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—Peter Wagner, Executive DirectorDonate

Who’s helping the 1.9 million women released from prisons and jails each year?

Women make up a growing share of incarcerated populations, and they have different needs than justice-involved men. Accordingly, some prison systems have begun to implement gender-responsive policies and programs. But what happens after release?

by Wendy Sawyer, July 19, 2019

Given the dramatic growth of women’s incarceration in recent years, it’s concerning how little attention and how few resources have been directed to meeting the reentry needs of justice-involved women. After all, we know that women have different pathways to incarceration than men, and distinct needs, including the treatment of past trauma and substance use disorders, and more broadly, escaping poverty and meeting the needs of their children and families. In recognition of these differences, and in an effort to reduce the harms of incarceration and the likelihood of re-incarceration, many prison systems have begun to implement gender-responsive policies and programs. But what’s being done to help women get the support they need to rebuild their lives after release?

A handful of programs have sprung up in communities around the country to meet the needs of women returning home: some founded by formerly incarcerated women themselves, some running on shoestring budgets for years, and all underscoring the need for greater capacity to meet the demand of over 81,000 releases from prison and 1.8 million releases from jail each year.

Map of US states showing the number of women released from state prisons each year. Nationally, over 81,000 women are released from state prisons annually. Women make up 1 in 8 individuals released from state prisons each year, but the numbers vary widely between states. The additional 1.8 million women released from local jails annually are not shown on this map, because not all states have data available for jail releases, and in most states, a significant portion of reported releases are missing data on sex. See the table below for the available jail data.

Sources and data notes: Bureau of Justice Statistics National Corrections Reporting Program: 1991-2016, Selected Variables, Prison Releases and, for Vermont, CSAT-Prisoners Custom tables, Count of total releases. Data for all states are from 2016 except for New Mexico (2015), North Dakota (2015), and Oregon (2013).

Annual releases of women from state prisons and local jails

Prisons Jails Prisons & Jails combined
State Women released Percentage of all prison releases Women released* Percentage of all jail releases* Women released* Percentage of all releases*
Alabama 2,013 14% 39,740 18% 41,753 18%
Alaska 2,181 22% 510 14% 2,691 20%
Arizona 2,707 14% 46,162 23% 48,869 22%
Arkansas 4,456 15% 27,322 14% 31,778 15%
California 2,495 7% 186,571 20% 189,066 20%
Colorado 1,178 13% 44,204 24% 45,382 23%


Connecticut 1,281 13% n/a n/a n/a n/a
Delaware 1,749 19% n/a n/a n/a n/a
Florida 3,670 12% 121,336 19% 125,006 18%
Georgia 1,931 11% 84,398 18% 86,329 18%
Hawaii 141 14% n/a n/a n/a n/a
Idaho 931 21% 11,323 22% 12,254 22%
Illinois 2,190 8% 33,875 12% 36,065 11%
Indiana 2,087 14% 27,520 11% 29,607 11%
Iowa 865 16% 25,998 22% 26,863 22%
Kansas 1,012 16% 24,640 17% 25,652 17%
Kentucky 3,563 21% 104,403 23% 107,966 23%
Louisiana 1,853 11% 45,935 16% 47,788 16%
Maine 159 13% 5,422 27% 5,581 26%
Maryland 756 8% 27,711 17% 28,467 17%
Massachusetts 738 26% 4,323 6% 5,061 7%
Michigan 959 9% 51,240 17% 52,199 17%
Minnesota 898 11% 36,230 20% 37,128 20%
Mississippi 965 12% 17,207 17% 18,172 17%
Missouri 3,454 18% 36,395 16% 39,849 16%
Montana 154 13% 7,755 20% 7,909 20%
Nebraska 321 14% 16,902 24% 17,223 24%
Nevada 816 14% 34,374 23% 35,190 23%
New Hampshire 240 15% 5,732 26% 5,972 25%
New Jersey 563 6% 18,037 13% 18,600 13%
New Mexico 502 14% 20,171 21% 20,673 20%
New York 1,551 7% 28,241 15% 29,792 14%
North Carolina 2,411 12% 65,085 16% 67,496 15%
North Dakota 306 20% 3,857 13% 4,163 13%
Ohio 3,521 14% 79,848 20% 83,369 20%
Oklahoma 1,724 16% 23,453 14% 25,177 14%
Oregon 639 12% 38,292 22% 38,931 22%
Pennsylvania 2,374 9% 34,698 18% 37,072 17%
Rhode Island 326 10% n/a n/a n/a n/a
South Carolina 1,065 12% 45,045 14% 46,110 14%
South Dakota 447 18% 14,011 25% 14,458 24%
Tennessee 2,478 17% 94,544 24% 97,022 24%
Texas 12,453 16% 145,430 14% 157,883 14%
Utah 540 15% 14,165 16% 14,705 16%
Vermont 280 16% n/a n/a n/a n/a
Virginia 1,771 14% 51,266 18% 53,037 18%
Washington 948 12% 62,503 23% 63,451 23%
West Virginia 583 17% 11,201 24% 11,784 24%
Wisconsin 835 9% 34,906 18% 35,741 17%
Wyoming 149 14% 2,580 8% 2,729 9%
National 81,229 13% 1,854,561 18% 1,935,790 18%
*Note: The numbers in this table represent the minimum number and percentages of jail releases that are women. The actual numbers are probably greater, because a significant number of releases reported in the Census of Jails, 2013 are missing data on sex. (Nationally, 15% of all release records were missing this data.) The percentages of releases that are women, as reported in this table, were calculated based on the total number of jail releases, including those with no data on sex.

Sources and data notes: For prison releases, data are from the Bureau of Justice Statistics National Corrections Reporting Program, except for Vermont, which did not report release data by sex to NCRP. Vermont’s prison release data comes from BJS’ CSAT-Prisoners tool, and only includes releases of individuals sentenced to more than 1 year. Prison release data are from 2016 for all states except New Mexico (2015), North Dakota (2015), and Oregon (2013). Jail data are from the BJS Census of Jails, 2013, and are not available for 5 states (Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Vermont) where the jail system is entirely integrated into the state prison system. In Alaska, there are a small number of locally operated jails not part of the state system, so available data reflect only the locally operated jails and not the entire jail population.

In 2016, about 81,000 women were released from state prisons nationwide, and women and girls accounted for at least 1.8 million releases from local jails in 2013 (the last year all jails were surveyed). While many people are released from jail within a day or so and may not need reentry support, jail releases can’t be overlooked, especially for women, who are more likely than men to be incarcerated in jails as opposed to prisons. (Moreover, jails typically provide fewer programs and services than prisons, so individuals released from jails are even less likely to have received necessary treatment or services while incarcerated than those in prison.)

Those figures mean that nationally, about 1 in 8 (13%) of all individuals released from state prisons – and more than 1 in 6 (18%) jail releases – are women. In 20 states, at least 1 in 5 (20%) individuals released from any incarceration (either prison or jail) is female. Fully half of all states release at least 1,000 women from prison annually; in Texas, it’s over 12,000 women per year.

As in other stages of the criminal justice system, most post-release policies and programs were created with the much larger male population in mind. But research makes clear that women returning home have “a significantly higher need for services than men,” and that reentry supports should be responsive to the particular needs of justice-involved women:

  • Economic marginalization and poverty: As we’ve previously shown, formerly incarcerated women (especially women of color) have much higher rates of unemployment and homelessness, and are less likely to have a high school education, compared to formerly incarcerated men. These findings help explain why, in a 2012 National Institute of Justice (NIJ) study, 79% of women interviewed 30 days pre-release cited “employment, education, and life skills services” as their greatest area of need (followed closely by transition services). An earlier study (Holtfreder et al., 2004), found that poverty is the strongest predictor of recidivism among women, and “providing state‐sponsored support to address short‐term needs (e.g., housing) reduces the odds of recidivism by 83%” for poor women on probation and parole.
  • Housing: A 2017 Prisoner Reentry Institute (PRI) report identified homelessness and the lack of stable housing as the biggest problem facing women in the New York City justice system, noting that 80% of women at Rikers said they needed assistance finding housing upon discharge. A 2006 California study found that 75% of formerly incarcerated women surveyed had experienced homelessness as some point, and 41% were currently homeless. Women who can’t secure safe housing may return to abusive partners or family situations for housing and financial reasons – a point echoed in interviews with paroled women in a study by Brown and Bloom.
  • Trauma and gendered pathways to incarceration: The PRI report emphasizes the importance of gender-responsive and trauma-informed interventions for reducing recidivism among women. According to that report, such interventions should: provide a safe, respectful environment; promote healthy relationships; address substance use, trauma, and mental health issues; provide women with opportunities to improve their socioeconomic conditions; establish “comprehensive and collaborative” community services; and prioritize women’s empowerment.
  • Family reunification: Most incarcerated women are mothers, and are frequently the primary caretakers of their children. The importance of family reunification – noted throughout the literature, by Carter et al. (2006), Brown and Bloom (2009), Wright, et al. (2012), the NIJ (2012), among others – cannot be overstated, especially given the trauma experienced by children when separated from a parent.

While the complexity of women’s reentry needs can be daunting, there are successful models in operation demonstrating how states, counties, and communities can best serve them. Notably, A New Way of Life Reentry Project operates eight houses in Los Angeles and is working toward expanding its model nationally. The program offers wraparound services including transitional housing, case management, and legal services to support women as they navigate reentry. Staff support women from initial reentry tasks like obtaining ID cards and applying for public assistance all the way through the process of regaining custody of children and finding permanent housing. Similar programs offering wraparound services exist in other cities, such as the Ladies of Hope Ministry’s Hope House in New York City; the Center for Women in Transition in St. Louis; and Angela House in Houston, which also provides programming tailored “to the health and psychosocial needs of women recovering from sexual exploitation.”

Frustratingly, despite their success, these programs lack the funding and capacity to serve all of the women who desperately need them: Angela House notes on its website that it can only serve 12 to 14 women at a time, but receives more than 300 applications every year. Unless state governments and federal agencies take action to grow the capacity of these service providers, hundreds of thousands of women every year will leave prison or jail without the resources they need to succeed. As lawmakers increasingly call for policy changes to help women in prison, they must not ignore the massive gap between the need and availability of women’s reentry programs.

A detailed spreadsheet including release data for both men and women is available on our Data Toolbox page.

Wendy Sawyer is the Prison Policy Initiative Research Director. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

5 responses:

  1. In addition to housing, jobs, education and gender responsive/trauma informed care, women transitioning from prisons and jails need services that begin before their release. The Ladies Empowerment & Education Program (“LEAP,”) a re-entry program for women in Miami, provides this sort of continuum of care that begins pre-release and continues post release.

  2. J. Lukin says:

    Do you know about the Women’s Prison Association and College and Community Fellowship in NYC?

  3. Debra Gore says:

    Thanks for drawing attention to this vital issue. Women’s success in reentry impacts not only themselves, but also (in the majority of cases) their children. County jails (in Texas, at least) offer far fewer programs for women than for men. Thankfully, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is ramping up reentry efforts for women, but it is an uphill climb. The good news is that many women are successfully transitioning to the free world, are changing their lives, and are restoring relationships with their families. The determination and courage of these women astounds me.

  4. M.C. YBARRA, LCSW says:

    Thank you for drawing attention to a major issue for women in custody. There continues to be a huge gap in providing gender specific resources and programs for women while in custody and re-entering the community. This has been helpful and informative information for my Capstone Project in developing an innovation for Promoting Smart Decarceration. Fight On !!!

  5. Joyce David says:

    I am a female that was recently released from prison I have no family in this state little to no support and no place to live. My parole officer set me up with the “housing liasion” to attempt to help me with housing they gave me 2 options, a transitional home that would cost me $550.00 a month or a shelter thats in a high crime area. before I was released I participated in re-entry class. I was given a housing resource packet from 2014 most of the organizations dont even exist any more. So ive dicided to apply for my 501(c) and figure out a way to open my own trasitional house. It makes it even harder because I dont have an addiction or sex related crime. This report was very informative and appriceated thank you.

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