How the New York Board of Correction Fails Women and Men

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In a May 17, 2007 letter to the editor of the New York Law Journal, important New York prison reform leaders criticized NYC’s Board of Correction for abdicating its responsiblity of independent oversight of  city jails.   Without public comment, the Board of Correction proposed new standards   “will dramatically reduce basic protections provided for over 30 years to men and women who have not been convicted of a crime, time tested policies which have made the jails safer for prisoners and for the correction staff who work there.”  

Authors Michael B. Mushlin  (at left), Professor of Law at Pace University, together with John Horan, David Lenefsky, Madeline deLone, John M. Brickman, and Clay Hiles,  all former leaders of the Correctional Association,  describe the impact of the new standards:  

Under these proposals, jails will be more dangerously crowded; phone calls to parents, children, and spouses will be monitored; and personal letters will be read without a warrant; contact visits with family members during the crucial and often devastating first 24 hours of incarceration will be eliminated; Spanish-language translation will no longer be required at all jails for participation in programs; and, most dangerously, inmates who need protection may be subject to 23-hour lock-in status under conditions of isolation that have been described as tantamount to torture and that are known to increase the risk of suicideMany of these new standards are proposed to match practices in other cities whose jails suffer from violence and chaos. In its search for the lowest common denominator, the Board of Correction is breaking faith with several generations of advocates and leaders who created and sustained the modern criminal justice reform movement in New York, a city that has historically distinguished itself by its concern for civil liberties and human rights.
Prison reform has not been  a traditional interest to many feminist scholars, but consider this information from the Correctional Association of New York’s “Women in Prison Fact Sheet” (citations omitted):  
  • As of January 2007, 2,859 women were incarcerated in New York’s prisons – 4.5% of the state’s total prison population of 63,215. An additional 26,600 were parole (about 3,100) and probation (roughly 23,500).
  • From 1973 to 2007, the number of women in New York’s prisons increased by 645%.  
  • Almost 69% of the state’s female inmates are women of color: about 47% are African American, roughly 22% are Latina, and 30% are Caucasian.
  • New York’s general public is 30% women of color and almost 69% Caucasian.
  • 84% of women sent to New York State prison in 2006 were convicted of non-violent offenses.
  • As of January 2007, 33% of New York’s female inmates were incarcerated for a drug offense. Almost 80% of women drug offenders were women of color

In  another report  (citations omitted), the Correctional Association highlights the particular health concerns of women in prison:

An important indicator of HIV risk for people with criminal justice histories is past trauma associated with poverty and sexual abuse.The vast majority of women in prison have experienced physical and sexual and most are from low-income communities.   Many of the circumstances that lead to women’s incarceration:poverty, physical, emotional, and sexual victimization, involvement in the sex trade, and drug use:are behaviors that also put them at risk for HIV infection.

In the NYLJ editorial, Mushlin et al. urge the Board of Correction to “rescind its proposed standards and start over.   Before it again proposes new standards, it should listen to the community, including prisoners’ families, human rights and prison advocacy organiations, the public at large, experts outside of the department it is mandated to oversee as well as the Department of Correction.”  

Prisoners’ rights are human rights are women’s rights.

-Bridget Crawford

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