Under the Jeff Sessions DOJ, federal prisons will continue to be under private control. The attorney general has also stated that he’d like federal prosecutors to hand down the harshest possible minimum sentences.

Facts such as these give little indication that the Trump administration hopes to reduce the United States’ swollen incarcerated population. 

A few senators, however, have decided that now is the time to do something to aid the nation’s imprisoned.

The Los Angeles Times reports that two very prominent prison reform bills are currently being readied for the Senate floor. One looks to make the nation’s current cash-for-bail system more socioeconomically equitable; the other hopes to give women prisoners access to health and reproductive care. 

You might think that women prisoners would already have access to that sort of thing; but as last year’s well-publicized death of a baby in a Wisconsin jail showed, the quality of care prisoners receive leaves a lot to be desired. 

A key architect of both bills is California freshman Senator Kamala Harris (D).

And this week, she’s been on a blitz promoting the bill that supports women prisoners.

A couple of weeks ago, Mother Jones tagged along with the senator on a trip to Chowchilla, California, whose Central California Women’s Facility is home to almost 3,000 imprisoned women.

Harris at the Central California Women’s Facility, Photo: Kristina Khokhobashvili

While there, Harris talked with prisoners about their lives, their families, what landed them in prison and what they hoped to do once they were released.

Harris told the magazine that she visited because, “I like to go to the scene. I like to go out there, I like to see it, I like to smell it, hear it, feel it so I can get an intuitive sense, as well as a theoretical or intellectual sense, of what’s going on.”

According to Harris, the women she met at Chowchilla informed the remarks she gave this week at the Justice Action Network’s summit on imprisoned women, called Women Unshackled.

“This facility,” Harris told attendees, “[Has] engaged in some innovative practices around mental health treatment and group therapy and training and giving people apprenticeships and teaching [prisoners] to be electricians, and … these women, sitting with them, many of whom had actually committed serious and violent offences, having gone through these innovative programs, had an incredible amount of optimism about themselves and their lives and what they would be when they got out.”

Seeing the optimism those services engendered was important, she said, because it led to her “understanding something that is an age-old concept that really transcends every religion. And it’s the concept of redemption.”

That there is a chance for redemption ought to be the point of prison, the senator suggested.

She noted that although she was once a prosecutor, and believes still that if “somebody commits a serious and violent offense, there is no question they need to be held accountable,” that at some point, “we will all make a mistake, and for some of us that mistake will rise to the level of being a crime … is it not the sign of a civil society that we allow people the space and the ability and the resources to earn their way back?”   

Prisons, specifically prisons in which women are housed, were described as the opposite of civil in Harris’ remarks.

She painted a grim picture of the reality women prisoners face. “Right now, there are women in prison facilities … that don’t support … basic hygiene or reproductive health … right now, there are women who are shackled while they are pregnant, and in some states, while they give birth. That’s wrong.”

Things aren’t much rosier for women who aren’t in need of medical care, Harris said. “Right now, there are incarcerated women subjected to the threat of sexual violence, when they are being supervised by male guards in the bathroom or shower.”

Lest anyone think that these issues affect only a small number of people, Harris reminded her audience of the population at stake, “Nearly one-third of all female prisoners in the world are right here in the United States.”

If that figure wasn’t staggering enough, Harris has another: “There are 215,000 women sitting in American jails and prisons right now.”

215,000. That’s more the populations of the world’s five smallest countries combined.

If current trends continue, that number will only continue to grow. A recent study by the Vera Institute found that the number of women incarcerated increased at a rate 14 times that of incarcerated men between 1970 and 2014.

Numbers can make populations seem faceless. And so Harris implored her audience to remember that there are “human costs to this system.”

Children, for instance, are forced to grow up without mothers. “80 percent of incarcerated women are mothers. Most, 65 percent, have children who are under 18 years old,” Harris said.

If 80 percent of prisoners are mothers, that means at least 172,000 children are currently motherless due to their moms being in jail.

And it’s not like every community has a jailhouse where these children can go visit their mothers any time they’d like.

“Half of the incarcerated women in our country are more than 100 miles away from their families,” Harris said, “So let’s talk about what that means in terms of the ability to maintain the relationships with visitation and be clear about this, these prisons aren’t on the Acela line. They’re not on a commuter line, so it’s not easy to get there.”

Sadly, calling can be just as expensive as visiting in person.

As we reported not long ago, due to byzantine prison telephone contracts, phone companies are able to charge exorbitant rates for calls. In some states, call rates can be as high as $14 per minute.

According to Harris’ research, “phone bills for a family can, during the life of the sentence … be as much as $30,000 for that family.”

That’s more than a lot of people make in a year.

On the topic of money, Harris stressed that “research shows us that incarceration of a head of household can result in a two-third decline in the assets of that household. So there are real economic costs, in addition to the human cost, associated with this issue.”

What does Harris think we ought to do in order lower these costs?

Rather than asking ourselves if we should be “soft on crime or tough on crime,” Harris said we need to ask, “Are we smart on crime?”

Part of being smart, Harris said, revolves around addressing the problem at its root.

She gave the example of an initiative she ran in California while she was the district attorney of San Francisco. After finding that 94 percent of her district’s under-25 homicide victims were high school dropouts, and learning that grade school truants are three to four times more likely to drop out of high school, she began to prosecute parents of truant children.

It worked. “We improved attendance rates by over 30 percent,” she said.

Harris wants that same preventative approach to be taken in adults.

“Let’s look at the fact that there is an issue around how much we are paying, and again this gets back to the economic cost, it costs us about $33,000 a year to lock somebody up, in California it costs about $75,000 a year. Drug treatment on average is about $4,700. So it just makes economic sense in addition to what it means in terms of dealing with prevention. It only costs $10,000 for community mental health services.”

Prevention, she argued can help not only save the life, but also to save the taxpayer. A win-win.

The final part of being smart, Harris said, returns to the idea of redemption. Of allowing those that have committed some sin against society to return rehabilitated.

The embrace of those three things — all of them buoyed by bills like the two she is currently sponsoring — can help us to embrace our greatness as Americans, Harris said.

In closing, she left her audience with one more question: “Isn’t it part of who we are as Americans that we believe in second chances?”