Mass Incarceration of Women in the US


black-woman-cellMore often than not, when you think about mass incarceration in the US, you think first of black males. While mass incarceration of black males is an ongoing epidemic, today I want to talk about the mass incarceration of women in the US, which often gets swept under the rug.

While women make up a minority of the prisoners in the judicial system, the rate of incarceration of women has been rapidly increasing since 1980, increasing at a rate 50 percent higher than men! As the 1980s brought about the War on Drugs, it is not surprising that this increase in incarceration rate coincides with the same time period. What is not discussed, is how the war on drugs affected women, arguably even more drastically than it did men, considering 24.0% of incarcerated women are serving time for a drug related crime whereas 15.1% of men incarcerated are serving time for similar crimes.


What should also be noted, is the effect incarceration of women has on the families. Today, there are more than 120,000 mothers in prison, which means they are not able to be present to raise their children.  Furthermore, the number of children under 18 with a mother in prison increased by an astounding 131 percent from 1991 to 2007, compared to a 77 percent increase in the children under 18 with a father in prison during the same time period. There is no doubt that growing up with at least one parent incarcerated will have a profound effect on the child’s development. Research has concluded that these children are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior in childhood, and some studies suggest that they are also at higher risk for anxiety, depression, and attention problems.

What is also alarming is the number of women who give birth while incarcerated. These women have few rights and are often denied the ability to nurse/bond with their child, and their custody of the child is regularly challenged and actively undermined. This has been seen to increase the occurrence of post-partem depression in mothers and also hinder the healthy development of the newborn.

While the topic of incarceration is a difficult one to navigate, because most inmates are there because of crimes they have committed, it is important that we, as a society, look at the pros and cons of incarceration. Policymakers and advocacy organizations must acknowledge the impact that mass incarceration has on society as a whole, and put an end to the excessive imprisonment of women. It is also important that policymakers focus on expanding the rights of incarcerated women to include prenatal care, family-friendly visitation environments, and reentry programs that directly involve families.

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