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Rethinking How to Address the Growing Female Prison Population

Inmates

SOURCE: AP/Mel Evans

Inmates are seen at Integrity House, a transitional housing and residential treatment area for women incarcerated at the Hudson County Correctional Center in Kearney, New Jersey on August 2, 2011.

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The female prison population in the United States continues to grow at an alarming rate. Specifically, from 2000 through 2009, the number of women incarcerated in state or federal prisons rose by 21.6 percent, compared to just a 15.6 percent increase for men. While the number of incarcerated men still far exceeds the number of incarcerated women, which was 205,000 women overall in prison or jail in 2010, the growth of the female prison population has a distinct effect on families and communities that are torn apart as a result.

What’s more, sexual violence, drug dependence, and poverty are all strongly correlated with women’s incarceration, meaning that our society still chooses to punish instead of heal—we lock women up instead of providing services that could help them live healthy, secure, and productive lives. Moreover, women of color experience all of these factors at disproportionate rates, which means that they also have a greater likelihood of becoming entangled in the criminal justice system.

A recent report released by the Sentencing Project, however, finds that there has been a dramatic shift in racial disparities among women inmates over the past decade. While black women were incarcerated in state and federal prisons at six times the rate of white women in 2000, this ratio declined by 53 percent, or about 2.8-to-1, by 2009. The disparity between Hispanic and non-Hispanic white women declined by 16.7 percent over the same period.

There are likely many factors at play in this laudable shift in racial disparities among incarcerated women—including but not limited to changes in law enforcement and sentencing practices and policies, or the involvement of women in crime—but the same report suggests that the reduced number of drug incarcerations is the likely explanation for a significant portion of the trend. That fact alone should be lifted up—because African American women were disproportionately affected by drug offense incarceration, any policies that result in a substantial reduction in these types of offenses would also disproportionately benefit them.

Despite these notable improvements, the rising rate of incarcerated women is still a substantial problem. For starters, the narrowing in disparities has not been felt equally among all women of color. While black women experienced a decline of 30.7 percent in their rate of incarceration between 2000 and 2009, Latino women experienced a 23.3 percent rise over the same time period. Likewise, white women experienced an incarceration rate increase of 47.1 percent. These disparate trends could be explained by the combination of increased methamphetamine enforcement—a drug disproportionately used by whites and Latinos—and the continued use of harsh sentencing policies.

The real travesty, however, is that the incarceration of women often masks the fact that some women are disproportionately vulnerable to a host of risk factors that increase the likelihood of their becoming involved in the criminal justice system. The vast majority of women in prison—85 percent to 90 percent—have a history of being victims of violence prior to their incarceration, including domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, and child abuse. And racial disparities strike here too: Girls of color who are victims of abuse are more likely to be processed by the criminal justice system and labeled as offenders than white girls, who have a better chance of being treated as victims and referred to child welfare and mental health systems. This disparity is particularly devastating for gender nonconforming girls, who are up to three times more likely to experience harsh disciplinary treatment by school administrators than their heterosexual counterparts.

In addition to intimate partner violence, other risk factors contributing to women’s criminal behavior include substance abuse and mental illness. It is estimated that up to 80 percent of women prisoners suffer from substance addiction. While it would be much more cost effective to treat these women than imprison them or pay for foster placement for their children, they are refused such rehabilitative measures—measures that could facilitate their integration back into society as productive members.

These high incarceration rates for women are tearing families apart and devastating communities around the country. Sixty-five percent of incarcerated women, compared to 44 percent of incarcerated men, report having minor children at home. Half of all women in prison are incarcerated more than 100 miles from their families and of the mothers who are imprisoned this far from home, 38 percent will not see their children even once during their incarceration. Not surprisingly, incarcerated women are often the primary caretakers of their children before their imprisonment, meaning children have the only parent they’ve ever known ripped from their lives. Fully, 77 percent of incarcerated mothers report providing most of their children’s daily care prior to being imprisoned and here again, women of color are more likely than their white counterparts to raise their children alone and be the single heads of the household.

Women’s incarceration also contributes to a significant risk factor in the future incarceration of their children. Two out of every three women in state prison have at least one family member who has been incarcerated and there are 1.5 million children who currently have a parent in state or federal prison.  These children are at a heightened risk for future incarceration and children of color are disproportionately represented in this group as well, with 1 in 15 black children and 1 in 42 Latino children reporting having a parent in prison, compared to just 1 in 111 white children.

The devastating impact of women’s incarceration doesn’t end when women are released. That’s because women also face significant obstacles to effectively reentering society and providing for themselves and their children. Once released, women find themselves restricted from governmental assistance programs such as housing, employment, education, and subsistence benefits. Many states even impose statutory bans on people with certain convictions working in certain industries such as nursing, child care, and home health care—three fields in which many poor women and women of color happen to be disproportionately concentrated.

Given the fiscal challenges that states are facing and the large-scale abandonment of children that women’s incarceration generates, it is imperative that states reassess the growing female prison population. Interestingly, just this past week Utah exceeded operational capacity for female inmates in its state prison. The limited funds that states have should be shifted from punishment to treatment and be considered an investment in rehabilitating families and communities that have already been disproportionately devastated by violence and poverty.

Julie Ajinkya is a Policy Analyst for Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.

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