Heading into her Los Angeles office at A New Way of Life, Marina Judkins is on a mission. It’s a mission often done quietly. But Judkins is hoping to bring it to the light.

“We're limited to education, we're limited to how we eat everything,” she said of the challenges she and other women face during their time behind bars. 

Judkins spent time in prison, and before that, time in the foster care system and on the streets. After her release, she knew she wanted to create a different path for herself.

“When you come out [after] doing a certain amount of time, or just a lot of people don't realize even a day of being locked up behind a cell is trauma,” said Judkins. “When you come out, and you want to do something different in your life, you have to want to help and sometimes that can be so hard.”

Judkins is now the All of Us or None Fellow at A New Way of Life, a non-profit reentry program for women established in 1998. She’s using her lived experience to help other women create the life they want for themselves after leaving incarceration.

“If you want to change, you can change. And if you want help, you can get that help. But it has to start with you,” said Judkins. “If you want to become a better person within yourself, you have to come to acceptance at first and then get the help that you deserve and get the help that you need.”

According to data from the Prison Policy Initiative, women make up roughly just 10% of America’s population behind bars. But with the justice system in America built mostly for men, women have a more difficult time accessing health care they need or other basic needs that may be taken for granted.

“The care that is present in our prison systems is really focused on men and not women,” said Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove, D-Calif., “and the goal is to re-center the kind of care and reforms that we can offer and develop in a way that also recognizes gender plays a role.”

Kamlager-Dove and Rep. Nance Mace, R-S.C., have teamed up to introduce the Women in Criminal Justice Act, a bill that aims to “strengthen rehabilitation efforts, provide trauma-informed care and gender-responsive action, eliminate discriminatory sentencing practices, and improve other supportive services to finally address the ways that women are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system.” 

In a memo first obtained by Spectrum News back in April, the bill focuses on six specific steps, including enacting gender-informed arrest and law enforcement practices, prioritizing family reunification and requiring judges to consider the impact on children when determining bail, pursue gender informed alternatives to imprisonment, eliminate discriminatory sentencing practices, enforce gender-responsive and trauma-informed imposition of a sentence, and implement gender-responsive prison reform such as ensuring women have access to an OB-GYN and creating standards for conditions which the women are housed. 

“Oftentimes women who are going into prison are mothers. There's no consideration given to what will happen to their children, how those children will be provided,” said Kamlager-Dove. “Women in the past have been shackled when they've given birth, while they've been incarcerated. They've been denied access to hygiene products, tampons, medication when they're cramping. That's been an issue.”

A previous version of the bill was introduced in 2022 by Kamlager-Dove’s predecessor (former congresswoman and now Los Angeles mayor) Karen Bass, with Mace as a co-sponsor. The bill was introduced and referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, but never received a floor vote. This time around, the bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, but there has been no action on the bill just yet.

The bill has been endorsed by a number of organizations, including the Justice Action Network, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, A New Way of Life, Policy & Strategic Partnerships of National Action Network Washington Bureau, Policy for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and Girls for Gender Equity. It’s also picked up 7 co-sponsors. 

According to The Sentencing Project, the number of women incarcerated in America rose over 525% in the last four decades, from 26,326 in 1980 to 168,449 in 2021. The Sentencing Project estimates there are over 1 million women in the criminal justice system today in the United States. For Judkins, she sees legislation like this as an opportunity to have a conversation not just around the conditions inside prison, but what it looks like for women after they have been released.

“I personally think it is good to have conversations like this because a lot of people in the public don't know. And what they do know about people that's been formerly incarcerated is always bad,” explained Judkins. “A lot of people don't understand that a lot of good comes out of it. We're refreshing. We're rebuilt, rehabilitated.”