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Women’s Experience Behind Bars

More women are being incarcerated, and they face unique challenges

  • Natasha Camhi
August 24, 2018

Today, there are approximately 2.3 million people serving time behind bars in America. Men make up close to 91 percent of this population, so it’s no wonder the story of mass incarceration has always been a male-centric one. But that hides a surprising fact — the number of women behind bars is skyrocketing.

In 1980, the total number of women in jail, state prison, and federal prison was 26,378. By 2016, that number had ballooned to 213,722. This amounts to a growth rate of more than 700 percent and outpaces male population growth over the same period by more than 50 percent. In fact, while the U.S. accounts for only 4 percent of the world’s female population, it houses 30 percent of its incarcerated women.

How we got here

In many ways, female incarceration follows the same trends as the overall prison population, which has increased dramatically in recent decades. This total growth is largely attributable to the widespread criminalization of low-level offenses and the overuse of harsh sentencing penalties (particularly mandatory minimums) for nonviolent drug crimes, both of which came out of the tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and ’90s.

But what’s talked about less is how these policy changes have, in some ways, disproportionately hurt women. On both the federal and state level, women are more likely than men to be incarcerated for a nonviolent offense. And the disparities are worse when we look at nonviolent drug offenses. One reason for this is that women are more likely to be ensnared by overly broad conspiracy laws, which demand that anyone caught in proximity to a drug crime, regardless of their actual involvement in that crime, gets charged with the same lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentence. That means women get penalized for crimes largely committed by their romantic partners. 

Another important piece of the puzzle is that nearly half of the women incarcerated today are in jails (compared to approximately a quarter of the total incarcerated population). And a huge percentage of these women — approximately 60 percent — are serving time in pretrial detention. Why is this the case? Research shows that due to factors like gender-based income inequality and childcare duties, women have a harder time paying cash bail than their male counterparts. And when they can’t make bail, they’re thrown in jail for months or years at a time.

The unique toll of incarceration on women

Time spent behind bars can be particularly traumatic for women. This is because America’s justice system was largely built by and for men and isn’t equipped to handle women’s unique needs.

  • A pervasive lack of access to adequate reproductive healthcare is perhaps the system’s most glaring deficiency. This includes basic indecencies such as being denied menstrual products, as well as much more egregious and dangerous practices such as refusing female inmates STD screenings and prenatal care, and shackling pregnant women during childbirth (there’s been some progress in this area, but more than half of states have yet to ban shackling of pregnant women). 
  • Women are more likely than men to enter prison or jail with mental health and substance-abuse issues, and, specifically, with traumatic histories of sexual abuse. Not only is treatment for these conditions largely unavailable behind bars, but many women are actually at greater risk of complications and further trauma when living in confinement.
  • Approximately 62 percent of women in prison have children under the age of 18. Yet most jails and prisons make it very difficult for women to maintain meaningful contact with their children — barriers such as placement far from home, limited visitation hours, and exorbitant phone fees get in the way. Given that women are much more likely to be primary caregivers, our high rate of female incarceration has grave collateral consequences for families and communities across the country.

So, what should we do?

Ultimately, reducing our overall prison population is the best way to help incarcerated women. Expanding the use of alternatives to incarceration, such as diversion and rehabilitative programs, will drastically reduce the overall scope of the system. 

Other potential solutions also help all people involved in the justice system but may especially help women. Chief among these solutions is ending the predatory practice of cash bail, which can disproportionately hurt women because they are more likely to be kept in jails, yet less likely to be able to afford bail. 

State and federal governments must also tackle the unique problems faced by women. The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which would provide free health products to incarcerated women and limit the shackling of pregnant women, is one recent legislative attempt to improve conditions for those behind bars. 

Ending mass incarceration is important. But we shouldn’t overlook the unique challenges faced by women in the criminal justice system. 

For solutions aimed at meeting the needs of incarcerated women — and reducing mass incarceration in general — please see Criminal Justice: An Election Agenda for Candidates, Activists, and Legislators.

(Photo: Wang Lunyi/EyeEm/Getty)