The growth of women’s incarceration in the United States

Women walk along a corridor at the Los Angeles County women’s jail in Lynwood, California April 26, 2013. The Second Chance Women’s Re-entry Court is one of the first in the U.S. to focus on women, and offers a cost-saving alternative to prison for women who plead guilty to non-violent crimes and volunteer for treatment. Of the 297 women who have been through the court since 2007, 100 have graduated, and only 35 have been returned to state prison. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES – Tags: CRIME LAW) – RTXZ1G4

Yesterday, the National Research Council released The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. It’s a useful, long, exhaustive, not particularly surprising, review of the literature on mass incarceration in the United States over the past four decades. Media discussions have managed to avoid the report’s sections on women. Here’s a summary of what the report says about women’s incarceration:

For four decades, women have been the fastest growing prison population. The United States has one third of the world’s female prison population. The majority of women in prison are mothers. Women’s prisons are historically `under resourced’ and it’s only getting worse. Women prisoners face particularly high rates of sexual violence from prison staff. Women prisoners have exceptionally high rates of PTSD, mental illness, and alcohol and drug dependence. Women prisoners have astronomically, shockingly high rates of abnormal pap smears.

Here are excerpts from the report:

“25-40 percent of female inmates have abnormal pap smears, compared with 7 percent of women in the general population.”

“More than 200,000 women are in jails or prisons in the United States, representing nearly one-third of incarcerated females worldwide. The past three to four decades have seen rapid growth in women’s incarceration rates—a rise of 646 percent since 1980 compared with a 419 percent rise for men”

“Incarceration rates have increased more rapidly for females than for males since the early 1970s. In 1972, the prison and jail incarceration rate for men was estimated to be 24 times higher than that for women. By 2010, men’s incarceration rate was about 11 times higher. Women’s incarceration rate had thus risen twice as rapidly as men’s in the period of growing incarceration rates.”

“Approximately 1 of every 14 prisoners in the United States is female. In fact, the incarceration rates of white and Hispanic women in particular are growing more rapidly than those of other demographic groups. Compared with men, women are sentenced more often to prison for nonviolent crimes: about 55 percent of women sentenced to prison have committed property or drug crimes as compared with about 35 percent of male prisoners. Women also are more likely than men to enter prison with mental health problems or to develop them while incarcerated: about three-quarters of women in state prisons in 2004 had symptoms of a current mental health problem, as opposed to 55 percent of men.

“Women’s prisons historically have been under resourced and underserved in correctional systems, so that women prisoners have had less access to programming and treatment than their male counterparts. Women prisoners also are more likely to be the targets of sexual abuse by staff.”

“A majority of women prisoners are mothers, who must grapple with the burden of being separated from their children during incarceration. In 2004, 62 percent of female state and federal inmates (compared with 51 percent of male inmates) were parents. Of those female inmates, 55 percent reported living with their minor children in the month before arrest, 42 percent in single-parent households; for male inmates who were parents, the corresponding figures were 36 and 17 percent.”

“Although female inmates make up only about 10 percent of the correctional population, they have higher rates of disease than male inmates and additional reproductive health issues. Rates of mental illness are substantially higher among female than male inmates, particularly because they have high rates of childhood sexual abuse and PTSD … 18-30 percent of male prison inmates exhibited alcohol dependence/abuse, only slightly in excess of figures for the U.S. general public, while at 10-29 percent prevalence, female prisoners were two to four times as likely as nonincarcerated women to have alcohol dependence/abuse.”

“As the rate of women’s incarceration has grown, so has the risk of maternal imprisonment. One in 30 children born in 1990 had a mother incarcerated by age 14, compared with 1 in 60 born in 1978… Nearly two-thirds of mothers in state prisons were living with their child(ren) prior to their incarceration, many in single-parent households.”

As you watch, listen to, or read discussions about this report, remember the women prisoners. They’re in the report, as much as they’re absent in the press coverage. The report says they matter. And they do.

(Photo Credit: IRETA)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.