Where are the women? In jail. In prison. On probation. There is nothing to celebrate here.

Yesterday, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics released two reports, Prisoners in 2017 and Jail Inmates in 2017. Headlines would suggest that the United States is beginning its exit from decades of mass incarceration: “Prison populations decline again, Justice Department report shows”; “Crime Is Down, Yet U.S. Incarceration Rates Are Still Among the Highest in the World”. The picture is not that simple. First, six states account for much of the decline: Alaska, Connecticut, California, New Jersey, New York, Vermont. Even there, the picture is muddy. In California, for example, much of the prison population decline has resulted from moving people from prisons to jails. Predictably, that move has resulted in rising death rates in jails across California. Meanwhile, according to the Vera Institute, 19 states saw increases of prison population: Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Where are the women in all of this mixed picturing? Everywhere, and for women, the picture continues to be clear and grim.

At the end of 2017, women comprised 7% of the total prison population. From 2016 to 2017, the number of women in prison fell by 0.4%, while the number of men in prison fell by 1.3%. From 2007 to 2017, the number of women in prison fell by 2.6%, while the number of men in prison fell by 7.1%. From 2009 to 2017, the number of men in prison has fallen every single year from the year before. For women, that is not at all the case. The numbers have fluctuated up and down from year to year, and for the last three years have remained more or less constant. States with the highest prison rates for women are, in descending order: Oklahoma, Kentucky, South Dakota, Idaho. The prison rates for Black women is almost double that for White women; 18- and 19-year old Black women are 4.4 times more likely than White women of the same age to be in prison. Finally, 25% of women in state prisons had been convicted of a drug offense. 14% of men in state prisons were in for drug offenses. 

The picture in jails is worse.  From 2005 to 2017, the incarceration rate of women in jails grew by 10%; for men it dropped by 12%. The male population in jails went from 649,300 in 2010 to 628,2000 in 2017. The female population in jails went from 91,900 in 2010 to 113,4000 in 2017: “From 2005 to 2017, the female jail population grew by 20%, while the male population experienced a small decline (3%). As a result, the percentage of the jail population that was female increased from 12.6% to 15.2%.” 

As the Prison Policy Initiative, PPI, noted last year, women are disproportionately dumped into local jails. 60% of women “under local control” are remand prisoners. They have not been convicted of anything and are awaiting trial. State and federal agencies contract with local jails, and so around 13,000 state and federal women prisoners are housed in jails. Finally, again according to the Prison Policy Initiative, taking into account the impact of disproportionate use of jails for women leaves the picture largely undone, because 74% of women “under control of any U.S. correctional system” are actually on probation, which is another way of saying are ever more precariously positioned to return to jail or prison.

There is nothing to celebrate in this week’s reports from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Until the same attention and resources are directed towards decarcerating women, until reports of “prison populations” actually report on women prisoners, the struggle continues. Last year, it was reported that of 714,000 women and girls held in penal institutions across the world, close to 212,000 were women and girls held in institutions in the United States. Close to 30% of all imprisoned women and girls anywhere in the world are located in the United States. The United States has the highest rate of female imprisonment of any country in the world. There is nothing to celebrate here. 

(Infographic Credit: Prison Policy Initiative)

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.