By Aleks Kajstura
November 13, 2018
With growing public attention to the problem of mass incarceration, people want to know about women’s experience with incarceration. How many women are held in prisons, jails, and other correctional facilities in the United States? And why are they there? How is their experience different from men’s? While these are important questions, finding those answers requires not only disentangling the country’s decentralized and overlapping criminal justice systems,1 but also unearthing the frustratingly hard to find and often altogether missing data on gender.
This report provides a detailed view of the 219,000 women incarcerated in the United States, and how they fit into the even broader picture of correctional control. This 2018 update to our inaugural Women’s Whole Pie report pulls together data from a number of government agencies and calculates the breakdown of women held by each correctional system by specific offense. The report, produced in collaboration with the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, answers the questions of why and where women are locked up:
In stark contrast to the total incarcerated population, where the state prison systems hold twice as many people as are held in jails, incarcerated women are much more evenly split between state prisons and local jails. This has serious consequences for incarcerated women and their families.
Women’s incarceration has grown at twice the pace of men’s incarceration in recent decades, and has disproportionately been located in local jails. The explanation for exactly what happened, when, and why does not yet exist because the data on women has long been obscured by the larger scale of men’s incarceration. Frustratingly, even as this report is updated every year, it will not become a tool for tracking changes in women’s incarceration over time. The dearth of data means that this report is compiled from the best sources available, which are updated less frequently than “total population” data, and are often not compatible across years.
The disaggregated numbers presented here are an important step to ensuring that women are not left behind in the effort to end mass incarceration.2
Looking at the big picture shows that a staggering number of women who are incarcerated are not even convicted: a quarter of women who are behind bars have not yet had a trial. Moreover, 60% of women under local control have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial.
Adding to the picture of women in local jails, aside from women under local authority (or jurisdiction), state and federal agencies pay local jails to house an additional 13,000 women. For example, ICE and the U.S. Marshals, which have fewer dedicated facilities for their detainees, contract with local jails to hold roughly 5,000 women. So the number of women physically held in jails is even higher:
Avoiding pre-trial incarceration is uniquely challenging for women. The number of unconvicted women stuck in jail is surely not because courts are considering women, who are generally the primary caregivers of children, to be a flight risk. The far more likely answer is that incarcerated women, who have lower incomes than incarcerated men, have an even harder time affording cash bail. When the typical bail amounts to a full year’s income for women,3 it’s no wonder that women are stuck in jail awaiting trial.4
Even once convicted, the system funnels women into jails: About a quarter of convicted incarcerated women are held in jails, compared to about 10% of all people incarcerated with a conviction.
So what does it mean that large numbers of women are held in jail — for them, and for their families? While stays in jail are generally shorter than in stays in prison, jails make it harder to stay in touch with family than prisons do. Phone calls are more expensive, up to $1.50 per minute, and other forms of communication are more restricted - some jails don’t even allow real letters, limiting mail to postcards. This is especially troubling given that 80% of women in jails are mothers, and most of them are primary caretakers of their children. Thus children are particularly susceptible to the domino effect of burdens placed on incarcerated women.
Women in jails are also more likely to suffer from mental health problems and experience serious psychological distress than either women in prisons or men in either correctional setting.5 Compounding the problem, jails are particularly poorly positioned to provide proper mental health care. (Though that is certainly not to say that prisons are always better at meeting women’s needs.)
The numbers revealed by this report enable a national conversation about policies that impact women. Seeing the full scope of women’s incarceration enables us to talk about policies that impact women incarcerated by different government agencies and in different types of facilities. These figures also serve as the foundation for reforming the policies that lead to incarcerating women in the first place.
Too often, the conversation about criminal justice reform starts and stops with the question of non-violent drug and property offenses. While drug and property offenses make up more than half of the offenses for which women are incarcerated, the chart reveals that all offenses — including the violent offenses that account for roughly a quarter of all incarcerated women — must be considered in the effort to reduce the number of incarcerated women in this country. This new data on women underlines the need for reform discussions to focus not just on the easier choices but on the policy changes that will have the most impact.
Furthermore, even among women, incarceration is not indiscriminate. A recent study revealed that a third of incarcerated women identify as lesbian or bisexual,6 compared to less than 10% of men. The same study found that lesbian and bisexual women are likely to receive longer sentences than their heterosexual peers. And although the data do not exist to break down the “whole pie” by race or ethnicity, overall, and Black and American Indian women are markedly overrepresented in prisons and jails: Incarcerated women are 53% White, 29% Black, 14% Hispanic, 2.5% American Indian and Alaskan Native, 0.9% Asian, and 0.4% Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander.7 While we are a long way away from having data on intersectional impacts of sexuality and race or ethnicity on women’s likelihood of incarceration, it is clear that Black and lesbian or bisexual women are disproportionately subject to incarceration.8
Even the “Whole Pie” of incarceration above represents just one small portion (17%) of the women under correctional supervision, which includes over a million women on probation and parole. Again, this is in stark contrast to the general incarcerated population (mostly men), where a third of all people under correctional control are in prisons and jails.
Three out of four women under control of any U.S. correctional system are on probation. Probation is often billed as an alternative to incarceration, but instead it is frequently set with unrealistic conditions that undermine its goal of keeping people from being locked up.9 For example, probation often comes with steep fees, which, like bail, women are in the worst position to afford.10 Failing to pay these probation fees is often a violation of probation. Childcare duties further complicate probation requirements that often include meetings with probation officers, especially for women with no extra money to spend on babysitters or reliable transportation across town. All of these issues make women particularly vulnerable to being incarcerated not because they commit crimes, but because they run afoul of one of the burdensome obligations of their probation supervision.
The picture of women’s incarceration is far from complete, and many questions remain about mass incarceration’s unique impact on women. Based on our analysis in this report, we know that a quarter of incarcerated women are unconvicted. But is that number growing? And how do the harms of that unnecessary incarceration intersect with women’s disproportionate caregiving to impact families? Beyond these big picture questions, there are a plethora of detailed data points that are not reported for women by any government agencies, such as the simple number of women incarcerated in U.S. Territories or involuntarily committed to state psychiatric hospitals because of justice system involvement.
While more data is needed, the data in this report lends focus and perspective to the policy reforms needed to end mass incarceration without leaving women behind.
This briefing uses the most recent data available on the number of people in various types of facilities and the most significant charge or conviction. Because not all types of data are collected each year, we sometimes had to combine differing data sets; for example, we applied the percentage distribution of offense types from the previous year to the current year’s total count data. To smooth out these differing levels of vintage and precision among the sources, we choose to round all figures in the graphic. This process may, however, result in various parts not adding up precisely to the total.
Several data definitions and clarifications may be helpful to researchers reusing this data in new ways:
Illustrated in our work comparing individual states’ incarceration rates to other countries. ↩
A previous study found that women who could not make bail had an annual median income of just $11,071. And among those women, Black women had a median annual income of only $9,083 (just 20% that of a white non-incarcerated man). When the typical $10,000 bail amounts to a full year’s income, it’s no wonder that women are stuck in jail awaiting trial. ↩
A gender analysis of the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Indicators of Mental Health Problems Reported by Prisoners and Jail Inmates 2011-12 report is available in the blog post New government report points to continuing mental health crisis in prisons and jails. And for anyone still unsure of the harms of jail, just look at the suicide rates in U.S. jails. ↩
A recent study based on the National Inmate Survey found that 42.1% of women in prison 35.7% of women in jail are sexual minorities, compared to 9.3% of men in prison, 6.2% of men in jail. The study also confirmed that “[t]here is disproportionate incarceration, mistreatment, harsh punishment, and sexual victimization of sexual minority inmates.” ↩
The women’s incarcerated population has a different race and ethnicity breakdown than the total U.S. population and total incarcerated population. ↩
Reporting from the New York Times, Probation May Sound Light, but Punishments Can Land Hard, captures the typical cascading fees and conditions while following one woman’s navigation of probation. ↩
This report was made possible by the partnership of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice, the support of the Public Welfare Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, and all of the donors, researchers, programmers and designers who helped the Prison Policy Initiative develop the Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie series of reports.
Aleks Kajstura is Legal Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. Her previous publications on women’s incarceration include States of Women’s Incarceration: The Global Context reports, which compares the rate of women’s incarceration in every U.S. state to 166 independent countries.
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 most well-known for its big-picture publication Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie that helps the public more fully engage in criminal justice reform.
The ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice is an unprecedented, multiyear effort to cut the nation’s jail and prison populations by 50% and challenge racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The Campaign is building movements in all 50 states for reforms to usher in a new era of justice in America.
This report is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.