Something that we don’t think about enough are the people held behind bars in America. Our initial thought, and frankly, the most practical thought, is that they’ve done something bad, so they must go to jail. While that is true, as the old saying goes, “you do the crime, you do the time” we have to keep in mind, they’re human beings as much as you and I. Sure, they’ve made a big mistake, but haven’t we all in life? This isn’t to down play what they did. They still have to endure consequences, but the fact of the matter is, this shouldn’t be a “one size fits all” approach. Prisoners shouldn’t have to succumb to draconian practices of shackling during childbirth or withheld the necessities they need to function and live a healthy life. A lot of the time, we don’t care enough to think about how the prison and jail conditions are, whether or not they can have visitors, or have access to the daily necessities they need to function.

Why should we care?

Let’s think about the men and women that in most cases, pay more than they were sentenced for. Think about the families and loved ones that are involved. It’s not just the inmate that gets punished. Think about the money that goes down the drain that we as taxpayers pay for locking people up for years and years, when quite possibly in most cases, it’s not the best way to handle our money.

As conservatives, as libertarians, frankly, as human beings, we should care about those we put behind bars. We should care about how they’re being treated. We should be providing them with the tools to learn from their mistakes and become productive members of society once released. The truth is that 95% of inmates will one day be released from prison. It’s our job to make sure that prisons and jails are equipped to rehabilitate and correct, not solely punish.

It’s important to shed a light on both the women and men that face challenges during and after incarceration, but because of my passion for women’s issues and because we are “future female leaders” I wanted to focus this article on women.

Empowering women no matter where they are

Women are the fastest growing segment of our prison system. In the last 40 years, the rate has skyrocketed to an alarming 700%. Women often become involved with the justice system as a result of efforts to cope with life challenges such as poverty, unemployment, and significant physical or behavioral health struggles. Most are jailed for low-level, nonviolent offenses. One could roll their eyes and ask “Why would I care about someone who was addicted to drugs? Someone who made that choice to use?” Unfortunately, it’s not so black and white. I’ve heard testimonies from women that grew up addicted to drugs because her dad raped her as a young girl and he gave her heroin to numb the pain, or a teenager who smoked crack with her mom, because that’s the only time her mom cared to speak to her. Some of these stories we can’t comprehend, because of the atmosphere we were born in to, but that’s not to say it doesn’t happen more than we know.

When we think of prisons and jails, our thoughts usually ping to men, but women are put away too. As such, women’s needs are different than a man’s. Once incarcerated, women must grapple with systems designed primarily for men. As a result, many leave jail with diminished prospects for physical and behavioral health recovery, as well as greater parental stress and financial instability.

What if she comes in pregnant and giving birth in prison? Think it doesn’t happen? The national number for pregnant inmates giving birth is around 2,000 a year — and that’s just the number that we know of. Do you really think a male correctional officer understands the excruciating pain that the female inmate is going through? Presently, only 22 states and the District of Columbia have adopted some form of anti-shackling legislation and 6 states have absolutely no legislation on the issue. This is not the middle ages. The practice of shackling a pregnant woman carries with it the risk of injury to both her and the unborn child with restriction on circulation and fetal movement, as well as interference with medical evaluations and care. There are no documented attempts where a pregnant woman was unshackled and tried to escape while in labor or delivery. I truly believe it’s because we’re not as educated as we should be – we as taxpayers, the lawmakers, and the correctional officers.

Unlike incarcerated men, women in jails are often primary caregivers to their young children. Nearly 80% of women in jails are mothers, and most are single parents. For jailed women with children, separation is a major source of stress during incarceration. Typically, they face challenges just staying in touch as well as planning for reuniting when they are released. Because so many women in jail are single parents, their incarceration aggravates already strained finances and support systems. Research on women in prison has linked these parental stresses to incarcerated women’s misconduct and re-offending after release. Although visitation can help sustain the connection between an incarcerated mother and her children—and correlates with a decrease in violence and reduced recidivism—jails do not often have policies or programs that encourage visits. Limited jail visitation hours—often when children are at school and caregivers are working—and fees or surcharges for phone and video calls make contact between incarcerated mothers and their children difficult. During visits, the jail environment and the strictures on visits—typically through a glass partition—diminish the quality of contact.

What about feminine hygiene products? This is a hard topic to address because there’s divided beliefs in what should be done about this. Some believe that tampons and pads should be allotted to the inmates that have their period at no cost. Others believe that they should be provided at the commissary, or the prison store, for purchase. In Colorado, for example, it costs an incarcerated woman two weeks’ wages to buy a box of tampons; maybe more if there’s a shortage. Saving up for a $10 phone card would take almost two weeks for an incarcerated person working in a Pennsylvania prison. When some have the hard decision to make on whether to pay for phone calls home to their families or pay for products to meet their monthly needs, something needs to change. Prisons and jails give the “necessary” products to inmates. For instance, clothes, bed sheets, a mattress, and toilet paper are provided to all inmates. Therefore, because women go through things that men don’t, does that mean that feminine hygiene products aren’t a necessity to their wellbeing?

RELATED READ: I’m A Conservative For Criminal Justice Reform, Here’s Why

All inmates, men and women endure trauma in some form or another during their time in prison. However, when 86% of the female inmate population enter prisons and jails are already sexually assaulted and traumatized, there’s a mental health epidemic that is alive in our prison and jails. Like I said before, the correctional officers are mostly men. While not all men are predators, correctional officers do have power over the inmates. When female inmates are in showers, using the restrooms, in a state of undress that is when PTSD can kick in and re-traumatize a woman if she is subjected to verbalized harassment, or God forbid, sexual assault.

What can we do about it?

As Americans, as taxpaying citizens it’s not feasible to hone in on every county jail, state jail, or federal prison facility to make sure prisoners are treated fairly. However, we can help in multiple ways. We have people that represent us both in our state capitol and in our nation’s capital; don’t take that lightly. We have a huge voice that can make an impact, and difference, if we speak up to our officials whom we elected. If you’re trying to think of another way to help those behind bars, look into becoming a volunteer or mentor to some of these offenders. A lot of the times we look at inmates as criminals, rather than remember they’re people just like us. They each have a story of their own and a life they left behind. Helping those who in a lot of cases don’t have the ability to help themselves, not only influences their lives by seeing second chances happening, but also influences us – how we view those behind bars and also how we act towards them once they’ve re-entered society. We all have a part to play. Let’s not forget about those women who don’t have a voice.

Kaitlin O