Women Prisons in the United States

The Department of Justice reported that an estimated 6.6 million persons were under the supervision of US adult correctional systems as of December 2016. These include 1.4 million incarcerated persons and 5.2 million persons under probation and parole across federal and state jurisdictions.

The 222,500 women in all prisons and jails make up approximately 15 percent of the 1.4 million persons incarcerated in the US correctional system. About half of these women are in 25 federal prisons, while the other half are under the supervision of state authorities. While these figures seem like women comprise a small percentage of the incarcerated population, it is worrisome for several reasons.  

The Rate of Women Incarceration in the US Is Double the Male Rate

More women have gotten into federal and state prisons in the last four decades than men. Comparing a Bureau of Justice Statistics report in 1994 and with a Bureau report in 2019, we see that the number of women in confinement is nine times higher in 2019 than it was in 1980. In contrast, male incarceration is only four times higher in 2019 than it was in 1980.

The disparity is due to legislative changes and practices in law enforcement that have caused the imprisonment rate for women to skyrocket. The most notable changes and practices include stiffer drug sentencing laws and post-conviction barriers to reentry that uniquely affect women.

Cross-jurisdictional policies during the War on Drugs caused a spike in women’s incarceration for drug offenses. Between 1980 and 2018, women’s convictions for drug-related offenses doubled from 12% to 26%. Other offenses are not left out. Studies have even linked drug dependence and abuse to property crimes, which is the next leading offense for incarcerated women.

The US Correctional System Fails To Address Women Unique Needs

Time in prison is difficult for everyone. Nevertheless, studies show that a correctional system designed for male offenders has failed to address the unique needs and problems women face during confinement. Women in the correctional system report worsened physical and mental health during confinement due to gender inequalities, unsanitary living conditions, abuse, and administrative policies.

The inability to access non-emergency healthcare services is a major problem for women in prison. For example, access to preventive screening for women-specific diseases such as breast and uterine cancers during confinement has remained unchanged in the last decade. Consequently, at-risk women in confinement often go undiagnosed because of systematic inadequacies that put preventive screening such as routine pelvic examination, mammograms, and pap smears out of reach.

Women Experience in Prisons

Even though the population of women in prison has increased in the last decades, the policies, procedures, and management practices for women prisons have barely changed. For one, because there are few women correctional facilities, women prisoners are far from home. This distance deprives women of a chance to enjoy regular visitations from family and makes incarceration a difficult experience, especially for women who have minor children. Some states, such as California and New York, have laws mandating courts to remand women in prisons nearest to their homes or allowed them to seek transfer to prisons closer to their homes.

But fewer facilities still put them out of reach for regular visitations. There is a paucity of data to show the rate of visitation for women, but studies show that 29% of people in prison receive personal visitations in a typical month. Phone calls are more common (71%). But calling is prohibitively expensive for women, who make 12 cents an hour working in prison. The monthly pittance is not enough to make a voice call to one person, and women prisoners often face the dilemma of who to call.

Meanwhile, 1 in 3 families has run into debt trying to call their loved ones in prison. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has moved to reduce the per-minute cost of prison phone calls, and tech companies are working to end predatory pricing in the prison call industry. 

Women Face More Difficulties Outside Prison Than Men

Having a criminal record creates a barrier for people who have spent time in prison. After release, women have historically faced unique barriers to reentry. For one, women who have spent time in jail have less chance of securing gainful employment than their male counterparts. According to an Urban Institute study, over 50 percent of former male inmates were employed ten months after release. In contrast, only 33% of women will secure a job in the same period. Even among the one-third of women who secure a job, employment outcomes were bleak, and they earned considerably less than women with no criminal records.

There is also a disparity in housing opportunities for women. Generally, women are more likely to be homeless than formerly incarcerated men. Also, consider the family court problems that women with incarceration histories face in their attempt to reunite with children after release. These disparities have put women at elevated risk for crime and recidivism post-release.

Helping Women After Prisons

Federal government agencies undertake studies and projects that provide recommendations and coordinate the broader activities of government agencies and independent organizations. These efforts aim to prepare confined women for the challenges they may face after release.

Most notable is the Department of Health and Human Services’ 3-year reentry project for women and the National Institute of Justice’s recommendations for policy and practice in reentry programs. Likewise, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides a guide for coordinating reentry services for women involved in the criminal justice system. The Federal Bureau of Prisons also has its 18-month reentry program.

Meanwhile, independent organizations have developed successful models for addressing women’s unique needs during reentry and prevent involvement with the criminal justice system in the first place. Because most offenses by women are non-violent drug crimes, advocates propose community-based alternatives to sentencing, e.g., substance abuse treatment.

And for women who are incarcerated, independent organizations like the National Resource Center For Justice Involved Women recommend access to healthcare, a more humane incarceration environment, and reentry strategies specifically focus on women.