Our Managing Director of Justice Initiatives Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia spoke with Brandis Friedman on Chicago Tonight’s Black Voices segment about the rising rates of incarceration of women and the need for mental health supports within jails and prisons.

An increasing number of women are dying in U.S. jails.

In 2000, women accounted for about 10% of jail deaths. In 2018, that number grew to 16.1%, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Black women in particular are overrepresented in the nation’s jails and prisons. Six years ago this month, Chicago-area native Sandra Bland was found hanged in her Texas jail cell after a traffic stop led to her arrest. 

While the number of women in prisons is relatively small compared to the number of men, the rate of female incarceration has been on the rise. In 1980, 26,378 women were incarcerated nationwide, and in 2019 that number increased to 222,455, according to data from the Sentencing Project. That’s an increase of 743%.

However, policies and procedures in correctional institutions have not changed, said Nneka Jones Tapia, a psychologist and the managing director of justice initiatives for Chicago Beyond who served as warden at Cook County Jail between 2015 to 2018.

“Women are often overlooked when we talk about programs and treatment and access to health care within these systems because the number is relatively small compared to men,” Jones Tapia said. “Correctional systems as a whole are catastrophically dark places. They disconnect people from everything they know and love. They drain hope out of a person’s life and people — especially women, and especially Black women and women of color — are overly exposed to trauma within these systems like sexual violence and physical violence.”

More than 60% of women in prison have children under the age of 18, according to data from the Sentencing Project. Many are the sole caregivers for their children, Jones Tapia said, which adds another layer to the impact of the carceral system. 

Most women entering the carceral system bring at least one traumatic event with them, and the system exacerbates it, Jones Tapia said.

Willette Benford was incarcerated for over two decades and is now the decarceration organizer at LIVE FREE Illinois. She says the trauma of being in prison is unlike any other.

“Going inside with trauma just from being a Black woman in America,” Benford said. “Then going inside and being oppressed, because most prisons are in rural southern counties and predominantly white officers and male officers.”

Benford said officers could walk past their rooms and look through their doors while they got dressed or watch them use the toilet. Other trauma includes strip searches, which Benford said she experienced twice.

This is why mental wellness is a key part of the reentry process, said Celia Colón, the founder of Giving Others Dreams, which supports women after they leave prison.

“We support people, our people, unapologetically,” said Colón, who was herself formerly incarcerated. “We show up with no judgement, no disparities, giving them resources and tools, being their mentors their guides, but also giving them all the support that they need for their first month home, meaning we support the woman and their family because when somebody is incarcerated, the whole family is impacted. The whole family is hurting.”