Mass Incarceration is a Women’s Issue, Too

November 3, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Over the last few years, our broken criminal justice system has become a national issue as horrific stories of victims of mass incarceration have made their way into the mainstream media.

The dominant narrative around this issue is usually that it disproportionately affects people of color, particularly men.

Many folks have heard of Kalief Browder, a New York teenager who took his own life after suffering nearly three years in solitary confinement, all for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was never tried.

Fewer people know Maria Elena Hernandez, a retired California housecleaner who was jailed after police rejected her (accurate) protests that they’d mistaken her for someone else.

Although women represent a small portion of it, they are currently the fastest growing segment of our prison population.

There are 219,000 women currently incarcerated in the United States. A new report by the Prison Policy Initiative and the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice found that “a staggering number” of them haven’t even been convicted. “More than a quarter of women who are behind bars have not yet had a trial,” they found.

Worse still, there are a number of public health and economic consequences for the conditions that women suffer in prison.

Firstly, many prisons and jails are ill equipped to support the health needs of women, including basic hygiene and reproductive health.

According to the ACLU, pregnant women who are incarcerated are still being shackled during childbirth. Shackling makes the already painful process of childbirth and postpartum recovery even worse.

The American Medical Association and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) have spoken out against this, deeming it medically unsafe. Yet there are at least eight states that have yet to propose legislation to ban this inhumane practice.

Secondly, incarcerating women also has long lasting economic effects, further exasperating the gender pay gap — and endangering children.

Pretrial detention disproportionately affects women because incarcerated women tend to have lower incomes them incarcerated men, making it even harder to afford cash bail. The Prison Policy Initiative found that the annual median income of women who cannot make bail is $11,071 — and “among those women, black women had a median annual income of only $9,083.”

Since 80 percent of women in jails are mothers and primary caretakers of their children, this can mean incredible hardship for their families.

Criminal justice reform groups are spreading awareness about this system’s devastating impact on women and families. And lawmakers in both major parties are starting to pay attention.

This past summer, Democratic senator Kamala Harris from California and Republican senator Rand Paul of Kentucky introduced the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act, a bill designed to empower states to replace the use of the cash bail system with something fairer. That wouldn’t just be better for families, they wrote in a New York Times op-ed — it could also save American taxpayers roughly $78 billion a year.

It’s important that we keep women at the center of criminal justice reform. As we continue to push for gender equity in this country, we cannot ignore the devastating effects that mass incarceration has on women and their families.

Jessicah Pierre is the inequality media specialist at the Institute for Policy Studies. Distributed by


Who’s Really in Charge of the Afghanistan War?

November 2, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

In June, our Tweety Bird president tweeted this message to members of the U.S. Army: “Proud to be your commander-in-chief.”

Actually, Trump is only the delegator-in-chief — he’s passed to subordinates a president’s most solemn duty of guiding our nation’s war policies, including what wars to be in.

For example, he’s turned the mess in Afghanistan over to the military brass, apparently hoping he can wash his hands of responsibility, then blame the generals if things go wrong.

Leaving specific battlefield tactics to military professionals is one thing. But deciding to expand a war is a presidential burden, as is the duty of fully explaining to the public why more war is warranted.

Just as he evaded military service during the Vietnam War, “Commander Trump” is shirking these basic presidential duties today. He’s letting non-elected generals decide to hurl another 4,000 of our men and women into the Afghanistan War, with no explanation of how adding these troops to a losing war effort will make any difference.

We’ve already spent 16 years, the lives of 2,304 American troops, and more than a trillion dollars on this war, so it’s especially maddening that Trump’s designated deciders have no new strategy for “winning,” won’t tell us how many more years and lives they intend for us to spend there, and can’t even explain why America is still in Afghanistan.

By refusing to make decisions himself, the waste of lives and money will continue, ironically turning the Afghan debacle into Trump’s War.

At last, though, a bipartisan group of House members, led by Republican Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, are saying “enough” — no more money to finance the Afghan political and military mess unless Trump, or whoever is in charge, can tell us why it’s worth more of America’s blood and treasure to be there.


OtherWords columnist Jim Hightower is a radio commentator, writer, and public speaker. He’s also the editor of the populist newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown. Distributed by


Make America Great, Like It Was — When?

December 17, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

The holiday season is a time for nostalgia. We watch It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story, engage in time-honored traditions, and even sing songs about sleighs and sleigh bells.

Honestly, when was the last time you rode in a sleigh?

I’ve eaten a roasted chestnut (purchased on the streets of Chicago, so I don’t know if there was an open fire involved in the roasting process), but I haven’t gone for a single sleigh ride in my whole life.

Donald Trump’s campaign slogan — “Make America Great Again” — plays on this idea of some imagined time in the past when things were better, simpler, than they are now. But The Donald isn’t the only one who evokes this mythical past.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats often wax poetic about the strong middle class of the era that followed World War II, or about the social safety net President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put in place before that.

And it’s true: America did accomplish great things in the past. But I fundamentally disagree that our better days are behind us.

This notion of a lost Norman Rockwell America is an illusion.

It’s easy to buy into this trope if you’re an older white man, because perhaps those really were your good old days. The post-war years in which America had a “strong middle class” were the days of a strong white middle class.

If you’re African American, looking back to the 1950s means looking back to the days of lynching, Jim Crow, and legalized discrimination. How can that inspire nostalgia?

In the South before the Civil Rights movement, it was open season on African Americans, with white terrorists lynching whomever they chose with impunity. And to secure the white racist vote for his New Deal programs, FDR excluded farm workers and domestic workers from basic wage and work protections. Back then, those segments of the labor force were largely black.

There were problems in the North too. Housing discrimination against blacks was federal policy — not just a simple, organic process of “white flight.” Policies like redlining systematically denied African Americans wealth, which still harms their families and communities today.

Nor was life peachy for women in this time.

This was the era that spurred the feminist Betty Friedan to write about “the problem that has no name.” She torpedoed the presumption that all American women ought to rejoice that their roles as cooks, house cleaners, and baby machines were now made easier with modern conveniences.

No doubt modern women are grateful they’re no longer expected to greet their husbands with a warm meal, a cocktail, and a come-hither look when they come home from a long day of work.

Trump’s “Make America Great Again” sloganeering — combined with his anti-Muslim, anti-black, and anti-Mexican rhetoric — makes it apparent that he and his followers don’t see the ugly parts of our nation’s past as problematic. But it’s wrong to whitewash history.

Surely, America isn’t perfect today. We haven’t solved our problems with racism (Donald Trump is Exhibit A) and women still earn less than men. We’ve also got the specters of mass shootings, terrorism, and the climate crisis to boot.

Yet the answer to our troubles isn’t returning to an imagined, better past. It’s finding our way to a more perfect future. As Bill Clinton said two decades ago, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”


OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.

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