Women Behind Bars
By THE EDITORIAL BOARDNOV. 30, 2015
In the last few years, America’s out-of-control incarceration boom has finally started to get the sustained public scrutiny, and condemnation, that it deserves. But one key element of the story still receives too little attention: the number of women in the nation’s prisons and jails.
Men account for more than 90 percent of those behind bars. But the number of female inmates, most of whom are mothers, has been growing at an even faster rate than the overall prison population. In 1980 there were just over 15,000 women in state prisons. By 2010 there were nearly 113,000. When jail inmates are added in, there are about 206,000 women currently serving time — nearly one-third of all female prisoners in the world.
This soaring population is largely a result of the war on drugs; the vast majority of the women behind bars were convicted of low-level drug or property crimes, rather than violent crimes. Many of them were swept up in larger conspiracy prosecutions targeted primarily at drug dealers they were living with. Many suffer from mental illness or drug addiction. And as is true with men, the racial disparities are severe: Black women are locked up at almost three times the rate of white women.
A new report by the Prison Policy Initiative quantifies just how extreme an outlier the United States is. Thailand is the only country with a higher incarceration rate for women than the United States over all. But individual states are far worse. West Virginia has the highest rate in the world, imprisoning 273 of every 100,000 women, with nearly two dozen other states not far behind.
The burdens of incarceration to women are particularly heavy. A large percentage of female prisoners have experienced physical and sexual abuse in their lives. One 1996 study of California prisoners found that 92 percent of women in prison had been abused, and often that abuse continues inside prison walls by male guards.
Pregnant women face their own gantlet of humiliation behind bars. In 28 states, women may be shackled during labor and delivery, and while caring for their newborns — a “barbaric” practice that continues despite the lack of any evidence that they pose a threat. Most of the newborns are immediately separated from their mothers after birth.
And then there is the destructive impact on families. Two-thirds of women entering prison have children. If those children are lucky, they get placed with their grandparents or other stable, long-term caregivers. But many are shipped off to foster homes and bounced for years among temporary housing situations, which only makes their path to a successful adulthood more difficult.
The cost of imprisonment for nonviolent crimes has severely burdened state and federal budgets, with little demonstrated benefit to public safety. As the nation struggles with how to shrink its overcrowded prisons and jails, low-level and nonviolent offenders are often among the first considered for release.
A majority of female prisoners fall into this category, and because their imprisonment so often has such a direct and negative impact on their families, they should be at the top of the list.