Each time she was booked into the Cumberland County jail, Leanne Taylor was strip searched and issued two orange, ill-fitting jumpsuits, a hand towel, blanket and sheet, and a pair of flip-flops.
“If you’re a woman and your bra has underwire, you can’t wear it; if your underwear isn’t white, you can’t have it,” said Taylor, who spent a decade in and out of the jail from the mid-1990s until 2004. “You’re basically naked with this orange jumpsuit on.”
For women, each day in county jails spent waiting for trial or serving a sentence includes moments of inequity simply because they are existing within an institution that was, historically, designed for and by men.
They struggle to get menstrual products, mental health and substance abuse help, and support for children on the outside.
As the rate of women going to jail increases across the country, administrators are working to provide programming and resources to meet their needs. But for women who spent time behind bars in South Jersey — where, experts say, the number of women entering jails has been bucking national trends since bail reform began — officials’ efforts aren’t enough.
Taylor, 43, of Galloway Township, who went to the Cumberland County jail for stints lasting days to months, had charges stemming from her addiction, she said. As her behavior got more erratic, compulsive and criminal in the pursuit of drugs, she picked up charges for drug and paraphernalia possession, theft and shoplifting.
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“We’re not credible sources of information, addicts and criminals,” Taylor said. “So they can basically treat us however they see fit, and they know whoever we tell that they aren’t going to believe us.”
From 1970 to 2014, the number of women in jail across the U.S. increased from fewer than 8,000 to almost 110,000, according to “Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” a 2016 study by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Safety and Justice Challenge. In 1970, almost three-quarters of counties didn’t have one woman in jail.
Data on average daily populations in jails in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties from 1970 do not exist, according to county officials’ responses to Open Public Records Act requests. However, when 2017 numbers are compared with those from 2009, Atlantic County has seen a decrease in both men and women, while The Cumberland County jail’s statistics for the average daily population of women were blank for 2009, but from 2010 to 2017, the number of women incarcerated was cut by half.
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David Kelsey, warden of the Atlantic County jail, said through a county spokeswoman there has been no significant rise in the number of women in the jail over the years. He said the jail has programs for both men and women, such as re-entry support, with some specifically targeted at pregnant, opioid-addicted women and women facing unplanned pregnancy.
Jail officials in Cape May and Cumberland counties did not respond to requests for comment.
Many women in jail are there for nonviolent drug and property crimes, said Nathan Link, assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University-Camden.
“If you’re going to crack down on things like drugs or petty crimes, that’s naturally going to lead to the arrest of more women,” said Link, referencing the war on drugs of the 1980s and zero-tolerance policies of the 1990s, saying there’s no perfect answer but lots of factors that contribute to more women in jail.
The state’s Bail Reform and Speedy Trial Act, enacted in 2017, is working to keep more low-risk women out of jail, Link said, directing the trend down while the number of women in many other county-run facilities across the country continues to rise.
Lydia Thornton, an inmate advocate, said that shift has occurred over the past several decades, equalizing how men and women are treated by law enforcement, but it’s had a “backfire effect” on mass incarceration.
“Forty years ago, I truly believe most of these women would have been cut loose because they had a family at home, because they had children,” Thornton said, speaking specifically about those with lower-level drug offenses. “There’s also the reality that the system no longer cares if they have children at home, if they’re a primary caretaker.”
Thornton, who spent time in jails in Mercer and Somerset counties before serving time at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Union Township, Hunterdon County, for a forgery conviction, said if a single mother goes to jail, children go into placement with a family member or the foster care system.
“Meanwhile, two things are happening,” Thornton said. “Your children are detached from you. And, if they’re in the system, or if a relative applies for any assistance, then the woman is being hit with child support.”
Charges accrue while the women are in jail, Thornton said, leaving them with an additional bill to pay the second they get out. Men deal with this issue, too, but it isn’t talked about as often with women, she added.
Then there are the day-to-day inequities women inmates have to deal with, like struggles to receive sanitary products during menstruation and ill-fitting uniforms.
Taylor said that, while she was in jail, sanitary napkins were available for purchase, but she knew many who couldn’t afford them, instead using part of their one-roll-per-week allotment of toilet paper.
And substance abuse help, like Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, wasn’t available to women in the jail either, Taylor said. Officials missed a good opportunity to reach out to women who needed help and provide them with resources, or at least information on how to get involved in those programs once they get out, she said.
“They did nothing to promote anyone getting better with anything in life. I think it’s important that people know that. When you go there, you’re really going to be in a cage, four women in a room,” Taylor said. “If I were to ever want to see something change there, for any woman, I would hope that they could have anything in place to help them help themselves, so they’re not caught up in a dance of in and out, in and out like I was.”