Since 1970, there has been a nearly five-fold increase in the number of people in U.S. jails—the approximately 3,000 county or municipality-run detention facilities that primarily hold people arrested but not yet convicted of a crime. Despite recent scrutiny from policymakers and the public, one aspect of this growth has received little attention: the shocking rise in the number of women in jail.
Women in jail are the fastest growing correctional population in the country—increasing 14-fold between 1970 and 2014. Yet there is surprisingly little research on why so many more women wind up in jail today. This report examines what research does exist on women in jail in order to begin to reframe the conversation to include them. It offers a portrait of women in jail, explores how jail can deepen the societal disadvantages they face, and provides insight into what drives women’s incarceration and ways to reverse the trend.
A foundation for reform exists and can potentially set the stage for further, well-crafted programs and practices to stem the flow of women cycling through the nation’s local jails. First, however, justice systems—both small and large—and community stakeholders must commit to bringing women into the discussion.
Small counties are driving the growth of the number of women in jail—with numbers increasing 31-fold between 1970 and 2014.
Women often become involved with the justice system as a result of efforts to cope with life challenges such as poverty, unemployment, and significant physical or behavioral health struggles. Most are jailed for low-level, nonviolent offenses.
Once incarcerated, women must grapple with systems designed primarily for men. As a result, many leave jail with diminished prospects for physical and behavioral health recovery, as well as greater parental stress and financial instability.
The number of women in jail grew from under 8,000 in 1970 to nearly 110,000 in 2014.
Nearly 1/2 of all jailed women are in small counties.
Once a rarity, women are now held in nearly every county—a stark contrast to 1970, when 73% of counties held not a single woman in jail.
Nearly 80% of women in jail are mothers, and most are single parents.
Significant mental illness affects an estimated 32% of women in jails—more than double the rate among men in jails.
86% of women in jail report having experienced sexual violence in their lifetime.
Nearly 2/3 of incarcerated women in jail are of women of color—44% are black, 15% are Hispanic, and 5% are of other racial or ethnic backgrounds.
The vast majority of women are in jail for nonviolent offenses— 32% for property offenses, 29% for drug offenses, and 21% for public order offenses.
82% of jailed women report a history of drug or alcohol abuse or dependency.
Overlooked: Women in Jails
Interview with Elizabeth Swavola
Women in jail are the fastest growing correctional population in the country—increasing 14-fold between 1970 and 2014. Yet there is surprisingly little research on why so many more women wind up in jail today. To learn more, read the report and see what's happening in your community using the Incarceration Trends data tool.
Series: Gender and Justice in America
Breaking the silence about women in prison
We like to think incarcerated women are so different from the general population. But that’s simply not true. I often say: If you want to understand sexism in America, go to a women’s prison. Gender bias for incarcerated women is the same bias that forces free women to have to choose between career and becoming a homemaker, accept less pay for...
Gender and Justice in America
The gendered, multigenerational impact of incarceration on education and the social capital of communities
It’s no coincidence that the number of Americans with college diplomas is the same as those with criminal records—the relationship between a lack of education and criminal justice involvement, especially for girls and women, is bi-directional, complex, and problematic. For example, youth in the juvenile justice system have very high educational ne...