Incarcerated Women


Compared to the collective number of incarcerated people in the United States—nearly 2.3 million—a total of 222,455 might tempt some to brush off the incarceration of women in the United States as an insignificant issue. But this is exactly the mentality that allows issues specific to incarcerated women to go unnoticed and unaddressed.

The number of women incarcerated in the United States represents roughly a third of the world’s total incarcerated women and continues to grow at an alarming rate. Since 1980, that number has increased by over 700%. This stunning statistic progressed at twice the speed compared to the increase of incarcerated men. And though treatment of all incarcerated individuals is deplorable, incarcerated women face unique challenges in the prison industrial complex. 

As with all oppressive aspects of the criminal justice system, the issue of excessive incarceration of women disparately impacts Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. Compared to white women, Black women are imprisoned at a rate of over 1.7, while Latinx women at a rate of 1.3. Considering overall rates of incarceration, Black women are twice as likely and Latinx women are 20% more likely to be incarcerated than white women. Native American women face the largest disparity, incarcerated at six times the rate of white women. The issue of mass incarceration specific to women is on prominent display here in Montana. The U.S. incarcerates women at an average of 133 for every 100,000 residents. Montana incarcerates at a rate of 203, well above this already too high average. Of this number, 34% are Indigenous, despite Indigenous people comprising only 6.7% of the total Montana population. 

These numbers cannot be attributed to the uninformed excuse that BIPOC women “commit more” crimes. As suggested many times on this forum, these statistics result from racist policing, inadequate responses to mental illnesses, application of racially biased drug policies, and prosecutorial discretion, among other causes.

Once incarcerated, women face unique challenges compared to incarcerated men. For example, women in prisons are disciplined at much higher rates than men for “lower-level offenses,” such as “talking back” or “having an attitude.” Though these infractions are considered minor on their own, they have drastic cumulative consequences. Apart from punishment by solitary confinement—which has devastating impacts on mental health, especially for the higher percentage of incarcerated women than incarcerated men with a history of mental illness—women also suffer revocation of “good conduct credits” which affects the likelihood of early release. Additionally, discipline for these infractions might revoke their commissary privileges, preventing access to food and adequate menstrual products. Even without disciplinary action taken against them, women struggle to access the appropriate menstrual products they need while incarcerated. Despite some menstrual products being free in federal prisons, they are not free in all correctional facilities, and tampons are even more difficult to acquire than pads. 

Furthemore, the educational programs offered in women’s prisons are severely gendered and even more lacking in availability than those offered in male correctional facilities. An individual who partakes in any sort of educational program offered in prison is 43% less likely to return after release. 

Trigger Warning: sexual violence against women (specific to both cisgender and transgender women) in prisons

In addition to the above challenges, women face significant issues under cross-gender supervision. Over 70% of guards in federal women’s prisons are male. This amplifies the already massive power imbalance between guards and prisoners, especially for the many incarcerated women with a prior history of trauma before their sentences. Apart from this inappropriate power dynamic, many incarcerated women face sexual violence in prison at the hands of prison guards. Despite claims of “zero tolerance policies,” it is common for women not to report assault or misconduct for fear of retribution. Transgender women, who are often incarcerated in male prisons with indifference to their gender identities, are subjected to sexual assaults at much higher rates than cisgender women. Transgender people are ten times as likely to be sexually assaulted by fellow inmates, and five times as likely to be sexually assaulted by prison staff.

End Trigger Warning

While the above issues affect all incarcerated women, transgender women in particular face terrible treatment in the prison system. Transgender prisoners are often assigned to correctional facilities based on their sex assigned at birth and not their gender identity. Once in these facilities they are often denied the medical care they need. On top of the already traumatic experience of prison this exacerbates gender dysphoria, a cruel and unusual punishment.  

Even after their sentences come to an end, women face additional challenges to reentry. Though many incarcerated women are held on drug charges, only 1 in 5 women with substance abuse history receives treatment in prison. Without receiving the medical help they need, many of these women find themselves reincarcerated. Many states ban individuals with felony drug convictions from receiving food stamps. This restriction disproportionately affects women, as they are convicted of drug related offenses at higher rates. This barrier to services, coupled with difficulties in obtaining stable housing and employment, results in many women finding themselves back in prison

Though representing a much smaller portion of the overall number of incarcerated individuals than their male counterparts, women, especially BIPOC women, face additional hardships from pretrial to reentry. It is the responsibility of society to both acknowledge and address these hardships women face. Accordingly, Criminal Injustice Blog encourages you to engage with this difficult topic, not only during International Women’s History Month.

– L. Moose


FURTHER READING:

American prisons are hell. For women they’re even worse – PBS News Hour

Are Prisons Obsolete? – Angela Davis

Incarcerated women: Poverty, trauma and unmet need – Beryl Ann Cowan

Idaho Dep’t of Correction, et al., Petitioners v. Adree Edmo – 9th Cir. decision which found unconstitutional the blocking of a transgender woman’s reassignment procedure. 

Mass Incarceration: An Animated Series – ACLU 

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