, advocates for the women said they were sloshing around in sewer water for days before prison staff moved them back to their regular living spaces, which inmates said still smelled like sewage.
In this case the seemingly routine maintenance issue led to a hunger strike by three of the 49 women who were temporarily relocated to a space that state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat, described as uninhabitable.
Like the Netflix drama, real-life problems such as Logan’s plumbing illustrate the many ways in which the special problems of female inmates are not only episodic but systemic.
Logan Correctional Center in downstate Lincoln has fallen into physical disrepair, among other problems, since its hasty conversion from an aging facility for about 1,500 men in 2013 into a facility for about 2,000 women, including hundreds with mental health problems.
Yet one cannot easily separate the physical disrepair from the social and mental breakdowns that female inmates too often face, as is illustrated in past scandals of strip searches conducted within view of male staff, a practice that has been subject of hotly contested lawsuits.
So far, the courts have ruled in favor of women’s privacy rights in similar cases, although it has yet to reach the Supreme Court.
The state’s women’s prison population soared between 1980 and 2014, according to the IDOC, even when the male population’s growth began to level off in the 1990s. The growth in admissions to women’s prisons caused “untold levels of harm that have ripped through the lives of women, their children and generations of families,” the report stated.
Is that growth necessary? The task force reports new data showing nearly 68,000 court admissions to state women’s prisons in the last three decades, of which over 86% were convicted of nonviolent offenses.
The task force also found an estimated 98% had histories of gender-based violence or other forms of abuse and over 80% are mothers. The task force calls for a new approach: Take the same tools that are used to respond to a “crisis-driven” public health threat and apply them to the mass incarceration of women, which the task force also views, not inappropriately, as a public health threat.
Its new report, titled “Redefining the Narrative,” offers an impressive list of some 250 recommendations for policy changes that, in keeping with the report’s title, rethinks dangerous myths about women who have so few options that they end up in prison. Those include such myths as “Why doesn’t she just leave?” which ignores the realities of women trapped in abusive relationships.
The group’s goal: Reduce the state’s women’s prison population by half.
Overly ambitious? Indeed, the politics of such a goal sound daunting, particularly in these times of surging crime rates in Chicago and other big cities. But the organization does not aim to simply throw open the jailhouse doors for dangerous criminals. They aim instead to restore reasonable ideas of redemption and rehabilitation.
Researchers from Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy, and Practice worked with task force members to create a detailed breakdown of how many women would be freed today under suggested changes to sentencing laws and classifications.
Among its many other recommendations, the report calls for:
— A prison ombudsman position to investigate allegations of staff sexual assaults on inmates.
— Community-based programs instead of large prison facilities.
— Post-release housing programs that are organized and run by formerly incarcerated women.
— An end to the price-gouging that forces inmates to pay outlandish fees for necessities such as tampons, family phone calls or monthly email access.
The idea of slashing the women’s prison population by 50% or more and investing in job training, family support and women’s health — mental and physical — may seem like an unattainable goal. But, given the new realities taking shape on the incarceration front, it may not be as unreachable as it might, at first, appear to be.