According to the Chicago Tribune, nearly 2,300 women are currently serving time in jail in Illinois. A new program led by a group of women hopes to cut that number in half.

“This is a first in the nation,” said former Illinois corrections official Deanne Benos. “One hundred women, all women, coming together to build and plan and cut the women’s prison population by 50 percent or more.”

Benos is leading the effort of about 100 all-female experts, former and current prison officials and formerly incarcerated women that hope to bring down the number of women at the Illinois Department of Corrections by 50 percent.

“I worked for the Department of Corrections,” Benos continued. “I’m doing this because I failed. As much power as I supposedly had, I felt like I was in molasses all the time I was fighting for women.”

Benos' partner is national prison reform expert Alyssa Benedict, a partner in the National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women. Benos and Benedict co-founded the task force in 2015 under Women’s Justice Institute.

Benedict wrote an assessment of Logan Correctional Center in 2014, which now serves as Illinois' main women's prison. The report found conditions for the women are horrible: 98 percent of the women imprisoned there have experienced physical abuse, 75 percent have experienced sexual abuse and 85 percent have suffered intimate partner and stalking abuse. 

“Prison is not where [these] women need to be,” said Benedict. “Even if prisons were highly functional places, they don’t belong there. It’s a train wreck, to be honest, a train wreck.

On Chicago Tonight, Benos explained that many women in Illinois prisons suffer from PTSD, and enter the penal system after traumas outside the system. According to Benos these traumas often manifest as behavior prisons deem problematic, and that as punishment incarcerated women often find their sentences extended.

According to David Olson, a Loyola University criminology professor, one possible solution for this problem would be to revamp Illinois law so that women with a history of having suffered abuse can petition the state for re-sentencing. Olson also believes that minimum sentencing laws need an overhaul.

Benos said that once women are released from prison, they often lack the support male prisoners have when released, as these women were usually the heads of their households before going behind bars. These women also tend to have children to take care of after being released. Eight out of ten of women currently incarcerated are mothers or a child's primary guardian. 

In order to help newly released female prisoners, Benos and her colleagues are also advocating for programming to help women stay out of prison once released; they also want to help the children of imprisoned women, believing that these children are in danger of enter the foster care-to-prison pipeline once their mothers are taken from them.

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