There are more American women in prison than ever before

There are more American women in prison than ever before

A mother of three might not be the first person you think of when you hear the words "prison inmate", but all across the globe, the numbers of women in incarceration is rising. Figures from World Prison Brief show that between 2000 and 2015, the world’s female prison population increased by 50 per cent. Although there are still considerably fewer women in prison than men overall, this increase is still far higher than the 18 per cent jump for men seen in the same period. And the US is not exempt from this trend - in fact, with well over 200,000 female inmates, America is home to almost a third of the world’s women prisoners.

Of all of the states most affected by this issue, Oklahoma comes out on top. For the past 25 years, it has had the highest number of female inmates in the whole of the US, something its own Department of Corrections describes as “a dubious distinction”. As of 2016, according to the most recently published figures, there were 149 women in state or federal prisons for every 100,000 residents; the national average is 57. Kentucky and Missouri rank second and third. But disproportionately high as these figures may be, they do share one common trait with the rest of the country - and the rest of the world - and that is the reason that many women are incarcerated in the first place: drugs.

The climbing female prison population has occurred amid a surge in opiate addictions over the past 15 years, and the majority of female federal prisoners are now inside for drug offences. Different states have taken their own approaches to trying to tackle this problem; Oklahoma has been to take a harsh stance to try and deter others from engaging in the same behaviour. With the women involved in drugs often lower down the proverbial food chain, they are particularly vulnerable. “The district attorney is the most powerful player in the courtroom ... And if they are trying to build a reputation of being tough on crime, they're basically going for the low-hanging fruit” claims Susan Sharp, a national expert on female incarceration and a professor at the University of Oklahoma.

This, paired with a preconception that all women who are involved with drugs must be bad mothers, means that women are receiving considerably longer sentences than they would previously have done: "I think the general population of the state feels that a woman — particularly a woman who has children — who uses drugs, violates all the norms in a way that they find unacceptable and they would rather see those children grow up in foster care than to be with a mother who had a drug problem," said Sharp. 

But it’s not only those who have already been sentenced that are finding themselves locked up. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal justice focused public policy think-tank based in Massachusetts, more than a quarter of women currently behind bars have not yet had a trial. Often primary caregivers with lower incomes, they are more likely to lack the cash flow needed to afford bail: “Black women had a median annual income of only $9,083 (just 20 per cent that of a white non-incarcerated man)”, they pointed out, referring to a 2016 study into the economic bias of bail. “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.”

The floor and cell of a prison Credit: Flickr/ Thomas Hawk

While Netflix's Orange is the New Black may make prison life look do-able, the reality is that life can be hard. In some facilities, up to 20 women can share a room, bullying and assaults are commonplace, and access to female hygiene products can be severely limited. However, is not only the women themselves that this affects, as it is estimated that 80 per cent that women in jail are mothers, with the large majority of them being the primary caregivers for their children. Having a parent in prison can become a self-perpetuating cycle: a child whose mother is locked up is considerably more likely to drop out of school, to experience mental health issues or to end up in trouble with the law themselves.

Another cause of the rising numbers of women in prison is the disproportionate lack of “other options” schemes exist for women. For example, in Wyoming, a “boot camp” style programme that exists to offer rehabilitation and education in place of a prison term is open only to men; as such, women must serve a longer sentence while men are released back into the community more quickly. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, women are also disciplined more severely than men for the same kind of rule violations within prison, which has knock-on effects when it comes to decisions such as whether a woman is given parole.

Graph showing growth of women's prison population compared to men's Credit: Prison Policy Initiative

All of this doesn’t mean to say that there aren’t any states making an effort to buck the trend. Authorities know only too well that prisons are dramatically overcrowded, so much so that some states have had to completely restructure their prison systems, and others are taking steps to reduce prison populations where possible. In Utah, for example, the reduction of women in prison has been sharp enough to counteract the slight growth in the male prison population, while in Rhode Island, nearly half of the total prison population reduction was among women.

There will, of course, be those that say you should not do the crime if you can't do the time. Promises to be tougher on crime and on the people who commit it was a key feature of President Trump's election campaign and the reversal of Obama-era policies to reduce overcrowding by reserving custodial sentences for the most violent offenders have been welcomed by many. For violent offenders who still pose a threat to the public, this may be true; but with prisons full to bursting, jailing women for low-level offences, ignoring the economic disparity that landed them there in the first place and separating children from their mothers really isn't protecting anyone.