Editor’s Note: Van Jones is the host of “The Van Jones Show” on CNN. Tune in at 8 p.m. ET Sunday to watch the next episode with special guests Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay. Jones is the co-founder of #cut50, a national bipartisan criminal justice initiative of the Dream Corps, where Topeka K. Sam also serves as director of the Dignity Campaign. In addition, Topeka is the founder of Ladies of Hope Ministries, host of “Last Mile, Second Chances” on Sirius XM, and co-founder of Hope House NYC. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.
There is a powerful movement taking shape to stand up on behalf of some of our country’s most silenced and vulnerable women – the more than 200,000 women and girls who live behind bars in our prisons and jails. That movement has shown its strength from the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C. to the Arizona state Capitol in Phoenix, and beyond.
Last year, Senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts, Kamala Harris (D-California) and Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) partnered to introduce the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, a bill that would help address the inhumane and unjust conditions that incarcerated women face.
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That bill, which was drafted with the help of women who had spent time in prison themselves, spurred intense dialogue among federal lawmakers and advocates on and all across the country. But, most importantly, it gave women who have been incarcerated some hope.
Prior to the bill’s introduction, there was a bipartisan consensus emerging on criminal justice reform. But women were often being left out of the conversation, despite being the fastest-growing segment of our prison population – rising at a rate of more than 700% over the last three decades.
America’s prison and criminal justice system were designed for men. Behind prison walls, women are forced into solitary confinement, simply for being pregnant. When they give birth, they are often shackled and chained to their beds. Newborn babies are taken away from their mothers within a few hours of delivery.
Women are denied access to hygiene products that are needed during their menstrual cycles. And for women who are moms to young children, visitation can be too difficult or costly – because of long distances that families need to travel – to maintain close relationships with their families on a regular basis.
If you’ve never been incarcerated, or spent time listening to women who have been to prison, it might be difficult to understand why these issues present a moment of stark urgency to the moral conscience and character of our nation.
Thanks to the leadership of formerly incarcerated women and Sen. Booker, who stepped in – and up – to make sure that this is top priority, women across the country have begun to come forward to recount their often traumatic experiences of incarceration and to shed light on the conditions that women in prison face.
The testimony of formerly incarcerated women was on full display last week during #cut50’s national Day of Empathy, when formerly incarcerated women from Phoenix to Hot Springs, Arkansas, to New York City and in 25 other cities met with lawmakers, held rallies, hosted press conferences and shared their stories.
And change is starting to happen.
In Connecticut, Gov. Dannel Malloy announced a new bill that would make improvements to the lives of women in his state’s prisons, including banning the shackling of women during labor, providing feminine hygiene products at no cost and establishing child-friendly visitation policies.
The issue has also gained support from both sides of the aisle. The American Conservative Union Foundation for Criminal Justice Reform has worked to support reforms for incarcerated women in Georgia, Arizona and other states.
In Kentucky, the state Senate advanced a bill, lead by Republican state Sen. Julie Raque Adams, that would limit restraints during labor and delivery and create statewide standards for women in Kentucky’s jails. The bill will now go to the House to be voted on.
Change is coming quickly. Shortly after the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act was introduced, the Federal Bureau of Prisons issued a memo making tampons and pads available free of charge to all incarcerated women in federal prison.
Similarly, public pressure worked in Arizona. In the week following the introduction of HB 2222, a bill that would provide Arizona inmates with unlimited supply of feminine hygiene products, the Arizona Department of Corrections went from claiming they were “unaware” that the problem existed to changing its policy to provide women 36 free sanitary napkins per month – a significant increase from the 12 they used to be allotted.
These bills are making waves and they are driving change, which is urgently needed. But even though prison systems are changing policies, the actual experiences of incarcerated women show that when we leave implementation of these vital policies to change, women still suffer.
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According to a survey of women in federal prison taken months after the Federal Bureau of Prisons issued their policy change, several facilities had failed to adequately provide hygiene products.
Luckily, networks of currently and formerly incarcerated women are forming to hold prison systems accountable to leverage their voice and political pressure.
As HLN host S.E. Cupp said, “This isn’t a left or right issue, it’s a right and wrong issue.” It’s time for more lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to step up.