Number of Women in Jails and Prisons Soars

As an overlooked and often invisible population, women have been dramatically impacted by mass incarceration.

By Gina Fedock, PhD, Assistant Professor

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)


From 1977 to 2014, the number of women incarcerated in state and federal prisons rose by 908 percent in the United States. Currently, more than 1.2 million women are under correctional supervision, representing 18.5 percent of all adults involved in the criminal justice system. Women account for 23 percent of adults on probation and parole, and nine percent of adults in jails and prisons. More than 60 percent of incarcerated women’s offenses are nonviolent offenses, such as property crimes and drug-related crimes.

Scholars have attributed this dramatic increase primarily to overpolicing in racial minority communities; changes in arrest and sentencing policies and practices; and the expansion of prisons, including for-profit prisons. In particular, in the 1970s and 1980s, arrests for drug-related offenses drastically increased, and sentencing practices became more punitive, due to changes in policies and practices such as truth-in-sentencing and mandatory minimums for length of incarceration.

During this era of the War on Drugs, the number of women entering prison dramatically rose, particularly as some women began to receive prison sentences instead of receiving community-based sanctions. For example, in 1979, approximately one in every ten incarcerated women was serving time for a drug-related offense; in 1999, it was approximately one in three women.

Racial disparities have been embedded into the increase of incarcerated women, with black women experiencing the highest rate of incarceration and the detrimental consequences of the War on Drugs. From 1986 to 1991, the number of women incarcerated for drug offenses rose by 828 percent for black women, versus 241 for white women. Data from 40 states from 1983 to 2008 shows that the incarceration of women with nonviolent offenses (especially drug-related offenses) has driven the increasing rates of incarceration and intensified the disproportionately high rates for black women. Also, nationally, black adults are less likely to be offered non-incarceration options, and more likely to receive longer sentences than white adults; black women have particularly been impacted by these practices.

In addition, the increase in the number of incarcerated women has both health and familial implications. Incarcerated women face a health crisis; they have higher rates of multiple health concerns with lower rates of treatment than incarcerated men and nonincarcerated women. Incarcerated women have an elevated rate of a range of physical health concerns, including hepatitis C, cardiovascular disease, HIV/AIDS, reproductive health concerns, and other chronic health issues.

Similarly, they have high rates of mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Almost 75 percent of women in state prisons have symptoms of a mental health disorder (a majority of whom also meet criteria for a substance use disorder), and over 65 percent have a history of a mental health problem. More than 75 percent of incarcerated women have been physically and/or sexually abused prior to prison, which impacts their physical and mental health. Also, while women comprise seven percent of prisoners, they make up 33 percent of victims of staff sexual assaults in prisons; and they comprise 13 percent of jail inmates, but represent over 60 percent of victims of staff sexual assault in jails.

The increase in the number of incarcerated women has impacted their families. More than 60 percent of incarcerated women have at least one minor-age child. A majority of children with an incarcerated parent are under age nine and, 20 percent under age four. From 1991 to 2007, the number of minor-age children with a mother in prison increased by 131 percent. Almost half of mothers in prison were the primary caretakers of their children prior to entering prison, and 11 percent have children placed in foster care. The long-term outcomes for children of incarcerated mothers include an increased risk of intergenerational incarceration.

Overall, incarcerated women, particularly women of color, have been and continue to be a growing population within the criminal justice system. Their experiences are directly linked to policies and practices related to policing, arrest, sentencing, and incarceration. Incarcerated women also face a myriad of health concerns, before, during, and after incarceration. Their incarceration may also have an intergenerational impact for their children. Given this range of data points, incarcerated women are a key population for social work practice and policy efforts.

Gina Fedock is an Assistant Professor at SSA.


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