(Senate - July 11, 2017)

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[Page S3922]
From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Publishing Office []


      By Mr. BOOKER (for himself, Ms. Warren, Mr. Durbin, and Ms. 
  S. 1524. A bill to improve the treatment of Federal prisoners who are 
primary caretaker parents, and for other purposes; to the Committee on 
the Judiciary.
  Mr. BOOKER. Madam President, I rise to introduce the Dignity for 
Incarcerated Women Act (Dignity Act), a critical criminal justice 
reform bill that would provide much needed reforms to address the 
unique needs women face in Federal prisons. This legislation helps shed 
light on the unique challenges women face behind bars, which seldom 
receive the attention they deserve in our criminal justice reform 
efforts. It is time we begin to remedy the barriers incarcerated women 
face, and that's what this bill would do. I thank Senators Warren, 
Durbin, and Harris for cosponsoring this bill, and I am proud to have 
their support.
  America is truly exceptional when it comes to incarceration. The 
United States has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of 
the globe's prison population. Since 1980, our Federal population has 
grown by nearly 800 percent.
  But let's look specifically at incarcerated women. Only 5 percent of 
the world's female population live in the United States, but nearly 30 
percent of the world's incarcerated women are in our Nation--twice the 
percentage of China and four times as much as Russia. Since 1978, the 
number of women incarcerated in State and Federal prisons in the United 
States has increased by 716 percent, twice the growth rate of men. 
America currently has 110,000 women behind bars, and women account for 
a larger proportion of the prison population than ever before in our 
Nation's history.
  The numbers of women in our Federal prisons has seen substantial 
growth. Although women represent a small percentage of Federal 
prisoners, the proportion of women in the Federal system rose from 12.1 
percent in fiscal year 2009 to 13.3 percent in fiscal year 2013. Based 
on the most recent Sentencing Commission data, 9,400 women were in 
Federal prisons as of fiscal year 2013. In 2013, more than two-thirds 
of women in Federal prison were behind bars due to nonviolent drug, 
fraud, or immigration crimes and over 70 percent of women in Federal 
prisons had little or no prior criminal history.
  An urgent need exists to address the unique challenges women face 
while behind bars. Women are often primary caretaker parents, meaning 
their incarceration impacts children. Incarcerated women face the 
unconscionable choice of either calling home to talk to their children 
or using commissary funds to buy sanitary napkins. Women in prison are 
frequently victims of trauma. According to data from Vera Institute of 
Justice, women in jails face high-levels of trauma: 86 percent 
experienced sexual violence, 77 percent report partner violence, and 60 
percent were survivors of caregiver violence. These troubling 
statistics deserve our attention.
  Today, I'm proud to introduce the Dignity Act, a comprehensive bill 
that would begin to remedy the unique challenges faced by women behind 
bars. The bill would require the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to 
consider the location of children when placing an incarcerated parent 
in a Federal prison, which helps alleviate the great distances children 
and other loved ones often have to travel to visit incarcerated 
  The bill would mandate the BOP create more generous and uniform 
visitation hours for primary caretaker parents to provide more easy 
access to loved ones while a woman is behind bars. We know family 
visitation is a critical part of a successful reentry strategy, so this 
commonsense provision would help maintain family contact when parents 
are behind bars. As a result, this provision makes it less likely that 
returning citizens commit crimes, which would enhance public safety.
  The Dignity Act would ban solitary confinement and shackling of 
pregnant women in Federal prison. Studies confirm serious psychological 
and physical harm are likely to occur when these harsh practices are 
used on pregnant women. It is time we ban the use of solitary and 
shackling on pregnant women and treat these women with the dignity and 
respect they deserve.
  The bill would also require the BOP to provide parenting classes to 
primary caretaker parents, provide trauma-informed care to victims of 
trauma, and allow returning citizens to mentor incarcerated people. It 
would mandate the BOP train correctional officers in how to identify 
trauma victims in prison. This bill would help ensure people behind 
bars receive the critical programming they need to prepare for reentry 
into society.
  The Dignity Act contains numerous other reforms. It would create an 
ombudsman at the Department of Justice to look into abuses associated 
with solitary confinement, prisoner transportation, strip searches, and 
other civil rights abuses. The bill would require the BOP to eliminate 
prison phone rates and mandate all prisons be equipped with video 
conferencing, which the bill ensures would be made available free of 
charge to incarcerated people. The legislation would require the BOP to 
make certain health products available for free, such as sanitary 
napkins, toothpaste, and ibuprofen.
  Other reforms in the bill would preclude correctional officers of the 
opposite gender of the incarcerated individual from conducting strip 
searches or entering a restroom of the opposite gender. The bill has a 
common-sense exception for when an incarcerated woman's health is in 
danger and for other exigent circumstances. The bill would require the 
BOP to allow primary caretaker parents access to the Residential Drug 
Abuse Program, a critical drug treatment program, even if they fail to 
admit to having a substance abuse disorder prior to their 
incarceration. Finally, the Dignity Act would require the BOP to create 
a pilot program for overnight visits for incarcerated parents and 
  The legislation has broad support from organizations like the 
National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and 
Girls, the ACLU, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, 
and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
  The Dignity Act would provide critical reforms to address challenges 
women behind bars face. Again, I thank Senators Warren, Durbin, and 
Harris for their leadership. I am proud to introduce this important 
criminal justice reform bill, and I urge my colleagues to support its 
speedy passage.