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U.S. Imprisons the Most Women, Tops International List

It’s almost a cliché that the world’s freest country imprisons by far the most people. And yet the pure mathematics of the issue remain cruelly ironic, especially for America’s female prisoners.

The second edition of the World Female Imprisonment List, released in March 2012, reveals that the United States incarcerates almost a third of the more than 625,000 women and girls held in prisons and jails globally. In fact, the U.S. imprisons nearly as many women – 201,200, according to the most recent data compiled by the International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS) at London’s University of Essex – as do China (84,600), the Russian Federation (59,200), Brazil (35,596) and Thailand (29,175) combined.
The ICPS released the data absent extended analysis; however, the list included a few indicators showing that rates of imprisoning women aren’t just trending upward in the U.S. but are rising worldwide.

For example, the total female prison population – for both pre-trial detainees and those convicted and sentenced – in 187 countries has collectively increased by more than 16%, “with the largest increase being in the Americas (up 23%),” since the first edition of the list was published in 2006. The smallest rise was in European countries, where the number of women prisoners rose 6%.

“The fact that the female prison population continues to rise, and indeed has risen by a considerable 16% since our last edition of the List in 2006, is a cause for serious concern,” said ICPS director Peter Bennett. “Given the high financial and social cost of imprisoning women, the data should prompt policy makers in all countries to consider what they can do to limit the number of women in custody. Excessive use of imprisonment does nothing to improve public safety.”

In most prison systems – about 80% of those surveyed – female prisoners account for 2% to 9% of the total population (8.8% in the U.S.). But in some countries as many as 1 in 5 prisoners are women. The highest such ratio is in Maldives, where women comprise 21.6% of the prison population, followed by Hong Kong (20%), Bahrain (18.5%), Macau (14.8%), Qatar (14.7%) and Thailand (14.6%).

The prevalence of imprisoned women and girls is lowest in Africa, where the ratio is 3 out of every 100 prisoners.

Roy Walmsley, the list’s author and an ICPS consultant to the United Nations, wrote that he hoped “that this edition of the [list] will be found useful” by politicians, academics, criminal justice experts and “everyone who is interested in the extent of female imprisonment.”

Sources: “World Female Imprisonment List 2012”(second edition), by Roy Walmsley, International Centre for Prison Studies;

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