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Naked Holding Cells and Debtor’s Prison: The Latest Injustices For Women in the Prison System

Naked Holding Cells and Debtor’s Prison: The Latest Injustices For Women in the Prison System

Does being poor mean being arrested? Does being arrested mean losing the right to basic dignity? These are the questions being asked this week as two astounding news stories surrounding our prison system come to light.

Prison has long been the place where petty, non-violent drug criminals are gathered, where those who need mental illness services are arrested and languish, where those seeking better lives but who make bad decisions are given extended sentences, and where women are sexually or physically assaulted at the drop of a hat. Many of these crimes — and these punishments — are disproportionately affecting women.

Now, we are moving further towards putting people in jail simply for being poor. We may not officially have debtor’s prisons yet, but every day we are getting a step closer. This week, the Associated Press reports that a Pennsylvania mother serving a two day jail sentence has died while still in prison. Her crime? Her children hadn’t always gone to school, and she had been fined $2000 in courts costs related to that fact.

This isn’t a rare occurrence, either, according to the news report. “More than 1,600 people have been jailed in Berks County alone —  two-thirds of them women — over truancy fines since 2000,” says the AP. The minimal fines grow over the years as mothers fail to be able to pay them, eventually snowballing into massive amounts that simply can’t be overcome for these women. In the case of the woman who died in prison, her paperwork showed, “a laundry list of court fees for one case alone: $8 for a ‘judicial computer project’, $60 for Berks County constables; $10 for postage. And she had been cited dozens of times over the years,” according to the AP.

There is a complete loss of human dignity that comes with the idea of jailing a woman over an inability to pay fines, much less fines composed in part out of what appears to be an attempt to punish her for not properly parenting her children. Loss of dignity in the prison system is becoming par for the course, however, and is even occurring the moment a woman steps into the building.

A woman in Kentucky is suing Floyd County Jail after officers allegedly stripped her naked and left her in a holding cell for hours. Tabitha Gentry is accusing the prison guards of stealing her clothing and pepper spraying her when she complained. She was then “paraded” through the jail naked to have her eyes washed out, then spent another five hours back in the holding cell while she waited for a prison jumpsuit.

“Now this is a woman, who under our system of law, is innocent until proven guilty. She’s charged and she’s charged with a misdemeanor crime that’s not a violent crime,” Laura Landenwich, Gentry’s attorney, told local news.

The jail’s response? This was completely standard procedure and they did nothing unusual. The sad thing is, that is probably true. Footage from the prison security cameras show that another person in the holding cell with Gentry was also naked, making it likely that this strip and leave naked for hours policy is one that the jail believes is just part of their every day operations.

Women have been seeing their rights and their dignity stripped away daily as it becomes harder to find a living wage job, to access birth control to prevent pregnancy, to get equal pay for our work, to be able to support and raise our families, especially when times get rough, and especially to get help when we do fall on hard times and end up in a cycle of poverty. Now, not only are we being housed in prisons for more and more petty crimes, but we are being stripped literally, no longer just figuratively.

Rich or poor, male or female, we have a right to basic dignity and we can no longer be content to look aside as it is stripped away.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock

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4:34AM PDT on Jul 4, 2014


7:20AM PDT on Jul 1, 2014

Fines for truancy is ludicrous. At least jail is understandable.
Understandable doesn't necessarily mean morally correct though.

7:16AM PDT on Jul 1, 2014

However, it's a different story if she simply "went down in the world" during her motherhood.
The main solution is encouraging responsible parenthood and welfare. If they provided welfare,she could get support for getting a job, and a free school for her child.

7:14AM PDT on Jul 1, 2014

It's irresponsible to have children when you can't afford to send them to school full time and look after them properly.

6:10PM PDT on Jun 22, 2014

The mess we are in has been formulating for many years mow. The rich think they have won....but I beg to differ. With the internet...we have been getting better educated about the workings of the rude rich. There are some rich people that are not rude. Since most of them are, I feel they need to go to a doctor and have their intense needs balance out. They do not need billions to live well. But people that have nothing could use some of all that money to live decently. And on much less money. Maybe if the ultra rich had made their money honestly...I could have a different opinion about them. But at this time...they are totally bums living off of the rest of the people, and thinking they are 'cool'.

2:27PM PDT on Jun 22, 2014

My first response is, "You've got to be kidding me!"

2:27PM PDT on Jun 22, 2014

Just from the headline alone...

12:55PM PDT on Jun 22, 2014

I thought debtor's prison belonged in a Dicken's novel like Little Dorrit but disproportionally jailing women for not having the means to pay court related fines is ludicrous. The woman who was fined for not sending her children to school probably lacked the means to do so- how is fining her and then putting her in jail going to help her and her children? The justice system needs to address the root of the problems such as female poverty not denigrate women even further with such humiliating punishments as nude incarceration.

9:34AM PDT on Jun 22, 2014

Unfortunately this is another example of man's inhumanity to man.

Our country is doing just what the 1 % wants, we are dehumaniziing each other and
fighting among ourselves and speaking Ill of one another. The disrespect shown to the President of the United States by citizens and elected officials alike is stunning and disgraceful and if we as a nation do not start to get our act together the future will not be bright nor that of our children and grandchildren.

6:48AM PDT on Jun 21, 2014


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