Women Behind Bars


s with all measures of mass incarceration, the incarceration rate of women is drastically higher in the United States than in any other nation. For instance, compared to our neighbor to the north, 127 out of 100,000 American women are incarcerated, compared to just 11 per 100,000 Canadian women.

Although many more men than women are incarcerated in the United States, recent analysis done by Vera’s Incarceration Trends project reveals how much the jail incarceration of women has grown in recent decades—from fewer than 8,000 in 1970 to nearly 110,000 in 2014, a fourteenfold increase, with midsize and small counties having the highest rates. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, while the number of men confined in county and city jails decreased by 3 percent from 2010 to 2014, the number of women held increased by 18 percent during this period. Yet the unique challenges that women and girls face when they become involved in the justice system—as well as the circumstances that lead them there—are often markedly different from those for men and have until recently been largely overlooked in discussions of mass incarceration and justice reform.

The demographics of women in jail and prison mirror the racial disparities of the broader incarcerated population. In 2014, African American women were incarcerated at nearly three times the rate of white women, according to The Sentencing Project, although the rate of incarceration for African American women has been declining during the past 15 years while the rates for white women have increased.

Women in the criminal justice system are more likely than men to have experienced violence and exploitation—such as sexual or intimate partner abuse or trafficking—and to have co-occurring substance use or mental health issues. Additionally, women, particularly women of color, are more likely than men to be impoverished. A report by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development concludes that single African American and Hispanic women ages 19-24 have a median wealth of $100 and $120, respectively, while the median wealth of unmarried white women is $41,500. Poorer people face many disadvantages in the criminal justice system, especially at the pretrial phase. Most U.S. jurisdictions use a cash bail system, which means the economically disadvantaged often remain in jail through their trials simply because they are too poor to make bail.

Jail incarceration can push a woman and her family further into poverty, as she may lose her job or access to public benefits. Furthermore, most people accumulate criminal justice debt as they move through the system. Many jails charge inmates—most of whom have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial—fees for basic services such as laundry or medical appointments, and phone calls home are often exorbitantly expensive. Some jails charge inmates a per diem fee during their incarceration—sometimes called pay to stay, which can leave an individual with thousands of dollars of criminal justice debt upon release.

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Women, prior to incarceration, are often caretakers and financial providers for their families. A survey of state prisoners found that 4 in 10 mothers in prison had been the sole parent in their household at the time of their arrest and half of mothers reported being the primary financial provider for their children. Research shows that parental incarceration—which can result in frequent moving of residence, school changes, and divorce—is destabilizing for children.

Once behind bars, women experience substandard medical and living conditions, due to policies that were originally designed only with men in mind, and because of continued abuse and exploitation. For example, in Amador v. Andrews, women in custody of the New York State Department of Correctional Services filed a class-action lawsuit against the department for sexual abuse. (The case, filed in 2003, was reinstated in 2011 following a decision by the state court of appeals.)