Program Manager, Vera institute of Justice
An attorney and policy practitioner with a passion for ending mass incarceration, Elizabeth Swavola is a program manager at the Vera Institute of Justice, working toward data-driven policy reform around jail decarceration.
You’re an attorney, you’ve worked with women who have experienced violence and assisted people returning home from prison. What’s the focus of your work now?
I’m at the Vera Institute of Justice in the Center on Sentencing and Corrections. I work with local counties that are seeking ways to reduce the number of people in their local jails. A lot of the conversation around mass incarceration has focused on prisons, but what we know from the research is that while on any given day there are more people in prison than jail, jails admit almost 18 times more people annually than prisons do. Jails are really touching a lot more people in a year.
You published a study that takes a rare and detailed look at the state of women in the jail system. What were the big takeaways?
Even though we’re in this moment of reform and we’re starting to see the number of men in jails tick downward, the population of women continues to grow and is now the fastest-growing correctional population. Between 1970 and 2014, there was a 14-fold increase in the number of women in jails. That growth was even more dramatic in smaller counties with 250,000 people or fewer. The growth there was 31-fold. That suggests that reform efforts are not reaching women to the same extent that they’re reaching men.
Why do you think that’s the case?
As women move through the criminal justice process, they experience disadvantages at each step along the way. At prosecution, charging decisions often don’t take into account women’s backgrounds or the reasons why they’re coming into contact with the system. Then, things like pretrial supervision and community supervision post-conviction often don’t account for the realities of women’s lives. They don’t take into account that women may have child care needs or a full-time job and so meeting with a supervision officer can be really difficult.
Can you paint a picture of who these women are?
A lot of the data, especially at the national level, is quite old. What we were able to cobble together from both national and local data is that they tend to be women of color. And extremely financially marginalized. Nearly 80 percent of women in jail are mothers and many are single moms. Their incarceration has an outsize impact on their families and communities. Nearly 90 percent of women in jail report having experienced sexual violence. Many have experienced partner violence, caregiver violence, so when they come to jail, trauma may be triggered. Things like being held in solitary confinement, being shackled, being observed by a male officer when you’re using the restroom or changing can be extremely traumatizing and bring up a lot of that past trauma.
What are the most immediate steps that should be taken to get to the root of this crisis?
The next step is to figure out what exactly is driving this growth in the incarceration of women. Is it law enforcement policies? Is it prosecution? Is it the way we’re supervising people in the community? Then, we must move away from those practices that ensnare women in the legal system and invest instead in community-based solutions, led by the expertise of women with lived experience.
I work with many communities where most of the local budget goes to corrections. There’s not a lot left for education, treatment, and other services. We need to think about how we can stop using incarceration as the default method.
What drives you to do this work?
I think you can learn a lot about a society by how they treat their most vulnerable members. What really strikes me about the United States is how we continually push people down instead of lifting them up. I don’t want to live in a society that does that. I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to help lift each other up.
In a business community, if something wasn’t working you would fix it. But we seem to be stuck in this paradigm of “This is the way we’ve always done it,” and it’s not working. It’s breaking up families. It’s hurting individuals. It’s preventing communities from being healthy and safe. I think it’s time to shift, get back on track, and do a better job.
What does equality mean to you?
Equality means that all people have access to the same level of treatment, resources, and dignity regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, and other forms of identity. Regarding the legal system, I believe we must also focus on equity in order to repair the deep harm and disadvantages the system has caused, particularly to communities of color. Treating all people equally will only get us part way to fairness and justice. We must account for systemic practices that have destabilized communities and individuals and work to restore them, to make them whole.