Female prison populations have been increasing rapidly in past decades. Explanations, according to several studies, often overlook many of the factors that contribute to this increase, rendering women’s sagas invisible.
Numbers produced by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics show that since 2010 the women corrections population has grown annually by an average rate of 3.4 percent.
“The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s women, but 30 percent of its women prisoners,” Kristina Costa reported in an article for the website Hillary for America. She said the number of mothers in prison has also doubled since the early 1990s, and approximately two-thirds of the mothers lived with their children prior to incarceration.
Women’s incarceration is linked to drug use, violence at the hands of men, and trauma from childhood sexual abuse, according to studies.
The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons (JPP) reported, “The enforcement and intensification of drug policies, the so-called war on drugs, during the last four decades contributed to this astounding increase in women’s incarceration rates.”
Another study by Human Rights Project for Women reported that the sexual abuse of girls also serves as a “pipeline to prison.”
Comparable to studies done by Human Rights and JPP, CNN reported that “Most women in prison are there because of nonviolent drug or property crimes,” and “Over 60 percent of them report drug dependence or abuse in the year before they went to prison. Many of them grew up in abusive households… and are more likely than men in prison to have experienced sexual abuse or trauma in their life before prison.”
“It is a crisis of national proportions that cuts across every divide of race, class and ethnicity,” Human Rights reported. “And in a perverse twist of justice, many girls who experience sexual abuse are routed into the juvenile justice system because of their victimization.”
A report by the Human Rights Project for Girls, Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and Ms. Foundation for Women reveals how the U.S. criminalizes girls, “especially girls of color.” According to the report, women enter correctional systems that are “often ill-equipped to identify and treat the violence and trauma that lie at the root of victimized girls’ arrests.”
The JPP cited a report by California Coalition for Women Prisoners stating nearly 80 percent of the women in California’s prisons have experienced some form of abuse as a child or as adults. Sixty percent of them reported physical abuse as an adult, “primarily perpetrated by spouses or partners.”
Relying on 2016 statistics from The Sentencing Project, JPP reported that from 1997 to 2014 the U.S. women prison population grew by more than 800 percent. During this same period, the men’s population grew by 400 percent.
During her campaign for the presidency, Hillary Clinton said, “Women and the families they support are being crushed by a criminal justice system that costs far too much – in state and federal budgets and in lives derailed and economic opportunity lost – without making us safer,” she wrote for CNN.
It was also reported that nearly one-third of all female prisoners worldwide are held in the United States, and African-American women are more than twice as likely to be in prison as White women.
The Sexual Abuse To Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story” study authors said they do not know enough about the trajectory to prison for girls because “Research typically excludes girls from study samples, data is often not disaggregated by gender, race and ethnicity, and public agencies do not collect information about trauma and gender-specific issues.”
The ” study concluded that the “real and distinct lives of girls, especially when their lives play out at the intersection of race and gender, remain invisible.”