The report DC Women in Prison, released on March 25 and published by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee and Covington & Burling LLC with former attorney general Eric Holder, perpetuated what the criminal justice reform movement does regarding women in prison: It made us an afterthought. Once again, the trusted experts failed to sufficiently include the lived experiences of the women caught in D.C.’s criminal justice system. As a result, they released an inaccurate and failed portrait of D.C. women in prison.
If the 150 lawyers assigned to this project had collaborated with the District’s incarcerated residents or the community-based providers who support this population, they would have been able to paint an accurate picture of what we women from D.C. who were or are incarcerated need.
Here is what the researchers would have found out about D.C. women in Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities and D.C.’s Central Treatment Facility had they collaborated with service providers and really listened to us.
Incarceration at CTF means we cannot properly clean ourselves. In the CTF receiving area, the bathroom rarely has toilet paper or soap. Many of the women are going through narcotics withdrawal, so there is vomit and fecal matter. I witnessed this in 2010 and 2014.
Correctional officers walk around the units with a personal spray to remind us of how badly we smell. And we do. Our hair is unkempt because we are given combs like the ones used on picture day at elementary schools. This makes no sense considering the majority of the women are black. This contributes to low self-esteem.
And, if our self-esteem wasn’t low enough, women at CTF routinely gain 25 to 75 pounds because they serve starchy, fattening meals. The running joke when a woman gains so much weight is that she is having a “tray baby.”
The FBOP isn’t much better. Women face many of the same barriers to cleanliness. For example, new underwear, bras and socks are issued only once a year at Hazelton Secure Female Facility. Hygiene products are not given out, so women who do not have the money to purchase their own must depend on the kindness of other inmates.
In Hazelton, the cells are built for two but house three and include a toilet and sink. The person on the bottom bunk is right next to the toilet. We would make curtains out of sheets and yarn for privacy, yet commanding officers would take down the curtains. Just as important, being locked in a cell with someone who dislikes you can lead to emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse.
Appropriate and consistent access to mental health treatment based upon Trauma Informed Care, Treatment and Approach is mandatory for females in prison and staff. While there is not a lack of information about it, there is a lack of action; this is a problem at CTF and Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities.
The report highlights the importance of visitation, but visitation is not the only way to maintain connections with family. Phone calls and letters are just as important. In fact, many of us did not want our families to see us smelly and unkempt at CTF. But phone calls and stamps are expensive.
And, this is just the beginning of what was my reality in prison. There are thousands of other D.C. women who are incarcerated or who have returned to the District who have experiences, insights and voices that need to be heard.
Holder agreed with me that there has been a lack of attention to women in prison in the national criminal justice reform movement. He said he intends to bring into the public dialogue the unique needs of women in prison, just as our president has done for men by visiting a male prison. I hope Holder follows through with his pledge.
The writer is a benefits specialist with Disability Rights D.C. at University Legal Services’ Jail and Prison Advocacy Project. The opinions here are her own.