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Board Chair Liz Simons Delivers Remarks on Women, Girls, and Mass Incarceration

Liz Simons, Chair of the Board of the Heising-Simons Foundation, delivered a slightly revised version of the following remarks at the Giving Pledge Virtual Learning Session “Shifting Power: Breaking Down Structural Barriers for Women”. The event was held on November 30, 2022.


Women, Girls, and Mass Incarceration

Like Melinda and the Pivotal team, I care deeply about the needs of working women and young children and our deeply undervalued early childcare workforce. We have seen how our underinvestment in childcare is a huge driver of poverty for women and their families.

But there’s also a world of suffering mostly hidden from view, a terrible world in which the lives of women and girls are interrupted, at enormous cost to themselves, their families, and communities.

I’m talking about the world of mass incarceration. The U.S. imprisons, jails, and surveilles far more people than any other country in the world, as well as far more women than any other, with more than a million women under the supervision of the criminal justice system, disproportionately women of color.

And while it’s true that men, disproportionately men of color, comprise the majority of incarcerated people, women are being incarcerated at a much higher rate. We’ve seen a 700 percent increase in female incarceration between 1979 and 2019.

Why is this happening?

There are many reasons, ranging from the fact that women are more likely than men to be incarcerated for sex work and drug or property offenses, and girls are more likely to be incarcerated for the lowest level offenses, such as truancy and curfew violations.

More than half of all youth incarcerated for running away are girls, and tragically they often have reasons for running; the vast majority of incarcerated women have experienced sexual assault or physical trauma before their incarceration. And it doesn’t necessarily end with their incarceration.

Women, especially women of color, are deeply affected by the bail system, as they tend to be poorer than men and less able to pay to get out of jail. And because 80 percent of incarcerated women are moms, many of them with young children, they’re especially likely to plead guilty (regardless of their guilt or innocence) so they can get out and care for them. So then they have a criminal record, and many are later hit with unaffordable fines and fees, which drive them further into poverty.

And now with the Dobbs Supreme Court decision, we’re seeing even greater criminalization of women and girls.

This cycle of incarceration, trauma, and poverty often begins early on and may cross multiple generations. I’ve seen it close up in my seven years of weekly volunteering for a writing program in a California Juvenile Hall, which I did in part in an effort to get proximate to people we’re seeking to lift up with our philanthropy. Also I used to be a teacher and love working with kids.

In Juvenile Hall I worked with girls and boys, but I got to know the girls better because so many of them used writing as therapy, describing horrors like seeing a brother shot, being raped, wondering if she’d ever again see her baby girl who had been put into foster care after the arrest.

Sometimes, they’d write stories of hope, of “bouncing back,” like one girl who was on the verge of being released and eager to finish high school and play basketball again. She was going to move in with her aunt, away from the “bad influences,” as she called them. We hugged goodbye. Two weeks later she was back. This time she didn’t talk to me, or anyone, but a staff member told me she had been “pimped out” by her boyfriend and caught with some marijuana in her pocket – so they brought her back to juvenile hall.

As if that were the best place for her to be.

These stories are heartbreaking, but with so many terrible problems in this world, why do I care so much about mass incarceration and its impact on women and girls?

Why should you care?

Well for one thing, we’re all paying for it and it’s staggeringly expensive. It costs the United States $80 billion a year to keep two million people behind bars, which, according to a piece in the Marshall Project, “is a gross underestimate because it leaves out myriad hidden costs that are often borne by prisoners and their loved ones, with women overwhelmingly shouldering the financial burden.”

This money could be spent on things we know make us safer and that allow us to thrive – education, parks, clean water, affordable housing, quality childcare…

When women are incarcerated, they leave a hole much bigger than themselves. They’re the caretakers in their communities, those “loved ones” shouldering the financial burdens for families, getting things done, holding things down.

When we criminalize girls for low level offenses and fail to address trauma they’ve suffered, we miss out on the opportunity to offer meaningful support that could change their futures, and instead may condemn them to involvement with the criminal legal system for the rest of their lives.

When I tell people that we support human rights at our foundation, they often assume we’re working in other countries. But our system of mass incarceration is a human rights crisis that is uniquely American, as my daughter, Caitlin, pointed out years ago, when she exhorted my husband and me to start doing something about it with the resources we have.

The more I learn, the harder it is to imagine a bigger self-inflicted wound.

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