Yet another woman gave birth alone in her jail cell in August 2023. Jail officials will likely claim she was behind bars to protect public safety or security, yet her safety and the safety of her baby were not protected. Instead, like thousands of other women, her safety was compromised in the name of security and expanded government authority.
Carceral spaces, from clandestine military jails operated by the United States abroad to state and federal prisons to locally operated jails, are worlds within themselves. While there may be differences in a person’s conviction status, a key characteristic in all carceral spaces is the ability to keep the interior secret by invoking security. However, as Professor Maryam Jamshidi has argued, the benefits and costs of security do not accrue equally. Secrecy does important work within this context – it is simultaneously a tool to enact security as well as a tool to mask (disproportionate) insecurity.
So it is no surprise that prisons, jails, and detention centers have historically (and currently) been sites of exploitation, medical experimentation, degradation, and torture – particularly for groups disfavored by society. While there are many reasons why carceral sites are continually sites of abuse, I have argued elsewhere that the lack of transparency is a potentially contributing factor.
Black and Latine Women/Femmes
What little we do know about conditions of confinement in the United States illustrates that the broad security that carceral facilities claim to provide externally does not necessarily extend to those confined internally, particularly for Black and Latine women and femmes.
Both Black and Latina women are incarcerated at higher rates than White women. While Black women are only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they are almost a third of the female prison population and almost half of the female jail population nationwide. And though data is more limited, sample studies indicate that transgender women, particularly Black and Latine, also have disproportionately high incarceration rates.
Carceral secrecy also hides the ways in which prisons, jails, and detention centers are both racialized and gendered, such that the distinct needs of incarcerated women of color are rarely prioritized. Racial bias and discrimination outside carceral spaces does not suddenly stop at the prison gate, nor do societal gender norms that regard women and femmes inferior. At the same time, as a structural matter, “prison systems and prison regimes have historically been designed for men – from the architecture of prisons, to security procedures, to facilities for healthcare, family contact, work and training.”
Take childbirth for instance. At least 37 states have passed laws prohibiting or limiting the use of restraints while an incarcerated woman is in active labor. Shackling women during birth, according to professional medical associations, is dangerous for the health of both the laboring patient and the child.
Despite these newly enacted laws, a 2017 survey of perinatal nurses found that 82 percent of nurses reported shackling some or all of the time for incarcerated women giving birth. The persistence of these practices is consistent with Professor Priscilla Ocen’s observation that the shackling of pregnant women is rooted in race and gender norms extending as far back as chattel slavery.
Beyond pregnancy-related healthcare, imprisoned women, by virtue of both physiology and experiences, have unique healthcare needs that jails and prisons are ill-equipped to address. Jails and prisons are constitutionally obligated to provide adequate healthcare for incarcerated people. Yet the healthcare services within carceral spaces are not designed for women. All too often, their distinct needs are overshadowed by their limited share of the facility’s population.
For example, women (including the incarcerated) have different healthcare needs, including prevention, diagnosis, and treatment for cervical and breast cancer and osteoporosis, than men. While generally applicable standards of care would dictate periodic and routine screenings for these conditions, incarcerated women report gaps in care and negative experiences in carceral healthcare.
The inability of carceral spaces to deliver sex and gender-appropriate healthcare creates a lasting effect. A recent study found that formerly incarcerated women of color carried greater health disadvantages than non-incarcerated women and all other formerly incarcerated men and women. Racism and sexism combine, according to the study authors, to produce long-lasting poor health outcomes for formerly incarcerated women of color, thus exacerbating existing inequalities.
Exposure to Violence
The conditions in prisons and jails also fail to recognize the fundamental dignity of women and femmes and often create (and exacerbate) trauma in women and femmes held captive. Incarcerated women are more likely to experience sexual assault. Women with prior histories of abuse, a common history for incarcerated women, have a “heightened risk of sexual assault during incarceration.” While the U.S. Congress passed a federal law designed to prevent and detect sexual assault behind bars (the “Prison Rape Elimination Act”) in 2003, a 2022 Senate investigation found persistent and continuing sexual assaults of women in two-thirds of federal prisons. Transwomen are particularly at risk for sexual assault, with one California study indicating 58.5 percent of the 315 study participants had experienced sexual assault during incarceration.
Race also plays a role in devaluing the claims of women of color who experience violence while incarcerated. One study of sexual assault violations in a state prison found that while differences in victimization of women by race were not statistically significant, race played a role in accountability. According to an article in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence by Gina Fedock et. al.:
Black women [were] less likely to have their report investigated [and] were less likely to receive a finding of “substantiated,” meaning that most of their allegations did not have sufficient evidence to support them or that prison staff chose not to properly investigate a disproportionate amount of reports made by Black women.
At the same time, the most recent federal data on sexual assault behind bars fails to distinguish allegations of sexual violence by race.
Solitary confinement is essentially a prison within a prison, highly regulated, isolated, and restricted housing. The conditions within solitary are severe. According to a report from the Vera Institute of Justice:
In the most-restrictive housing, people were held in their cells for at least 23 hours a day, with up to one hour of out-of-cell recreation, often held in a small caged area or a bare concrete space, sometimes with limited access to fresh air and direct sunlight. In some systems, barred indoor enclosures were used for recreation at times. Many cells were small, sparsely furnished, and lacked fresh air, and some had no windows or natural light. Opportunities for therapeutic programming or any form of productive activity were scarce.
These conditions also produce severe results. According to the Canadian Supreme Court, the harms of solitary confinement include “anxiety, withdrawal, hypersensitivity, cognitive dysfunction, hallucinations, loss of control, irritability, aggression, rage, paranoia, hopelessness, a sense of impending emotional breakdown, self-mutilation, and suicidal ideation and behaviour.” Citing the severity of harms, the extended duration of the harm after release, and the indeterminacy of the amount of time spent in solitary, the Canadian Supreme Court found that solitary confinement violates their constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
A 2018 study of solitary confinement in prisons in one large state highlights the differential rates for women by race. Placements in solitary confinement (for any reason) were highest among women of color (Black: 15.9 percent, Native American: 12.1 percent, Latina: 11.9 percent) compared to White women (8.3 percent). The most-cited reason for solitary confinement placement for all genders and races was “routine operations,” which includes “custody reclassification, lateral transfers, [and] inmate population adjustments.” Black women, however, were the largest share of the population placed in solitary housing for purposes of “security management” (5.5 percent), and White women represented the smallest share (2.1 percent). At the same time, there is no reliable data on the use of solitary confinement in jails, where Black women in particular are disproportionately incarcerated.
The harms of solitary confinement also accrue external to the carceral space, impacting an incarcerated woman’s community. In solitary confinement, communication and visitation are typically restricted. Thus, children of incarcerated parents are deprived of contact with their mother. And the harms of solitary do not magically end when a woman is placed back into general population housing or even when released from the facility. Instead, she carries that trauma with her, which may contribute to higher recidivism rates for people released directly from solitary back to community.
An intersectional approach by race and gender reveals that harm exposure is concentrated in Black and Latine communities through the hyper incarceration of racial minorities and women and the racialized and gendered spaces in which they are confined. Carceral secrecy enables these harms by hiding them from public view.
Reducing carceral secrecy will not end all carceral abuses against incarcerated women of color. As Kim Buchanan has argued in the context of sexual abuse, making the harms endured and the structures that facilitate those harms more visible can open conversations that shift “legal doctrine and social attitudes.” Disrupting carceral secrecy is one avenue towards embracing a broader and more just form of security.
More broadly, the vulnerabilities of Black and Latine incarcerated women and femmes within carceral spaces raises the question of who benefits from carceral conditions that facilitate violence, employ torturous methods, and fail to provide adequate healthcare.