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USA : mothers in prison

The women’s wing of the jail here exhales sadness. The inmates, wearing identical orange uniforms, ache as they undergo withdrawal from drugs, as they eye one another suspiciously, and as they while away the days stripped of freedom, dignity, privacy and, most painful of all, their children.

“She’s disappointed in me,” Janay Manning, 29, a drug offender shackled to a wall for an interview, said of her eldest daughter, a 13-year-old. And then she started crying, and we paused our interview.

Of all America’s various policy missteps in my lifetime, perhaps the most catastrophic was mass incarceration. It has had devastating consequences for families, and it costs the average American household $600 a year.

The United States has recently come to its senses and begun dialing back on the number of male prisoners. But we have continued to increase the number of women behind bars; two-thirds of women in state prisons are there for nonviolent offenses. America now incarcerates eight times as many women as in 1980, and only Thailand seems to imprison women at a higher rate.

And the situation may well worsen under the Trump administration; the president-elect’s nominee for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has in effect defended mass incarceration.

The global capital for female incarceration may be right here in Oklahoma, which incarcerates 142 out of every 100,000 women, about 10 times the rate of low-ranking states like Rhode Island and Massachusetts. I wouldn’t argue that mass female incarceration is worse than mass male incarceration — they’re both counterproductive — but the imprisonment of women has heartbreaking collateral damage, because women are disproportionately likely to be primary caregivers, and 60 percent of American women in state prisons have children under 18.

“There’s a devastating impact on the children,” said Amy Santee of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which supports an alternative to imprisonment for women. “They’re put in chaotic homes, they’re more likely to be sexually abused, they’re more likely to be imprisoned themselves.”

Research shows that prison routinely fails at helping women straighten out their lives — although it does mess up their children.

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