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​We Put Six Times as Many Women in Prison Today as We Did in 1980

A new report by Prison Policy Initiative highlights the extreme rise of incarceration rates for women in the US and compares the rate at which US states are locking up women with countries worldwide.
Image via Stocksy

When it comes to putting people in prison, the United States is beyond comparison. With more than 2.2 million people currently in prisons or jails in the US, the country boasts the highest rates of incarceration worldwide, at 716 people incarcerated for every 100,000 residents—a rate that surpasses that of any other country and has nearly quadrupled since the 1980s. But rates of incarcerated women in the US are less widely reported, as the majority of incarcerated US residents are men. However, 30 percent of the world's incarcerated women are in the US, even though women in the US account for only 5 percent of the global population of women.


A new report released by Prison Policy Initiative puts those rates of incarcerated women in the US in context, comparing rates, by state, to countries around the globe. The division of the report highlights the extreme rates of incarcerated women; even though Rhode Island boasts the lowest incarceration rate in the US, for example, it would have the 15th-highest incarceration rate in the world if it were a country. The authors also point out that the rate of incarceration for women in Illinois is comparable to that of El Salvador, a country with such restrictive abortion bans that many women are jailed for having miscarriages.

For women, you're pretty much guaranteed to be very far from home.

When looking at the state-by-state data, West Virginia sits well above the rest, with a rate of 273 women incarcerated per 100,000 people. According to Aleks Kajstura, the legal director at Prison Policy Initiative, this is because the Federal Bureau of Prisons exports incarcerated women from other states to West Virginia, where there are more facilities.

Read More: When Having a Miscarriage Can Get You Life in Prison

"The number of facilities that house women within the bureau of prisons is much smaller, given the proportionally smaller number of women that are incarcerated," she said. "For women, you're pretty much guaranteed to be very far from home."

As women in the US disproportionately take the role of the main caregiver in families, this distance becomes a greater issue for incarcerated women. "That's why it's important to get the numbers and the data—so that we can create better public policy that takes into consideration the role of women in our society, for better or worse," said Kajstura.


Image of Rockville Correctional Facility via Flickr/WFIU Public Radio

The issue of shackling during pregnancy is another challenge for incarcerated women, which is part of a larger problem of access to safe reproductive health care in US prisons. Additionally, mental health poses a disproportionate challenge to incarcerated women. "Women tend to have a higher incidence of mental health issues than the men's side of the incarcerated population," she said. "So access to mental health is particularly important as well. Not that it isn't for men, of course, but these are things that disproportionately impact women."

Noticeably, the report doesn't include demographic information to illustrate the ways racism or classism plays into rates across states. "Poor, African American, and Hispanic populations tend to be over-incarcerated, but we don't have firm numbers for any of those," said Kajstura. "This is just beginning to scratch the surface."

Even if you're in Rhode Island, you're still 15th worst in the world.

The Prison Policy Initiative's data does help to illustrate that, when trying to address the challenges specific to incarcerated women, we need to look at how and why not all states incarcerate women at the same rates generally. "We fall into this trap of saying, 'At least we are not Texas. At least we are not Louisiana.' But is that still good?" Kajstura said, pointing out that Rhode Island has the lowest incarceration rate for women in the US, but if compared to other countries, its still incarcerating women at an extraordinarily high rate. "Even if you're in Rhode Island, you're still 15th worst in the world."

When the US's rate of incarceration of women sits above almost every other country in the world (save for Thailand), it's tempting to wonder if the US is unique in some way that would make such extreme rates of incarceration necessary to our nation's political or economic policies. But the Prison Policy Initiative's report indicates that's just not true: The US is simply incarcerating women at a much higher rate than we have historically. Between 1980 and 1990, the rate of female incarceration nearly tripled. Between 1980 and today, that rate increased sixfold. When comparing our current female incarceration rate of 126 women per 100,000 to rates of other founding nations of NATO, the second highest rate is Portugal's—16 women incarcerated per 100,000. "Our historical rate has hovered around 20, which is higher than Portugal, but not leaps and bounds higher like it is now," Kajstura said.

As sobering as the statistics are, the historical analysis provides some hope for the work to be done. "There's nothing intrinsic about the US that requires high incarceration rates. You start looking at our public policy and see[ing] where can we make changes to bring ourselves—not necessarily in line with the world, because there's a lot of work to be done on that—but at least…back to a place where we were throughout most of the last century."