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Women Behind Bars, by the Numbers

On March 1, 2023, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) released Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023, which found an astonishing number of U.S. women and girls – almost one million – are either incarcerated or on probation or parole. That included nearly 172,700 females held in U.S. state and federal prisons, local and regional jails, immigration detention centers, military prisons, tribal jails and other so-called correctional facilities.

PLN covers a number of reports by PPI, a non-profit, non-partisan criminal justice advocacy organization known for scrupulous data analysis and insight. The new report, produced in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice, noted that more women are held in jails than in state prison systems, while the opposite is true for men. One possible reason offered was that women are more likely to be convicted of property or drug offenses than violent crimes, so therefore they are more likely to receive shorter terms in jail rather than longer prison sentences.

Also, as the report noted, women typically have lower pre-incarceration incomes than men, so they are less likely to make bail – another factor driving their higher tendency to be incarcerated in jail. Of those who are in jail, 60% have not been convicted and are awaiting trial, the report noted. But they are apparently not safe there, since women held in jails have a mortality rate significantly higher than men held in prison – twice as high for deaths due to drug or alcohol intoxication, for example.

The rate of incarceration for women has increased at twice the rate for men over the past few decades. Around half of all women prisoners are housed in state and federal facilities, often far from their families and children, since there are far fewer prisons for women than for men. But an estimated 58% of incarcerated women have minor children.

While incarcerated, women are three times more likely than men to be sexually victimized by prison or jail employees. The report also cites a striking finding from a 2017 study that a third of women prisoners identify as lesbian or bisexual, as opposed to less than 10% of men in prison who identify as gay or bisexual. That same study also “found that lesbian and bisexual women are likely to receive longer sentences … and more likely to be put into solitary confinement.” Data for transgender and non-binary prisoners was not available.

In addition, the report included data from the 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates conducted by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics and released in 2020. Based on self-reported responses, 19% had been in foster care; 26% had been homeless the year before they were arrested; 45% had been arrested by age 18; over half had been unemployed before their arrest; 53% did not finish high school; and 76% had indications of a current or previous mental health problem.

With respect to race, according to 2021 data for state and federal facilities, 47% of women prisoners were white, 17% were Black, 19% were Hispanic and about 16% were Native American or “other” – including prisoners who identified as multiracial. By contrast, the 2020 U.S. Census found 60% of all American women were white, 13% were Black, 18% were Hispanic and 11% were Native American, “other” or multiracial.

In addition to those behind bars, around 808,700 women are on probation or parole. As PPI noted, this group now faces new barriers to reproductive health care in the wake of the 2022 Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Without a constitutional right to abortion, women under court-ordered supervision will find accessing abortion care “difficult or impossible” in states restricting the procedure, since “[r]estrictions on travel are ‘standard conditions’ of supervision in many places,” the report noted.

Since the high court struck down the right to an abortion with its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Health, there are now 14 states in which the procedure is always criminalized, plus another two with gestational limits of just six weeks – well before most women know they are pregnant. A woman on probation or parole in a state with an abortion ban may well find herself legally forced to endure any pregnancy to full term.  

Additional source: New York Times

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