With growing public attention to the problem of mass incarceration, people want to know about women’s experiences with incarceration. How many women are held in prisons, jails, and other correctional facilities in the United States? Why are they there? How are their experiences different from men’s? Further, how has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the number of women behind bars? These are important questions, but finding those answers requires not only disentangling the country’s decentralized and overlapping criminal legal systems,1 but also unearthing the frustratingly limited data that’s broken down by gender.2
This report provides a detailed view of the 172,700 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 break down the number of women and girls held by each correctional system by specific offense. In this updated report, we’ve also gone beyond the numbers, using rare self-reported data from a national survey of people in prison,3 to offer new insights about incarcerated women’s backgrounds, families, health, and experiences in prison. This report, produced in collaboration with the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, answers the questions of why and where women are locked up — and so much more:
Most notably, and 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 do 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 using the same data sources from year to 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.4
A staggering number of women who are incarcerated are not even convicted: more than 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 8,875 women. For example, ICE and the U.S. Marshals Service, which have fewer dedicated facilities for their detainees, contract with local jails to hold roughly 3,200 women. So, the number of women physically held in jails is even higher:
Avoiding pretrial detention is particularly 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. This reflects the different distribution of offense types and criminal histories between convicted men and women. Women are proportionally more likely to be serving a sentence of incarceration for a property or drug offense and less likely to be incarcerated for a violent offense when compared to men. These differences mean that women are more likely to be sentenced to a term in jail, where people typically serve shorter sentences of up to one year.7
So, what does it mean that large numbers of women are held in jail — for them, and for their families? First, while stays in jail are generally shorter than in stays in prison, jails can be especially deadly for women. Women have a higher mortality rate than men in jails, dying of drug and alcohol intoxication at twice the rate of men. And the number of deaths by suicide among women in jails increased by almost 65% between the periods of 2000-2004 and 2015-2019. Women are more likely than men to enter jail with a medical problem or a serious mental illness and while incarcerated, women are more likely to suffer from mental health problems and experience serious psychological distress.8 Being locked up doesn’t help: Research shows that incarceration can cause lasting damage to mental health.
Compounding the problem is the fact that jails are particularly poorly positioned to provide proper health care. In fact, local jails tend to offer fewer services and programs overall than prisons do, and because most programs are designed for the larger male population, women may not even have access to programming that’s available to men in the same jail. (However, this is certainly not to say that prisons are always better at meeting women’s needs, as we will discuss further.)
Jails also make it harder to stay in touch with family than prisons do. Jail phone calls are often at least 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. Increasingly, both prisons and jails are doing away with real mail altogether and contracting with private companies that scan and then destroy postal mail, delivering shoddy scanned copies to the recipients. These barriers to authentic communication are 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.
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 over a quarter of all incarcerated women — must be considered in the effort to reduce the number of incarcerated women in this country. This fact underscores 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, race, and ethnicity as well. A 2017 study revealed that a third of incarcerated women identify as lesbian or bisexual,9 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 more likely to be put into solitary confinement.
And although the data do not exist to break down the “whole pie” by race or ethnicity, overall Black and American Indian/Alaska Native women are markedly overrepresented in prisons and jails: Incarcerated women are 53% white, 29% Black, 14% Hispanic, 2.5% American Indian or Alaska Native, 0.9% Asian, and 0.4% Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander.10 While we are a long way 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 and girls are disproportionately subject to incarceration.11
Of the girls confined in youth facilities, nearly 1 in 10 are held for status offenses, such as “running away, truancy, and incorrigibility.” Among boys, status offenses account for just 3% of the confined population. These statistics are particularly troubling because status offenses tend to be simply responses to abuse.12
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 Hispanic girls account for another 20%, while white girls are only 38% of those locked up. And while LBTQ women overrepresented 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 criminal legal 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.
About half of confined women and girls are held in state and federal prisons. In general, women in prison are serving longer sentences than those in jails, and they are often located far from their families and friends. Even in geographically large states like Montana and Arizona, sometimes there is just one facility for women, making visits difficult for loved ones located hundreds of miles away.13 But this is just one of the many challenges facing women in prison, as we recently found in our analysis of a rich dataset published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates.14
The data from the survey, published in late 2020, offer a rare in-depth look at the backgrounds and experiences of people in prison, relying on responses from incarcerated people themselves, rather than the administrative data that’s easier to collect from prison systems. In our analysis, we focused on people held in state prisons, who make up a much larger piece of the “whole pie” than those in federal prisons. Among our findings, and those of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, we see that in state prisons nationwide:15
These statistics confirm much of what we know about incarcerated women from previous research: By almost any measure, women in prison are worse off than men, both leading up to and during their incarceration. Furthermore, the underlying causes of women’s criminal behavior are distinct from men’s and show that they would be better served in treatment programs in their communities than by criminal legal system punishments.18
Even the “whole pie” of incarceration in the chart above represents just one small portion (18%) of the women under any form of correctional control, which includes 808,700 women on probation or parole. Again, this is in stark contrast to the total correctional population (mostly men), where one-third (34%) of all people under correctional control are in prisons and jails.
To avoid double-counting, any woman with more than one status was included in the most restrictive category, with probation counted as the least restrictive and imprisonment as the most restrictive. Percentages do not total 100% due to rounding.
Three-quarters of women (75%) under the 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.19 For example, probation often comes with steep fees, which, like bail, women are in the worst position to afford.20 Failing to pay these probation fees is often a non-criminal “technical” 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 childcare or reliable transportation across town. And probation violations — even for these innocuous and understandable reasons — can land women in jail or prison who were never sentenced to incarceration. In fact, our analysis of the 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates found that one-third (33%) of women in state prisons were on probation at the time of their arrest, which underscores how this “alternative to incarceration” often simply delays incarceration.
In the wake of the 2022 Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, restrictive probation and parole conditions can also create barriers to accessing reproductive health care. Restrictions on travel are “standard conditions” of supervision in many places, requiring approval from a probation or parole officer to make specific trips. With many states now banning (and trying to criminalize) abortion, seeking abortion care may be difficult or impossible for many of the hundreds of thousands of women on probation or parole in those states.
Reentry is another critical point at which women are too often left behind. Almost 2.5 million women and girls are released from prisons and jails every year,21 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. Additionally, many women with criminal records face barriers to employment in female-dominated occupations, such as nursing and elder care.22 It is little surprise, therefore, that formerly incarcerated women — especially women of color — are also more likely to be unemployed and/or 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 almost 20 years — 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.
As public awareness has grown about the differences between gender identity and sex assigned at birth, there has been a growing interest in the question of how transgender and nonbinary individuals experience incarceration. Unfortunately, government surveys that break down data between "male" and "female" categories often include trans men among "females" and trans women among "males," relying on housing assignments as a proxy for gender. This further muddies the picture of women's incarceration.
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, since prison offense data lags by one year. 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. ↩
Even the available data that are disaggregated by sex are frustratingly limited, in that they typically only differentiate between “male” and “female,” ignoring the reality that the gender identities of confined people (and all people, for that matter) are not limited to this binary. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has begun to collect data on transgender and nonbinary individuals; for example, it reported data on a small sample of transgender individuals in state prisons in its 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates, which we analyzed. Meanwhile other non-government organizations such as the National Center for Transgender Equality are beginning to fill this data gap with large-scale surveys. For example, the U.S. Trans Survey asks respondents about recent experiences with policing, incarceration, and immigration detention. Although currently incarcerated individuals are not included in the sample, 2% of the respondents to the 2015 survey were incarcerated in the previous year. This field of research has a long way to go before the data are consistently collected and reported by gender identity rather than an administrative categorization of “male” versus “female.” The use of the terms “women” and “girls” in this report reflect these present data limitations. For more on the limitations of gender-specific data and how the current data misclassifies trans men and women, see the section of this report The need for more data. ↩
The Survey of Prison Inmates, last conducted in 2016 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, provides the most recent nationally-representative, self-reported data about the people incarcerated in state and federal prisons, their backgrounds, and their experiences in prison. In our analysis of the data, we focused on state prisons, which account for a much greater share of the total incarcerated population, and wherever possible, we used the self-reported gender identity of respondents instead of the administrative sex variable, which was defined by whether the facility holding the respondent was a “women’s” or “men’s” prison. ↩
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. ↩
Our research found that women who could not make bail had an annual median income of just $11,071 (in 2015 dollars). 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. ↩
Moreover, while these data aren’t available nationally for local jails, we know that among people in state prisons, women report fewer prior arrests and incarcerations on average than men, suggesting that their criminal histories are less likely to contribute to a harsher sentence. ↩
A gender analysis of the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Indicators of Mental Health Problems Reported by Prisoners and Jail Inmates 2011-12 report (the most recent available in this series) is available in our 2017 briefing 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. ↩
The 2017 study based on the 2011-2012 National Inmate Survey (the most recent available) found that 42.1% of women in prison (state or federal) and 35.7% of women in jail are sexual minorities, compared to 9.3% of men in prison and 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.” Our more recent analysis of women in state prisons, which used data from the 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates, found that over 22% of women in state prisons report being lesbian or bisexual, compared to 2.5% of men who report being gay or bisexual. ↩
The women’s incarcerated population has a different race and ethnicity breakdown than the total U.S. population and total incarcerated population. It should be noted that these data are from our previous analysis of the 2010 Census data on people who were held in correctional facilities for adults (jails or prisons) at the time of the census count. While you might expect that the same data would be available from the 2020 Census, as of this report’s publication, the data necessary to update our analysis have not yet been released. However, newer data on the racial and ethnic identities of women in prisons (but not jails) are available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics: In state and federal prisons in 2021, 47% of women were white, 17% Black, 19% Hispanic, 2.5% American Indian or Alaska Native, 0.75% Asian, and 13.3% “other” (women reporting two or more races and other groups not broken out). ↩
These disparities don’t stop at incarceration. Even once released, women are at greater risk for homelessness and unemployment, with Black women being hit hardest. Additionally, our 2019 report Policing Women: Race and gender disparities in police stops, searches, and use of force found significant racial disparities in arrest rates for women (but not men) in police-initiated traffic and street stops. We found 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% of police-initiated stops, which was roughly three times as often as white women (1.5%), and twice as often as Hispanic women (2.2%). ↩
Additionally, more than 20% of girls in youth confinement are held for non-criminal or “technical” violations of probation, compared to less than 13% of boys. ↩
In our recent analysis of the 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates dataset, only one-third (33%) of people in state prisons reported any visits with their minor children while in prison. When asked why their children hadn’t visited them in prison, parents most frequently blamed the distance from the prison (33%). ↩
It may seem like 2016 data about prison populations would be outdated by now, but because this survey takes a much deeper look into pre-incarceration life experiences, these data remain essential to understanding incarceration today. Moreover, the Bureau of Justice Statistics does not conduct this survey very often; before 2016, it was last fielded in 2004. ↩
The Bureau of Justice Statistics has published its own reports that include findings about people in both state and federal prisons; however, these reports are generally not as detailed as our own analysis. You can read our in-depth analyses of the data in the following reports and briefings: Beyond the Count: A deep dive into state prison populations, Chronic Punishment: The unmet health needs of people in state prisons, Both sides of the bars: How mass incarceration punishes families, The state prison experience: Too much drudgery, not enough opportunity, and What the Survey of Prison Inmates tells us about trans people in state prison. ↩
For more information about pregnancy and prenatal care in correctional settings, see the Pregnancy in Prison Statistics (PIPS) project, spearheaded by Dr. Carolyn Sufrin of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Public Health. For an introduction to this work, see our discussion of some of the findings from that project. ↩
Data from the 2016-2018 Survey of Sexual Victimization show that while women made up just 10% of the combined prison and jail population at the time, they accounted for 27% of all victims of staff sexual misconduct and sexual harassment. (See table 10 of the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2023 report Substantiated Incidents of Sexual Victimization Reported by Adult Correctional Authorities, 2016-2018.) ↩
Marginalization, trauma, mental health problems, and self-medication with drugs and/or alcohol are recurrent themes in studies of incarcerated women. A previous Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that, of the women in state prisons who have mental health problems, three-quarters also met the criteria for substance dependence or abuse, and more than two-thirds (68%) had a history of physical or sexual abuse. Another study of women in jails found that 98% had experienced trauma in their lifetimes. For more context about women in prison, see the sidebar Context: What’s behind women’s prison growth? in our report The Gender Divide. ↩
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. ↩
In 2019, approximately 2,450,379 women and girls were released from adult correctional facilities. According to data from the National Prisoner Statistics program, 71,655 women were released from state prisons and 4,738 were released from federal prisons in 2019. And according to data from the 2019 Census of Jails, about 2,373,986 women and girls were released from local jails nationwide that year. The related, linked 2019 briefing used older data from the same data collections, which explains the difference in the estimated number of releases. ↩
A recent law review article on the use of record clearance and expungement mechanisms notes that “several studies have found that women represent almost 50 percent of those seeking records clearance, as compared to approximately 25 percent of those arrested, due potentially in part to the desire of women to enter ‘caregiving’ fields such as nursing and geriatric care, whose licensing requirements often bar individuals with criminal records. This suggests that criminal records act as a particular impediment to women….” ↩
The Prison Policy Initiative would like to thank the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice for their partnership over the years in producing the Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie report series. The organization also thanks 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 at the Prison Policy Initiative. She directs the organization’s campaign to end prison gerrymandering (the practice of using prison populations to distort democracy via redistricting). Aleks has also published several reports on women’s incarceration, including previous versions of Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, and 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.
Wendy Sawyer is the Research Director at the Prison Policy Initiative. Along with helping direct the organization’s research priorities, Wendy is the author (or co-author) of several major reports, including Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, Beyond the Count: A deep dive into state prison populations, All Profit, No Risk: How the bail industry exploits the justice system and Arrest, Release, Repeat: How police and jails are misused to respond to social problems. Wendy also frequently publishes briefings on recent data releases, academic research, women’s incarceration, pretrial detention, probation, and more.
The non-profit, non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative was founded in 2001 to expose the broader harms of mass criminalization and spark advocacy campaigns to create a more just society. Through big-picture reports like Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, as well as in-depth reports on issues such as medical neglect behind bars and bail reform, the organization helps the public more fully engage in criminal justice reform. The organization also launched, and continues to lead, the national fight to keep the prison system from exerting undue influence on the political process (a.k.a. prison gerrymandering).
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.