When compared to the rest of the world, the number of American women who end up behind bars is staggering, according to a new report published by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Over 700,000 women and girls are imprisoned globally, more than quarter of them in the U.S. alone, where 205,400 women are incarcerated. That’s almost double the number in China, the country with the second highest number of women prisoners in the world.
Strikingly, the number of women and girls behind bars, worldwide, has doubled since 2000. A look at the total world prison population shows that the number of incarcerated women is growing at a significantly faster rate than that of men. Roy Walmsley, who compiled data for the report, told Women in the World that the increase is not because the offending patterns of girls and women have changed. “However…in some parts of the world at least, tougher enforcement and sentencing of drug-related offences have contributed to rising levels of female incarceration,” he said.
In the U.S., with women caught in the grips of the so-called War on Drugs, the number of female prisoners increased 646 percent between 1980 and 2010 — 1.5 times the rate of their male counterparts. (America also has the world’s largest male prisoner population.) A full third of those women were held on drug charges.
Brenda V. Smith, law professor at American University theorizes that the high rate of women entering the system is connected to women’s “emergence into the public sphere.” Public or economic engagement means that women are “subject to the same kinds of sanctions that men are subject to.” Presumably, it also exposes women to more points of contact with the criminal justice system.
But for many women, the domestic realm is the problem. Intimate-partner violence worldwide is a contributor to high numbers of incarcerated women, as self-defense from a violent partner can land a woman in jail. Marissa Alexander’s notorious case demonstrated this in 2010, and as many as 93 percent of American women in prison for killing their significant others had been battered by them.
“If a woman hits a man in a situation where she’s defending herself, he can call the police, whereas she might be afraid to call the police if he’s abusing her,” explains Dr. Diane Morse, director of the Women’s Initiative Supporting Health (WISH) Transition Clinic in Rochester, NY. Women can also be forced into crime by abusive partners, she adds.
“It’s not unusual, in my practice, [for] women [to say], ‘my partner was abusing me, and he got me started on drugs, and he got me selling drugs, and even doing sex work to help support his drug habits,’” Dr. Morse said.
Dr. Jessica Jacobson, of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, concurs. “These women and girls […] are an extremely vulnerable and disadvantaged group,” she said.
As the number of incarcerated women grows, so does the number of formerly-incarcerated women who then suffer from a lack of proper support on the outside. This is most apparent in the public health sphere, where social programs for these populations are frequently focused on men, who have traditionally been associated with incarceration. But women prisoners are, in fact, “just sicker” upon release, according to Dr. Emily Wang, Yale professor and co-founder of the Transitions Clinic Network (TCN), a national network of medical homes, which serves recently released individuals suffering from chronic diseases.
Dr. Wang also said that incarcerated women have more severe emotional, sexual, and physical trauma histories than men—neglected “key components” for women reentering communities. Since public health services are often staffed by men, male-centered recovery treatment leaves female former prisoners without nuanced delivery of care, and “compromises their hopes for remaining healthy and staying in the community,” she said.
Simply put, women’s needs, especially when they return home from prison, are different from the needs of men. Gender-specific, person-centered solutions may be one way to curb recidivism and trauma. Certainly, given the disturbing increase in the number of women prisoners, a range of institutional reforms are likely to be called for. In Dr. Jacobson’s view, the findings of the new report “should be of profound concern to governments, prison administrations and all who are committed to justice and penal reform.”