Physical and sexual abuse are contributing to the rise in women prisoners, a group of five panelists told more than 100 people at Harvard Law School's Austin Hall Saturday.
The panel, entitled "Women Behind Bars: An Overview," was part of a conference sponsored by the Criminal Justice Institute which focused on the treatment of women in prison and the obstacles they face when re-entering society.
Sarah J. Hunt, a Cambridge attorney, said she thinks the problems facing women in prison stem from society, not from the women themselves.
"If we heal society, these women could take care of themselves better," she said.
According to Hunt, abuse is one of the causes of the increase in the number of women prisoners.
Before entering the prison system, 49 percent of women were physically abused and 37 percent were sexually abused Hunt said.
Janet Johnson, a former parole officer, said she is upset by the increasingly passive attitude towards women in prison.
"On the inside, they are ignored. There is something wrong with this picture," said Johnson, who coordinates Project Window, a Boston group that helps women re-enter society after prison serving terms.
An unannounced panelist, former prisoner Elaine Hyde, followed Johnson with a brief account of her experience in prison.
"The women I was incarcerated with were some of the most interesting people I've ever met," she said.
Mary Prosser of the Criminal Justice Institute said the face of women prisoners is changing.
"These days, women prisoners are increasingly young, poor, unskilled and non-white," Prosser said.
The last panelist to speak was Laura Biddle, who works at the City Mission Society in Boston. Like Project Window, City Mission attempts to ease the re-entry process for women who have been in prison.
"The women in prison are played with like toys," Biddle said. "Then, when they get out, they are just told to make it on their own."