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By Aleks Kajstura
October 29, 2019
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 231,000 women and girls incarcerated in the United States, and how they fit into the even broader picture of correctional control. We pull 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, more incarcerated women are held in jails than in state prisons. As we will explain, the outsized role of jails 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 data needed to explain exactly what happened, when, and why does not yet exist, not least 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 is not a direct tool for tracking changes in women’s incarceration over time because we are forced to rely on the limited sources available, which are neither updated regularly nor always compatible across years.
Particularly in light of the scarcity of gender-specific data, 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
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 in jails under local control have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial.
Aside from women under local authority (or jurisdiction), state and federal agencies also pay local jails to house an additional 12,500 women. For example, ICE and the U.S. Marshals, which have fewer dedicated facilities for their detainees, contract with local jails to hold roughly 5,600 women. So, the number of women physically held in jails is even higher:
Troublingly, the newest data available show that from 2016 to 2017, the number of women in jail on a given day grew by more than 5%, even as the rest of the jail population declined. 3 Again, the shortage of timely, gender-specific data makes it impossible to explain this increase. It could be due to increases among women in arrests, pretrial detention, case processing times, punishment for probation or parole violations, or jail sentence lengths - or any combination of these factors. Of all these possible explanations, only arrest data are reported annually and by sex. And from 2016-2017, women’s arrests actually declined by 0.7%, so changes in arrests can’t explain all of the increase in the number of women in jail that year. 4 Ultimately, we need more data to fully explain what’s behind the recent growth in women’s jail populations.
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 to be a flight risk, particularly when they are generally the primary caregivers of children. The far more likely answer is that incarcerated women, who have lower incomes than incarcerated men, have an even harder time affording money bail. When the typical bail amounts to a full year’s income for women,5 it’s no wonder that women are stuck in jail awaiting trial.6
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. Jail phone calls are three times as expensive as calls from prison, 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.7 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 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 and reforms should address the disparities related to LBTQ status and race as well. A recent study revealed that a third of incarcerated women identify as lesbian or bisexual,8 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 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.9 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.10
Additionally, a recent Prison Policy Initiative analysis found significant racial disparities in arrest rates for women (but not men) in police-initiated traffic and street stops. Women have not benefited equally from police reforms — since 1980, men’s arrest rates have fallen by 30%, but women’s arrest rates have barely budged. The upward trajectory of women’s incarceration is undoubtedly reinforced by policing practices.11
Of the girls confined in youth facilities, nearly 10% are held for status offenses, such as “running away, truancy, and incorrigibility”. Among boys, such offenses account for less than 3% of their confined population. These statistics are particularly troubling because status offenses tend to be simply responses to abuse.
As is the case with women, girls of color and those who identify as LBTQ are disproportionately confined in juvenile facilities. Black girls account for 35% of the confined girls population, and Latina girls account for another 19%, while white girls are only 38% of those locked up. And while LBTQ women are also disproportionately represented in the adult correctional systems, a staggering 40% of girls in the juvenile justice system are lesbian, bisexual, or questioning and gender non-conforming. (The comparable statistic for boys is just under 14%.)
While society and the justice systems subject all girls to stricter codes of conduct than is expected of their male peers, Black girls in particular shoulder an added burden of adultification — being perceived as older, more culpable, and more responsible than their peers — which leads to greater contact with and harsher consequences within the juvenile justice system.
Even the “Whole Pie” of incarceration above represents just one small portion (19%) of the women under correctional supervision, which includes over a million women on probation and parole. Again, this is in stark contrast to the total correctional 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.12 For example, probation often comes with steep fees, which, like bail, women are in the worst position to afford.13 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.
Almost 2 million women and girls are released from prisons and jails every year, but few post-release programs are available to them — partly because so many women are confined to jails, which are not meant to be used for long-term incarceration. It is perhaps then no surprise that formerly incarcerated women are also more likely to be homeless than formerly incarcerated men, making reentry and compliance with probation or parole even more difficult. 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 or parole supervision.
The picture of women’s incarceration is far from complete, and many questions remain about mass incarceration’s unique impact on women. This report offers the critical estimate that a quarter of all incarcerated women are unconvicted. But — since the federal government hasn’t collected the key underlying data in a decade — 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:
This is most powerfully illustrated in our work comparing individual states’ incarceration rates to other countries. See also the underlying data. ↩
For example, our report The Gender Divide: Tracking Women’s State Prison Growth covers the effects of reform on women in prisons and the Vera Institute of Justice covers women in jails in their report, Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform. ↩
Readers comparing last year’s edition of this report to this one will notice a much larger apparent increase in the number of women in local jails. This is because in 2017, the BJS counted the jail populations at midyear (the end of June), whereas for the previous two years, it used the yearend counts, and there is a significant amount of seasonal variation in jail populations. Jail populations are typically higher in the summer than winter. The BJS adjusted its estimates for 2015 and 2016 to account for seasonal variation and make year-to-year comparisons possible. For both years, the difference among women between the previously published yearend populations and the new adjusted midyear populations was about 5%, or about 5,000 women. The 5% increase we refer to in the text was calculated using the updated, seasonally-adjusted estimates. ↩
However, there was a significant increase (7.6%) in the number of arrests for drug offenses among women that year. It’s possible that these cases influenced other factors and therefore indirectly help explain the jail growth among women. For example, some of these drug arrests could have led to revocations of women’s probation or parole, landing them in jail. The possibility that more probation or parole violations could explain some of the jail growth among women is particularly compelling, considering that justice-involved women are disproportionately likely to be under community supervision compared to men. Furthermore, it appears that probation failures are up overall (gender-specific data are not available). Other data from BJS shows that absconders and people discharged from probation for “other” unsatisfactory reasons have increased over the past few years, even as the total number of people exiting from probation has been trending downward. ↩
Our research 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. ↩
As we’ve written, recent studies specifically looking at pretrial confinement confirm that women’s inability to afford bail has a particularly high impact on families. ↩
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. ↩
These disparities don’t stop at incarceration. Even once released, women are at higher risk for homelessness and unemployment, with Black women being hit hardest. ↩
Data show that white women were about half as likely as white men to be arrested during a stop, but Black women were at least as likely as white men to be arrested. Black women were arrested in 4.4 percent of police-initiated stops, which was roughly three times as often as white women (1.5 percent), and twice as often as Latinas (2.2 percent). For more analysis of policing data, see our analysis in Policing Women: Race and gender disparities in police stops, searches, and use of force. ↩
Probation also varies wildly between states. ↩
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 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, 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.