Despite recent reforms, the United States still incarcerates 698 people for every 100,000 residents, more than any other country. Compared to that number, the women’s incarceration rate of 133 seems quaint. But it’s the highest incarceration rate for women in the world. And while the overall U.S. incarceration rate is falling, the women’s rate remains at an historic high.
This report updates how U.S. women fare in the world’s carceral landscape, comparing incarceration rates for women of each U.S. state with the equivalent rates for countries around the world.
Only 4% of the world’s female population lives in the U.S., but the U.S. accounts for over 30% of the world’s incarcerated women.
Rates calculated per 100,000 people. Read more about the data.
Oklahoma has long had a reputation for over-incarcerating women, especially mothers dealing with drug or alcohol addictions. But having children also opens up Oklahoma women to incarceration when they are victims of abuse. In a recent illuminating case, a father violently abused a mother and her children, and got probation, but the mother was sentenced to 30 years for failing to protect their kids when he broke their daughter’s bones. As Oklahoma has become the “world’s prison capital,” the state’s women risk being further bulldozed by systems designed for men.
The rapid growth of women’s incarceration, coupled with the longstanding focus on men, means that recent criminal justice reforms have not kept up with the number and needs of incarcerated women. Women often do not have the same access to diversion and other programs that can shorten incarceration. Wyoming only recently allowed women to attend an alternative 6-month “boot camp” instead of serving 6-10 years in prison. And even then the women would have go as far as Florida to serve their time, because Wyoming’s camp is only open to men. Even Texas, which incarcerates more women than any other state, has few educational or vocational programs open to the women in its facilities.
But the scope of the problem for all of these states becomes staggering when compared with countries across the world. The U.S. and its states make up 27 of the world’s most carceral places for women. Thailand comes in 28th place, fueled in part by America’s exported “war on drugs.” Women in Kansas and Thailand are incarcerated at similar rates. More states follow until El Salvador breaks the steady stream of U.S. jurisdictions as the world’s 35th most zealous incarcerator of women. El Salvadorian women are still routinely jailed for miscarriages, and have the same incarceration rate as women in Wisconsin.
The true scale of U.S. over-incarceration becomes even more apparent when we look to our closest allies, the fellow founding countries of the North American Treaty Organization (NATO). The U.S. incarcerates women over 8 times as much as any of these NATO countries.
While women are in fact incarcerated far less than men, comparing the women’s incarceration rate to that for men paints a falsely optimistic picture. When compared to jurisdictions across the globe, even the U.S. states with the lowest levels of incarceration are far out of line with global norms.
Like our report, Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017, this report takes a comprehensive view of confinement in the United States that goes beyond the commonly reported statistics to offer a fuller picture of this country’s different and overlapping systems of confinement.
This broader universe of confinement includes justice-involved youth held in juvenile residential facilities, women detained by the U.S. Marshals Service (many pre-trial), women detained for immigration offenses, sex offenders indefinitely detained or committed in “civil commitment centers” after completing a sentence, and women committed to psychiatric hospitals as a result of criminal charges or convictions.
We included these confined populations in the total incarceration rate of the United States and, wherever state-level data made it possible, in state incarceration rates. This data paints a more complete picture of state criminal justice policies that impact girls and women. But while we were able to get most of the data, others are unavailable, non-existent, or older than what is available for the total population.
Many common criminal justice datasets do not include separate counts of women, which makes it harder to get the full picture. For example:
The missing data on women held in psychiatric commitment (for evaluation or treatment as Incompetent to Stand Trial or Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity) in each state is particularly significant. Having data on justice-involved psychiatric patients is critical when looking policies to end women’s mass incarceration in particular, because incarcerated women experience mental health problems at rates significantly higher than incarcerated men. The incarceration data we do have reveal a system that is clearly broken, but fixing it would be easier and more efficient if policy makers had complete and detailed data.
This report is not directly comparable with our 2015 report States of Women’s Incarceration: The Global Context because of several methodological improvements, including:
Of these improvements, the most significant is the reallocation of women incarcerated in federal facilities. As readers of the previous edition of this report may remember, West Virginia hosts federal correctional facilities, driving up the number of incarcerated women within the state. But this time we were able to get data to reallocate women incarcerated in federal prisons back to their home states — the states that sent them to prison in the first place. This change in data brings Oklahoma “back” up to the top, as expected.
As a result of our choice to include other systems of confinement in our incarceration rates, and to reallocate women in federal prisons back to the states, this report creates a unique U.S. dataset that offers a complete look at all kinds of justice-related confinement in each state. We explain our specific data sources in more detail below and provided the raw data for the component parts of our calculations in an appendix to this report.
Our data on other countries comes from the indispensable Institute for Criminal Policy Research’s World Prison Brief.
For the 50 U.S. states, we calculated incarceration rates per 100,000 female population that reflect our holistic view of confinement, which include:
The raw data is available in a data appendix and the individual sources were as follows:
One additional category of confinement is included in the women’s national incarceration rate for the United States, but not in state rates, because state-level data were not available: Immigration detention. The one-day count of women under the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in November 2017 is reported in “ICE Detention Facilities As Of November 2017” by the National Immigrant Justice Center. The analysis is based on data obtained via Freedom of Information Act request by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center; the data are available for download from the same source.
Incarcerated women in other countries: The number of women incarcerated in each country was calculated based on the Institute for Criminal Policy Research’s World Prison Brief’s Highest to Lowest - Female prisoners (percentage of prison population), which provided the percentage of each country’s incarcerated population that is female, and the corresponding list of incarcerated population totals for each country. (For some countries, the World Prison Brief includes some number of girls in the numbers of incarcerated women.) Women’s incarceration data was not available for Cuba and Uzbekistan, which were included in our overall Global Context report.
Female population in each country: For most countries’ women’s population we relied on the United Nations’ World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, Total Population — Female file. For countries within the United Kingdom, the UN’s World Population Prospects and the ICPR’s World Prison Brief were incompatible, so we relied on individual country censuses for female population totals for each jurisdiction. For the United Kingdom (England & Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland) we used the United Kingdom’s Office of National Statistics’ “Population Estimates for UK, England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland” (File: Mid-2016, Table MYE1: Population estimates: Summary for the UK, mid-2016). Incarceration rates for the four jurisdictions within the former Yugoslavia are based on an estimated women’s population. The World Prison Brief publishes incarceration data separately for Serbia and Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina: Federation and Bosnia and Herzegovina: Republika Srpska separately, but reliable female population counts are only available for each pair of jurisdictions combined. Total population counts, however, are available for each so we estimated women’s population to be half of the total population.
Separately, to calculate the percentage of women worldwide who live in the in the U.S. we used the female population data from the World Bank.
Finally, for this report, we decided to accept the World Prison Brief’s definition of country, choosing to exclude countries only for reasons of population size. To make the comparisons more meaningful to U.S. states, we’ve chosen to include only independent nations with total populations of more than 500,000 people.
In order to make the graph comparing the founding NATO nations to individual states, however, we had to make two exceptions to this policy. First, we included Iceland, which is a founding NATO member, even though its population is below 500,000. We also aggregated the total incarcerated and total population data for the three separate nations of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Island, into the one member of NATO, the United Kingdom.
This report requests your location so that we can provide you with a visual comparing your state’s use of incarceration to the founding NATO countries. If you gave us this permission, we discarded your location data as the page finished loading. If you did not give us this permission — or if your browser was configured to decline permission automatically — this report simply makes an educated but unrecorded guess based on your IP address about what state’s data you will find most relevant.
All Prison Policy Initiative reports are collaborative endeavors, but this report builds on the successful collaborations of the 2014 and 2016 versions of the States of Incarceration: The Global Context report as well as the first edition of this report, written with co-author Russ Immarigeon in 2015. Beyond the original structure developed by data artist Josh Begley, the author of this year’s report is particularly indebted to Jordan Miner for helping with state-specific graphs, to Joshua Herman for help labeling the main graphic, to Robert Machuga and Elydah Joyce for design assistance, and to the International Centre for Prison Studies for aggregating comparable world incarceration data in the invaluable World Prison Brief. And special thanks to Peter Wagner and Wendy Sawyer for their work on the data behind this report.
This report was supported by a generous grant from the Public Welfare Foundation and by our individual donors, who give us the resources and the flexibility to quickly turn our insights into new movement resources.
Aleks Kajstura is Legal Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. Her previous publications on women’s incarceration include the first edition of States of Women’s Incarceration: The Global Context in 2015 and Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017.
The non-profit, non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative was founded in 2001 to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization and spark advocacy campaigns to create a more just society. The organization is known for its visual breakdown of mass incarceration in the U.S., as well as its data-rich analyses of how states vary in their use of punishment. The Prison Policy Initiative’s research is designed to reshape debates around mass incarceration by offering the “big picture” view of critical policy issues, such as probation and parole, women’s incarceration, and youth confinement.