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The Cost of Women in Prison: A survey of Middle Georgia's incarcerated women

The number of women serving time in state prisons in Georgia has grown by 25 percent in the last 15 years / Eric Mock (WGXA)
The number of women serving time in state prisons in Georgia has grown by 25 percent in the last 15 years / Eric Mock (WGXA)
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MACON, Ga. -- Pamela Winn says the worst thing about being in prison is the time you lose with your family.

“You can always make money back, but you can’t get your time back, the time that I lost I can never get that back,” she said.

Winn served five years in prison for bank fraud. She said she wasn’t able to see her sons the whole time she was there.

Studies by the American Civil Liberties Union show a growing number of women nationwide are being locked up.

WGXA worked to find out if that trend is true in Georgia.

Using data from the Georgia Department of Corrections, we found the number of women serving time in state prisons has grown by 25 percent in the last 15 years.

We also filed open records requests to several county jails to find if the trend continues locally.

Here's what we found: from 2001 to 2016 the amount of women booked into the Baldwin County Jail each year has grown by about 5 percent.

In Jones County, the amount of women booked each year rose more than 83 percent.

Bibb County and Houston County by far have the highest female jail population in the last 15 years, mostly because they’re the largest two counties in Middle Georgia.

In Bibb, the amount of women being booked still rose by 4 percent from 2011 to 2016.

In Houston County, the number of women being put in the county jail increased by almost 39 percent in the same amount of time.

Director of the program Motherhood Beyond Bars Bethany Kotlar explains reasons behind the rise in women prisoners.

“Methamphetamines, opiates all those things are really landing people in terrible situations," she said.

Her organization helps women who are pregnant in prison and also offers support for women who give birth while incarcerated.

“Really getting them over the hump because these women have to say goodbye to their babies, they don’t get to be with their babies after birth,” Kotlar said.

Winn was pregnant when she went to a jail holding facility. One night the unthinkable happened.

"And I felt myself being wet and I assumed it was blood. I guess by midnight the contractions had got unbearable,” she said.

She ultimately lost her baby while incarcerated.

Besides pregnancy, Kotlar said some chronic conditions like diabetes and Hepatitis C affect women more often than men.

"So I think that definitely the cost of caring for the medical needs of incarcerated women is much higher, so it will cost more in the long run,” she said.

This means more tax payer dollars are going to treat and house women in jail.

Jail administrators in both Houston and Bibb County say they are equipped to treat pregnant inmates and other female needs.

"We have a medical facility here, we are able to take care of all of those needs as well," said Bibb County Jail Administrator Tonnie Williams.

Both jail administrators say the conditions for women in jail are comparable to men.

Now, Winn said she is using her experience to make a difference. She’s a part of a group called Women on the Rise--an organization run by former inmates to support incarcerated women so that women who share Winn's story don’t lose precious time as well.

“I don’t really know how to explain heartbreak but you just feel torn inside, you feel helpless,” Winn said.

Kotlar said it’s hard to know how many of the women incarcerated today are pregnant, because a lot of the jails and prisons don’t keep good records on how many women are pregnant or postpartum.

We found this to be true.

Out of all the counties we surveyed in our open records request, only one of them--Houston County--was able to give us accurate numbers as to how many women were pregnant in their jail each year.

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And even Houston County only kept records on that statistic from 2014 till today.

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