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.
Photo credit: Thinkstock
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