“I done witness so many deaths back here in this prison, it's just not right… I saw a lot of girls that was on lockdown having mental breakdowns. I saw a lot of women that came out of this place that was really physically broke…I had one guy tell me [that] I don't know what it feels like being a man being locked up, I say you don't know what it feels like being a woman.” – Dianne Jones
A Broken System
The conditions in prisons and jails often create (and exacerbate) trauma in women held captive. On average, a woman in Louisiana serves a sentence of 6.24 years[i] but the physical and mental effects of her imprisonment may last long after she completes her sentence. The U.S. Constitution requires jails and prisons to provide adequate healthcare,[ii] yet Louisiana spends the least of all 50 states on healthcare for incarcerated people, averaging $2173 per person in fiscal year 2015.[iii] Imprisoned women have distinct and unique healthcare needs that jails and prisons are ill-equipped to provide, from gynecological exams to mammograms to mental health treatment for prior trauma.[iv] In Louisiana, 70% of women serve their sentence in a jail, instead of a prison.[v] Jails are designed for short-term stays and therefore often don’t offer the specific and long-term services imprisoned women need.
Incarcerated women are also more likely to experience sexual assault and disciplinary punishment by prison or jail staff than men. Of all reports of staff sexual assault against people incarcerated, three-fourths were from imprisoned women.[vi] Women with prior histories of abuse (86% of incarcerated women) have a “heightened risk of sexual assault during incarceration.”[vii] Moreover, correctional practices and environments – such as full body searches and overcrowding - can re-victimize incarcerated women. Responses to these threats, real or perceived, may lead to disciplinary punishments for incarcerated women.[viii] A recent national study concluded that prison officials punish women more often and more harshly than men in prison for low level disciplinary violations.[ix]
In May 2018, at the urging of formerly incarcerated women included in this exhibition, Louisiana enacted the Dignity for Incarcerated Women’s Act, which provides hygiene/sanitary products free for imprisoned women and enacts portions of the Prisoner Rape Elimination Act’s guidelines on searches of women into Louisiana law.[x] Similarly, the newly created Louisiana Women’s Incarceration Task Force was drafted by formerly incarcerated women, and is composed of government officials and experienced community members including Syrita Steib-Martin who is the vice-chair. The Task Force will conduct a “comprehensive review of the state's criminal justice system as it relates to women.”[xi] The experiences and voices of formerly incarcerated women are enhancing transparency and are critical to improving conditions in these institutions. [xii]