Analysis Contraception

The ‘Pullout Generation’ Is Here. What Do Sex Educators Think?

Martha Kempner

The Internet has been abuzz this week with talk of the "pullout generation"—women who eschew modern birth control methods in favor of "coitus interruptus." It's a method that has been around since the dawn of time and has likely averted millions of pregnancies, but is it really good enough?

An article published last week on New York Magazine‘s The Cut is making waves among feminists and sex educators alike, as it describes a new generation of women unapologetically using withdrawal as their primary method of contraception. Though the headline dubs these women the “pullout generation,” writer Ann Friedman talks mostly about a specific subset of women: 30-somethings in long-term relationships who have been having sex with the same man for years, trust him, and are less than terrified of getting pregnant. These women are tired of the pill and other hormonal methods, skeptical of intrauterine devices (IUDs), and dislike condoms. So they arm themselves with period tracker apps that let them know what days not to have pullout sex, condoms so they can have sex on those days, and packets of emergency contraception in case something goes wrong.

These women seem to have done exactly what I hope every student of sexuality education would be able to do: apply what they have learned about efficacy rates and side effects to their own relationships and lifestyles and come away with the birth control method they think is best for them. So why does their decision make the sex educator in me so uncomfortable? Does withdrawal really work well enough to be someone’s primary method of contraception? And even if it works well, shouldn’t we be steering women toward methods that work even better?

Does It Really Work?

Withdrawal has been around for as long as people have been inserting Tab A into Slot B, but since the advent of more modern methods, from condoms to pills to IUDs, it’s been widely thought of as a non-method—what people do when they don’t have any real birth control around. Recent research, however, suggests that it might be somewhat more effective than that.

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Contraceptive efficacy can be confusing because of the way researchers calculate and explain it. Though it is often expressed as a percentage of failures, it doesn’t mean how often a method will fail during sex. Instead it comes down to the math problem, “If 100 couples use method X as their primary method of birth control, how many of them will get pregnant within the first year?” With every method, there are two answers to this question: the one for couples who use the method consistently (every time) and correctly (the right way), and the one for couples who get a little sloppy. The pill, for example, has a 0.3 percent failure rate, which means that fewer than one couple out of 100 who use the pill perfectly would get pregnant in the first year. Of course, people may forget to fill their prescription on time or miss a few nights one month. Under these typical conditions, nine out of 100 couples using the pill would get pregnant in the first year. For comparison’s sake, it’s good to remember that 85 couples out of 100 who use no method of contraception will get pregnant in the first year.

The take-away message from recent research on withdrawal is that it is almost as effective as condoms in preventing pregnancy. If used perfectly, two out of 100 couples who use condoms will get pregnant in the first year, compared to four who use withdrawal. For couples using these methods sporadically or incorrectly, the numbers are, unsurprisingly, worse—about 17 couples who use condoms will get pregnant in a given year, as will 18 couples using withdrawal. Moreover, in a 2009 article, Rachel K. Jones and colleagues at the Guttmacher Institute argued that because of the way usage questions are asked and the perception of withdrawal as a “non-method,” its use is likely underestimated, which may interfere with researchers’ ability to accurately calculate efficacy. As Jones told Rewire in an email, “There’s no denying that it substantially reduces the risk of pregnancy.”

Still, while the typical use rates for withdrawal and condoms may be similar, it’s easy to improve your odds when using condoms—just use one every time, and use it right. Most condom errors are simple user errors, like not putting it on until after intercourse has started, taking it off before ejaculation, or not using it at all. We can’t blame a condom for a pregnancy that happened while it was still in the night table drawer, but the typical failure rates nonetheless include couples who say condoms were their primary method of contraception but weren’t using a condom the night they got pregnant. Fix these things, and condoms can be as much as 98 percent effective in preventing pregnancy.

It’s unclear, however, what can be done to get closer to the perfect use rate for withdrawal. Part of the issue may be physiological and depend on a man knowing his body, sensations, and what it feels like when he’s about to ejaculate so that he can learn when he needs to pull out. Jenny Higgins, a researcher at University of Wisconsin, Madison who worked with Jones on the 2009 article, said some men might have better efficacy rates when they use withdrawal because they have the timing down pat. She suspects that if researchers looked at the rates more closely, they might find that efficacy is related to age, with younger, less experienced men having more failure than older men with more practice.

Which brings us to the issue of control and trust, which goes hand-in-hand with choosing withdrawal. Most birth control methods are within a woman’s control; she knows if she has an IUD or has taken her pill. In consensual relationships, women even have some control over condoms, even though they don’t wear them. Women can buy them, carry them, and put them on men. More importantly, they can see that they are in place before they put themselves at risk of pregnancy. This is not the case with withdrawal. Women must trust that their partners are not just honest (meaning that if he says he is going to pull out he really intends to do so) but also capable (meaning that he knows how to retreat before the moment of no return).

But Jones said she’s always surprised by this “male distrust” argument: “Men can’t win for losing when it comes to pregnancy prevention. We don’t think it’s fair for women to have sole responsibility for preventing pregnancy, but then it seems like we don’t trust men to do it. A lot of safe sex messages promote condom use, and that depends on male cooperation, so withdrawal falls in the same category. If the male partner has a hard time pulling out before he ejaculates, this obviously isn’t an appropriate method. But a lot of men are able to control this and are motivated to do so.”

Jones also pointed out that men have been trusting women who say they are on the pill for years, without ever seeing them pop one. And she’s right. The same two scenarios I describe above could happen in reverse: A woman could say she was on the pill to appease her partner but have no intention of actually taking it, or she could be committed to the pill but just miss a few pivotal days. Still, something about spending a sex act not quite knowing whether he’s going to pull out in time may make some women anxious.

It turns out, however, that part of what makes some men better at withdrawal than others may be purely biological and not within either partner’s control. Most men leak a little fluid before they ejaculate called pre-ejaculate, or pre-cum to the more blunt. In college, I learned that pre-cum absolutely contained sperm and that this was one of the reasons that withdrawal was a bad idea. It appears that this assertion was a bit of an educators’ myth—information that is repeated even though it was never substantiated. The notion may have originated with William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who wrote about it in their famous 1966 book Human Sexual Response but could never produce the scientific basis for it. Nonetheless, it was passed on for decades, until the 1990s and early 2000s, when some researchers took on the subject with mixed results. For a while, the best information said there was no sperm in pre-cum, then new information said there might be. This went back and forth for some time.

The best evidence currently available is from a 2010 study published in the journal Human Fertility. This research analyzed samples of pre-cum and found that in 41 percent of men it contained sperm. Though some experts had theorized that sperm would only be in pre-cum if the man had ejaculated recently and there were some leftover “swimmers” in his urethra, this study refutes that theory as well. The men in this study had urinated numerous times (cleaning the urethra) before the pre-cum was collected, and sperm was still found in their samples. The researchers concluded that some men simply leak sperm as part of pre-ejaculate, and some men don’t. Higgins says this may be why some have better efficacy with withdrawal—they don’t have sperm in pre-cum, which limits their partners’ risk of pregnancy. Unfortunately, there is no way to know which group you or your partner fall into. In terms of withdrawal, the authors of the 2010 study concluded, “We are unable to say how this finding might translate into the chances of pregnancy if these samples of pre-ejaculate were deposited in the vagina except that the chances would not be zero.”

James Trussell, a Princeton-based researcher and one of the study’s authors, pointed out in an email that this negates the idea that withdrawal can be easily supplemented with emergency contraception for those times when it didn’t go so well: “[T]here’s sperm in pre-ejaculate so one would not know that something has gone wrong.” Trussell also writes the chapter on efficacy in Contraceptive Technology, one the bibles of contraception for practitioners. His main point when I asked him about his opinion on withdrawal as a method was pretty simple: “Failure rates during typical use of withdrawal and condoms are similar but are astronomically higher than those for IUDs and implants.”

This may be the bottom line. Withdrawal works, but there are many things that work better. IUDs are now recommended as a first-line birth control method for young women (even teenagers) and those who have never had children. A woman with an IUD has a 0.2 to 0.6 percent chance of getting pregnant no matter what she does, doesn’t do, or forgets about. A women with a contraceptive implant has an even lower risk (0.05 percent). True, each of these methods has some aspect or side effect that some women won’t like, but there are a slew of options that are more effective than withdrawal.

So What’s a Good Sex Educator to Do?

The sources in Friedman’s article are older, educated women who most likely have access to whatever method of contraception they choose, and they choose withdrawal. They are not alone. Friedman also interviewed a number of women in their 20s who have used withdrawal, though their decisions seemed to be more spur-of-the-moment and less well reasoned. Teens use it too. In fact, the most recent National Survey of Family Growth found that about 60 percent of sexually active women have used withdrawal at some point in their lives. Higgins explained that overall the research seems to show that couples use withdrawal in different ways—some couples use it because they have nothing else, and others use it in conjunction with another method, like a condom or the pill, to make extra sure they don’t get pregnant. She suggested, “We at least need to acknowledge that people are using it and that it has averted many [pregnancies]. Instead of pretending it doesn’t exist, let’s talk about it.”

And when we talk about it, we have to be honest, even if our gut instinct would be to discourage it or at least continue to relegate withdrawal to the “better than nothing but please use something else” category. As Deb Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, said, “I believe that young people should be given honest, accurate information. They have the right to all of the information and when empowered with that information are more able to take agency over their sexual health. That means we should teach youth about withdrawal as an option when they don’t have anything else with them. Withdrawal is much more effective at preventing pregnancy than using nothing. To withhold that information is misguided.”

Elizabeth Schroeder, the executive director of ANSWER, a national organization that provides sexuality information to youth and trains teachers, said much the same thing about giving honest information. She also stressed the importance of including sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in the discussion, which Friedman’s article largely glossed over. “I find it striking,” she said, “that the article only talks about pregnancy prevention—nothing about STDs. While the risk is lower in a long-term committed relationship, if the couple truly is monogamous and committed, when we talk about teens and folks in their early 20s, they may be in shorter-term relationships or have one-night stands. To only talk about birth control ignores a huge part of this sexual health issue.”

It is true that withdrawal provides no real protection against STDs, as bacteria and viruses can be present in pre-cum, and some STDs, like HPV, are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. Condoms remain the only birth control method, other than abstinence, that can prevent STDs.

Rachel Jones summed it up this way: “Withdrawal isn’t an appropriate method for every couple. But it can be a good backup option when used in conjunction with condoms, and it can provide ‘extra insurance’ against pregnancy for all couples, even those using hormonal methods. And for couples that don’t want to be pregnant, it’s certainly a better than using nothing.” She added that she would not discourage its use even as a primary method of contraception because it really does reduce the risk of pregnancy.

Essentially there was unanimous agreement among the researchers and sexuality educators I spoke with that we need to acknowledge and further examine the role that withdrawal plays in preventing pregnancy, give people honest information, and let them make their own decisions. And while I agree wholeheartedly, I can’t help but wonder if the women in the article didn’t make the right one.

Analysis Human Rights

From Protected Class to High-Priority Target: How the ‘System Is Rigged’ Against Unaccompanied Migrant Children

Tina Vasquez

Vulnerable, undocumented youth who pose no real threat are being stripped of their right to an education and instead sit in detention awaiting deportation.

This is the first article in Rewire’s two-part series about the U.S. immigration system’s effects on unaccompanied children.

Earlier this month, three North Carolina high school students were released from a Lumpkin, Georgia, detention center after spending more than six months awaiting what seemed like their inevitable fate: deportation back to conditions in Central America that threatened their lives.

Wildin David Guillen Acosta, Josue Alexander Soriano Cortez, and Yefri Sorto-Hernandez were released on bail in the span of one week, thanks to an overwhelming community effort involving pro bono attorneys and bond money. However, not everyone targeted under the same government operation has been reprieved. For example, by the time reports emerged that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had detained Acosta on his way to school in Durham, North Carolina, the government agency had already quietly deported four other young people from the state, including a teenage girl from Guatemala who attended the same school.

Activated in January, that program—Operation Border Guardian—continues to affect the lives of hundreds of Central American migrants over the age of 18 who came to the United States as unaccompanied children after January 2014. Advocates believe many of those arrested under the operation are still in ICE custody.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson has said that the goal of Operation Border Guardian is to send a message to those in Central America considering seeking asylum in the United States. But it’s not working, as Border Patrol statistics have shown. Furthermore, vulnerable, undocumented youth who pose no real threat are being stripped of their right to an education and instead sit in detention awaiting deportation. These youth arrived at the border in hopes of qualifying for asylum, but were unable to succeed in an immigration system that seems rigged against them.

“The laws are really complicated and [young people] don’t have the community support to navigate this really hostile, complex system. That infrastructure isn’t there and unless we support asylum seekers and other immigrants in this part of the country, we’ll continue to see asylum seekers and former unaccompanied minors receive their deportation orders,” said Julie Mao, the enforcement fellow at the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.

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“A Grossly Misnamed” Operation

In January, ICE conducted a series of raids that spanned three southern states—Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas—targeting Central American asylum seekers. The raids occurred under the orders of Johnson, who has taken a hardline stance against the more than 100,000 families who have sought asylum in the United States. These families fled deadly gang violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala in recent years. In El Salvador, in particular, over 400 children were murdered by gang members and police officers during the first three months of 2016, doubling the country’s homicide rate, which was already among the highest in the world.

ICE picked up some 121 people in the early January raids, primarily women and their young children. Advocates argue many of those arrested were detained unlawfully, because as people who experienced severe trauma and exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety, and depression, they were disabled as defined under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and ICE did not provide reasonable accommodations to ensure disabled people were not denied meaningful access to benefits or services.

Just a few weeks later, on January 23, ICE expanded the raids’ focus to include teenagers under Operation Border Guardian, which advocates said represented a “new low.”

The media, too, has also criticized DHS for its seemingly senseless targeting of a population that normally would be considered refugees. The New York Times called Operation Border Guardian “a grossly misnamed immigration-enforcement surge that went after people this country did not need to guard against.”

In response to questions about its prioritization of former unaccompanied minors, an ICE spokesperson told Rewire in an emailed statement: “As the secretary has stated repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration. If someone was apprehended at the border, has been ordered removed by an immigration court, has no pending appeal, and does not qualify for asylum or other relief from removal under our laws, he or she must be sent home. We must and we will enforce the law in accordance with our enforcement priorities.”

DHS reports that 336 undocumented Central American youth have been detained in the operation. It’s not clear how many of these youth have already been deported or remain in ICE custody, as the spokesperson did not respond to that question by press time.

Acosta, Cortez, Sorto-Hernandez, and three other North Carolina teenagersSantos Geovany Padilla-Guzman, Bilmer Araeli Pujoy Juarez, Pedro Arturo Salmeron—have become known as the NC6 and the face of Operation Border Guardian, a designation they likely would have not signed up for.

Advocates estimate that thousands of deportations of low-priority migrants—those without a criminal history—occur each week. What newly arrived Central American asylum seekers like Acosta could not have known was that the federal government had been laying the groundwork for their deportations for years.

Asylum Seekers Become “High-Priority Cases”

In August 2011, the Obama administration announced it would begin reviewing immigration cases individually, allowing ICE to focus its resources on “high-priority cases.” The assumption was that those who pose a threat to public safety, for example, would constitute the administration’s highest priority, not asylum-seeking high school students.

But there was an indication from DHS that asylum-seeking students would eventually be targeted and considered high-priority. After Obama’s announcement, ICE released a statement outlining who would constitute its “highest priorities,” saying, “Specifically individuals who pose a threat to public safety such as criminal aliens and national security threats, as well as repeat immigration law violators and recent border entrants.”

In the years since, President Obama has repeatedly said “recent border crossers” are among the nation’s “highest priorities” for removal—on par with national security threats. Those targeted would be migrants with final orders of removal who, according to the administration, had received their day in court and had no more legal avenues left to seek protection. But, as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported, “recent border entrant” is a murky topic, and it doesn’t appear as if all cases are being reviewed individually as President Obama said they would.

“Recent border entrant” can apply to someone who has been living in the United States for three years, and a border removal applies “whenever ICE deports an individual within three years of entry—regardless of whether the initial entry was authorized—or whenever an individual is apprehended by Customs and Border Protection (CBP),” explained Thomas Homan, the head of ICE’s removal operations in a 2013 hearing with Congress, the ACLU reported.

Chris Rickerd, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office, added that “[b]ecause CBP refuses to screen the individuals it apprehends for their ties to the U.S., and DHS overuses procedures that bypass deportation hearings before a judge, many ‘border removals’ are never fully assessed to determine whether they have a legal right to stay.”

Over the years, DHS has only ramped up the department’s efforts to deport newly arrived immigrants, mostly from Central America. As the Los Angeles Times reported, these deportations are “an attempt by U.S. immigration officials to send a message of deterrence to Central America and avoid a repeat of the 2014 crisis when tens of thousands of children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala arrived at the U.S. border.”

This is something Mao takes great issue with.

“These raids that we keep seeing are being done in order to deter another wave of children from seeking asylum—and that is not a permissible reason,” Mao said. “You deport people based on legality, not as a way of scaring others. Our country, in this political moment, is terrorizing young asylum seekers as a way of deterring others from presenting themselves at the border, and it’s pretty egregious.”

There is a direct correlation between surges of violence in the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—and an uptick in the number of asylum seekers arriving in the United States. El Salvador, known as the murder capital of the word, recently saw an explosion of gang violence. Combine that with the possible re-emergence of so-called death squads and it’s clear why the number of Salvadoran family units apprehended on the southern border increased by 96 percent from 2015 to 2016, as Fusion reported.

Much like Mao, Elisa Benitez, co-founder of the immigrants rights’ organization Alerta Migratoria NC, believes undocumented youth are being targeted needlessly.

“They should be [considered] low-priority just because they’re kids, but immigration is classifying them at a very high level, meaning ICE is operating like this is a population that needs to be arrested ASAP,” Benitez said.

The Plight of Unaccompanied Children

Each member of the NC6 arrived in the United States as an unaccompanied child fleeing violence in their countries of origin. Acosta, for example, was threatened by gangs in his native Honduras and feared for his life. These young people should qualify as refugees based on those circumstances under international law. In the United States, after they present themselves at the border, they have to prove to an immigration judge they have a valid asylum claim—something advocates say is nearly impossible for a child to do with no understanding of the immigration system and, often, with no access to legal counsel—or they face deportation.

Unaccompanied children, if not immediately deported, have certain protections once in the United States. For example, they cannot be placed into expedited removal proceedings. According to the American Immigration Council, “they are placed into standard removal proceedings in immigration court. CBP must transfer custody of these children to Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), within 72 hours.”

While their court proceedings move forward, HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement manages the care of the children until they can ideally be released to their parents already based in the country. Sometimes, however, they are placed with distant relatives or U.S. sponsors. Because HHS has lowered its safety standards regarding placement, children have been subjected to sexual abuse, labor trafficking, and severe physical abuse and neglect, ThinkProgress has reported.

If while in the care of their family or a sponsor they miss a court date, detainment or deportation can be triggered once they turn 18 and no longer qualify for protections afforded to unaccompanied children. 

This is what happened to Acosta, who was placed with his mother in Durham when he arrived in the United States. ICE contends that Acosta was not targeted unfairly; rather, his missed court appearance triggered his order for removal.

Acosta’s mother told local media that after attending his first court date, Acosta “skipped subsequent ones on the advice of an attorney who told him he didn’t stand a chance.”

“That’s not true, but it’s what they were told,” Benitez said. “So, this idea that all of these kids were given their day in court is false. One kid [we work with] was even told not to sign up for school because ‘there was no point,’ it would just get him deported.”

Benitez told Rewire the reasons why these young people are being targeted and given their final orders of removal need to be re-examined.

Sixty percent of youth from Central America do not ever have access to legal representation throughout the course of their case—from the time they arrive in the United States and are designated as unaccompanied children to the time they turn 18 and are classified as asylum seekers. According to the ACLU, 44 percent of the 23,000 unaccompanied children who were required to attend immigration court this year had no lawyer, and 86 percent of those children were deported.

Immigration attorneys and advocates say that having a lawyer is absolutely necessary if a migrant is to have any chance of winning an asylum claim.

Mao told Rewire that in the Southeast where Acosta and the other members of the NC6 are from, there is a pipeline of youth who arrived in the United States as unaccompanied children who are simply “giving up” on their valid asylum claims because navigating the immigration system is simply too hard.

“They feel the system is rigged, and it is rigged,” Mao said.

Mao has been providing “technical assistance” for Acosta and other members of the NC6. Her organization doesn’t represent individuals in court, she said, but the services it provides are necessary because immigration is such a unique area of law and there are very few attorneys who know how to represent individuals who are detained and who have been designated unaccompanied minors. Those services include providing support, referrals, and technical assistance to advocates, community organizations, and families on deportation defense and custody issues.

Fighting for Asylum From Detention

Once arrested by ICE, there is no telling if someone will linger in detention for months or swiftly be deported. What is known is that if a migrant is taken by ICE in North Carolina, somewhere along the way, they will be transferred to Lumpkin, Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center. As a local paper reported, Stewart is “the last stop before they send you back to whatever country you came from.”

Stewart is the largest detention center in the country, capable of holding 2,000 migrants at any time—it’s also been the subject of numerous investigations because of reports of abuse and inadequate medical care. The detention center is run by Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s largest private prison provider and one that has become synonymous with maintaining inhumane conditions inside of its detention centers. According to a report from the National Immigrant Justice Center, Stewart’s remote location—over two hours away from Atlanta—hinders the facility from attracting and retaining adequate medical staff, while also creating barriers to visitation from attorneys and family members.

There’s also the matter of Georgia being notoriously tough on asylum seekers, even being called the “worst” place to be an undocumented immigrant. The Huffington Post reported that “Atlanta immigration judges have been accused of bullying children, badgering domestic violence victims and setting standards for relief and asylum that lawyers say are next to impossible to meet.” Even more disconcerting, according to a project by Migrahack, which pairs immigration reporters and hackers together, having an attorney in Georgia had almost no effect on whether or not a person won their asylum case, with state courts denying up to 98 percent of asylum requests. 

Acosta, Cortez, and Sorto-Hernandez spent over six months in Stewart Detention Center before they were released on baila “miracle” according to some accounts, given the fact that only about 5 percent of those detained in Stewart are released on bond.

In the weeks after ICE transferred Acosta to Stewart, there were multiple times Acosta was on the verge of deportation. ICE repeatedly denied Acosta was in danger, but advocates say they had little reason to believe the agency. Previous cases have made them wary of such claims.

Advocates believe that three of the North Carolina teens who were deported earlier this year before Acosta’s case made headlines were kept in detention for months with the goal of wearing them down so that they would sign their own deportation orders despite having valid asylum claims.

“They were tired. They couldn’t handle being in detention. They broke down and as much as they feared being returned to their home countries, they just couldn’t handle being there [in detention] anymore. They’d already been there for weeks,” Benitez said.

While ICE claims the average stay of a migrant in Stewart Detention Center is 30 days, the detention center is notorious for excessively long detainments. Acosta’s own bunkmate had been there over a year, according to Indy Week reporter David Hudnall.

As Hudnall reported, there is a massive backlog of immigration cases in the system—474,000 nationally and over 5,000 in North Carolina.

Mao told Rewire that the amount of time the remaining members of the NC6 will spend in detention varies because of different legal processes, but that it’s not unusual for young people with very strong asylum cases to sign their rights away because they can’t sustain the conditions inside detention.

Pedro Arturo Salmeron, another NC6 member, is still in detention. He was almost deported, but Mao told Rewire her organization was able to support a pro bono attorney in appealing to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to stop proceedings.

Japeth Matemu, an immigration attorney, recently told Indy Week’s David Hudnall that “the BIA will tell you that it can’t modify the immigration judge’s ruling unless it’s an egregious or obvious miscarriage of justice. You basically have to prove the judge is off his rocker.”

It could take another four months in detention to appeal Salmeron’s case because ICE continues to refuse to release him, according to the legal fellow.

“That’s a low estimate. It could be another year in detention before there is any movement in his case. We as an organization feel that is egregious to detain someone while their case is pending,” Mao said. “We have to keep in mind that these are kids, and some of these kids can’t survive the conditions of adult prison.”

Detention centers operate as prisons do, with those detained being placed in handcuffs and shackles, being stripped of their personal belongings, with no ability to move around freely. One of Acosta’s teachers told Rewire he wasn’t even able to receive his homework in detention.

Many of those in detention centers have experienced trauma. Multiple studies confirm that “detention has a profoundly negative impact on young people’s mental and physical well-being” and in the particular case of asylum seekers, detention may exacerbate their trauma and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

“People are so traumatized by the raids, and then you add detention on top of that. Some of these kids cannot psychologically and physically deal with the conditions in detention, so they waive their rights,” Mao said.

In March, Salmeron and fellow NC6 member Yefri Sorto-Hernandez received stays of deportation, meaning they would not face immediate deportation. ICE says a stay is like a “legal pause.” During the pause, immigration officials decide if evidence in the case will be reconsidered for asylum. Sorto-Hernandez was released five months later.

Benitez said that previously when she organized around detention, a stay of deportation meant the person would get released from detention, but ICE’s decision to detain some of the NC6 indefinitely until their cases are heard illustrates how “weirdly severe” the agency is being toward this particular population. Mao fears this is a tactic being used by ICE to break down young people in detention.

“ICE knows it will take months, and frankly up to a year, for some of these motions to go through the court system, but the agency is still refusing to release individuals. I can’t help but think it’s with the intention that these kids will give up their claims while suffering in detention,” Mao said.

“I think we really have to question that, why keep these young people locked up when they can be with their communities, with their families, going to school? ICE can release these kids now, but for showmanship, ICE is refusing to let them go. Is this who we want to be, is this the message we want to send the world?” she asked.

In the seven months since the announcement of Operation Border Guardian, DHS has remained quiet about whether or not there will be more raids on young Central American asylum seekers. As a new school year approaches, advocates fear that even more students will be receiving their orders for removal, and unlike the NC6, they may not have a community to rally around them, putting them at risk of quietly being deported and not heard from again.

News Human Rights

What’s Driving Women’s Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

Michelle D. Anderson

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

Local court and law enforcement systems in small counties throughout the United States are increasingly using jails to warehouse underserved Black and Latina women.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, released a study last week showing that the number of women in jails based in communities with 250,000 residents or fewer in 2014 had grown 31-fold since 1970, when most county jails lacked a single woman resident.

By comparison, the number of women in jails nationwide had jumped 14-fold since 1970. Historically, jails were designed to hold people not yet convicted of a crime or people serving terms of one year or less, but they are increasingly housing poor women who can’t afford bail.

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

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Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” calls attention to jail incarceration rates for women in small counties, where rates increased from 79 per 100,000 women to 140 per 100,000 women, compared to large counties, where rates dropped from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

The near 50-page report further highlights that families of color, who are already disproportionately affected by economic injustice, poor access to health care, and lack of access to affordable housing, were most negatively affected by the epidemic.

An overwhelming percentage of women in jail, the study showed, were more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma, and have alarming rates of mental illness and substance use problems.

“Overlooked” concluded that jails should be used a last resort to manage women deemed dangerous to others or considered a flight risk.

Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of “Overlooked” and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, told Rewire that smaller regions tend to lack resources to address underlying societal factors that often lead women into the jail system.

County officials often draft budgets mainly dedicated to running local jails and law enforcement and can’t or don’t allocate funds for behavioral, employment, and educational programs that could strengthen underserved women and their families.

“Smaller counties become dependent on the jail to deal with the issues,” Swavola said, adding that current trends among women deserves far more inquiry than it has received.

Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, said in “Overlooked” that the study underscored the need for more data that could contribute to “evidence-based analysis and policymaking.”

“Overlooked” relies on several studies and reports, including a previous Vera Institute study on jail misuse, FBI statistics, and Rewire’s investigation on incarcerated women, which examined addiction, parental rights, and reproductive issues.

“Overlooked” authors highlight the “unique” challenges and disadvantages women face in jails.

Women-specific issues include strained access to menstrual hygiene products, abortion care, and contraceptive care, postpartum separation, and shackling, which can harm the pregnant person and fetus by applying “dangerous levels of pressure, and restriction of circulation and fetal movement.”

And while women are more likely to fare better in pre-trail proceedings and receive low bail amounts, the study authors said they are more likely to leave the jail system in worse condition because they are more economically disadvantaged.

The report noted that 60 percent of women housed in jails lacked full-time employment prior to their arrest compared to 40 percent of men. Nearly half of all single Black and Latina women have zero or negative net wealth, “Overlooked” authors said.

This means that costs associated with their arrest and release—such as nonrefundable fees charged by bail bond companies and electronic monitoring fees incurred by women released on pretrial supervision—coupled with cash bail, can devastate women and their families, trapping them in jail or even leading them back to correctional institutions following their release.

For example, the authors noted that 36 percent of women detained in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.

The “Overlooked” report highlighted that women in jails are more likely to be mothers, usually leading single-parent households and ultimately facing serious threats to their parental rights.

“That stress affects the entire family and community,” Swavola said.

Citing a Corrections Today study focused on Cook County, Illinois, the authors said incarcerated women with children in foster care were less likely to be reunited with their children than non-incarcerated women with children in foster care.

The sexual abuse and mental health issues faced by women in jails often contribute to further trauma, the authors noted, because women are subjected to body searches and supervision from male prison employees.

“Their experience hurts their prospects of recovering from that,” Swavola said.

And the way survivors might respond to perceived sexual threats—by fighting or attempting to escape—can lead to punishment, especially when jail leaders cannot detect or properly respond to trauma, Swavola and her peers said.

The authors recommend jurisdictions develop gender-responsive policies and other solutions that can help keep women out of jails.

In New York City, police take people arrested for certain non-felony offenses to a precinct, where they receive a desk appearance ticket, or DAT, along with instructions “to appear in court at a later date rather than remaining in custody.”

Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing and a leader within the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said in an interview with Rewire that solutions must go beyond allowing women to escape police custody and return home to communities that are often fragmented, unhealthy, and dangerous.

Underserved women, James said, need access to healing, transformative environments. She cited as an example the Brookview House, which helps women overcome addiction, untreated trauma, and homelessness.

James, who has advocated against the criminalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the injustices faced by those in poverty, said the problem of jail misuse could benefit from the insight of real experts on the issue: women and girls who have been incarcerated.

These women and youth, she said, could help researchers better understand the “experiences that brought them to the bunk.”


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