Understanding the Needs of Women in the Justice System

Alexander encouraged the community to help bring women to the forefront of the justice movement by recognizing their unique and often invisible struggles. For example, one problem facing women is how incarcerated mothers experience stigma differently than fathers. Incarcerated mothers are thought to be careless and negligent, and this affects society’s perception of their families. Earlier this year, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said, “We know that when we incarcerate a woman we often are truly incarcerating a family, in terms of the far reaching effect on her children, her community and her entire family network.”

Additionally, nearly 60 percent of women in state prisons across the country have a history of physical or sexual abuse, and entering the justice system often leads to re-victimization. Vera’s report on women and jails explored the many ways in which incarceration traumatizes women, leading to a cycle of trauma for survivors who end up in the system. Returning to society may also be more difficult for women who have experienced abuse before and during prison, as reentry often focuses on the needs of men.  Until now, however, there’s been little discussion on the specific kind of emotional support necessary for women.

Thanks to popular media like Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay’s 13TH, mass incarceration has become a topic of national conversation—but even those critical works fail to recognize the experiences of justice-involved women. Efforts like Alexander’s panel discussion and the DOJ’s new initiatives demonstrate a necessary shift forward so that women can finally be freed from the margins of the conversation and the nation can focus on justice reform for everyone.