Women in prison in Florida get some needed attention

Between 1980 and 2016, the number of incarcerated women in the United States grew by 700 percent.
Between 1980 and 2016, the number of incarcerated women in the United States grew by 700 percent. Getty Images

Florida legislators, no matter their party — and no matter their gender — have shown a heartening amount of empathy for incarcerated women on an issue that affects them, uniquely.

On Monday, the state Senate Criminal Justice Committee unanimously approve the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act. The legislation would guarantee that women behind bars have free and unlimited access to hygiene products.

It’s not an issue that makes the front pages. However, prison beatings — and murders — sexual assaults and bribery are not the only indignities to which prisoners are subjected. Finding their voices in the era of #MeToo, advocates say that women in jail, prison, holding facilities and even juvenile detention, depend on the whims of prison guards who might withhold sanitary items, giving them a few tissues instead — or nothing at all. Often, the women are forced to buy such basic necessities in the prison store.

The Act would also prohibit male corrections officers from performing strip and cavity searches on women. It’s already a Department of Corrections rule. However, it’s not a law and, advocates say, it’s not enforced.

It shouldn’t take a law to force corrections employees and the administrators who should be holding them accountable to perform their jobs, however stressful and difficult, with a modicum of human decency. Since that seems to be the case, however, lawmakers in subsequent review committees should move this proposal on to the full Legislature where, it is hoped, it would be unanimously approved. This should not still be an issue.

Hopefully, it is just one step toward the criminal justice reforms that in Florida, and across the country, have gotten the attention of lawmakers, law enforcement officials and even President Trump.

In his Feb. 5 State of the Union address, for instance, Trump drew lawmakers’ bipartisan applause when he mentioned the First Step Act, approved by Congress in December. The legislation, among other things, lets judges diverge from unyielding minimum mandatory sentences and allows those imprisoned for non-violent crimes to qualify for early release.

It is long overdue recognition of the costs — human and financial — of blind, mass incarceration in this country.

In Florida, the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, too, is considered a “first step.”

“Florida banned shackling women who are giving birth in prison in 2012,” Valencia Gunder told the Editorial Board on Tuesday. But as recently as last year, it still was a common — and inhumane — practice, Gunder said.

Gunder, of Miami, leads Dignity Florida. She was jailed in 2010 for writing a bad check, and she is using her own jail experiences to draw out the stories of women across the state in order to push for more changes.

“The prison reform conversation is male-dominated,” something Gunder says she understands. “But in the last decade, the incarceration of women has increased 700 percent [between 1980 and 2016]. We need to know who is looking into their safety. The conversation is not inclusive of women.”

Gunder is not the only South Floridian taking the lead in this effort. State Sen. Jason Pizzo filed the Dignity legislation in his chamber. Broward state Rep. Shevrin Jones — along with Rep. Amy Mercado, of Orange County — filed the House version.

Theirs is a progressive first step that the entire Legislature should support when its session begins next month.