If you ask President Joe Biden, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) – passed as part of former President Bill Clinton's Crimes Act of 1994 and amendments to it were all approved the few years since – was a shameless asset that Americans single-handedly taught to endure domestic violence Seriously. This greatly overstates the case (as I have written at length). Indeed, VAWA's overreliance on law enforcement approaches and cop-centric solutions has crowded out less incarcerated alternatives to combat violence and caused problems for many victims.
“VAWA married anti-violence feminists to the violent state,” Northeastern Illinois University journalist Judith Levine and professor Erica R. Meiners wrote in their 2020 book The Feminist and the Sex Offender. The law “heavily relies on arrest and prosecution – in other words, criminalization, an option that does not serve many women.”
But in a surprising twist, VAWA's latest update actually deals with state violence against women. The Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act of 2022, introduced in the U.S. Senate last month, includes sections on improving conditions for women in federal custody and "closing the gap with the consent of the police".
Better treatment for female prisoners
The new VAWA proposes a wide range of reforms for women in federal custody, including better access to menstrual products and a pilot program so women who give birth in federal prison won't have their babies taken away.
To that latter end, the law would establish "a pilot program ... to enable women incarcerated in federal prisons and children born to such women during incarceration to live together while the inmate serves their sentence."
The bill would take several steps to address the needs of incarcerated parents and pregnant women. These include:
Creation of an office within the Bureau of Prisons to determine the placement of inmates who "if the inmate has children, would consider placing the inmate as close to the children as possible".
Prohibits federal prisons from placing pregnant or recently confiscated inmates in separate living units "unless the inmate poses an imminent risk of harm to the inmate or others" (and requires that such placement be "limited and temporary ").
Provide parenting classes and other resources for incarcerated people who are the primary concern of children.
Training of correctional officers and staff on “how to deal with children according to their age…basic information on child and adolescent development; and basic customer service skills.
Other provisions in this section address the particular health and hygiene needs of women prisoners, including a policy to "ensure that all prisoners have access to a gynecologist if necessary" and "to ensure that any prisoner who has need [menstrual] products, a certain amount is considered sufficient." (Inadequate provision of sanitary ware has been a major complaint of incarcerated women in the United States.)
The measure also addresses strange rules for visitors with periods. Some prisons have banned women wearing tampons or menstrual cups from visiting, saying they could be used for smuggling. The new VAWA would state "no visitor shall be barred from visiting a prisoner because of the visitor's use of sanitary products".
The bill would also address broader health and hygiene needs. It would train prison staff to recognize and respond to trauma and order that "basic hygiene products, including shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes and any other hygiene products the warden deems appropriate" be available to prisoners free of charge.
The female prison and jail population has exploded in recent decades. Of course, it would be better for Congress to address some of the root causes of this — like the war on drugs and the increasingly militant policing of prostitution — than to optimize experiments. people once they are incarcerated. Yet taking steps to ensure better treatment for those incarcerated in federal prisons is a good thing, as is the bill's mandate to