Individual states of the U.S., along with the federal government, lead the world in putting women behind bars, according to a 2017 report by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI).
Women in the U.S. represent only 5 percent of the world’s female population, but account for nearly 30 percent of the world’s imprisoned women, cites the report, titled The States of Women’s Incarceration: The Global Context , by Aleks Kajstura and Russ Immarigeon of the Prison Policy Initiative.
“Across the globe, the 25 jurisdictions with the highest rates of incarcerating women are all American states,” said the researchers.
Approximately 206,000 women are currently confined in U.S. prisons and jails. The United States jails women at twice the percentage rate of China and four times that of Russia.
Thailand is the first non-U.S. state that appears high on the list at number 26.
The United States also incarcerated women at a rate eight to 25 times higher than some of our closest allies from NATO countries.
The U.S. incarceration rate for women is 127 per 100,000, while in countries such as the United Kingdom, the rate is 13 per 100,000, in Canada 11 per 100,000 and in France it’s 6 per 100,000. Denmark is the lowest of the NATO countries at 5 per 100,000.
“Women have become the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population, but despite recent interest in the alarming national trend, few people know what’s happening in their own states,” wrote Wendy Sawyer of PPI in The Gender Divide: Tracking women’s state prison growth, a January 2018 report.
Illinois’ incarceration rate for women is on par with El Salvador, where abortion is illegal and women are routinely jailed for having miscarriages, noted The Global Context report. New Hampshire is on par with Russia, and New York with Rwanda.
Rhode Island has the lowest incarceration rate for women, but has a rate twice that of Portugal. If Rhode Island were a country it would rank 15 on the list. Nationally, the incarceration rate for women is eight times higher than Portugal, said the report.
“Perhaps the most troubling finding about women’s incarceration is how little progress states have made in curbing its growth — especially in light of the progress made to reduce men’s prison populations,” wrote Sawyer in her report.
Between 2009-2015, Michigan state prisons reduced the number of men incarcerated by 8 percent, but women imprisonment grew 30 percent over the same period. Texas cut its men’s prison population by 6,000, but added 1,100 women into its prison system.
Idaho refilled half of the prison beds it emptied from its men’s prisons by adding 25 percent more women to its prisons, reported Sawyer. California, New York, and New Jersey are the few states that have reversed course and began sending women home from state prisons.
“States continue to ‘widen the net’ of criminal justice involvement by criminalizing women’s responses to gender-based abuse and discrimination,” wrote Sawyer. “Policy changes have led to mandatory or ‘dual’ arrests for fighting back against domestic violence, [and] increasing criminalization of school-aged girls’ misbehavior.”
Offenses include running away for survival or women turning to sex work, noted Sawyer. Drug use and minor involvement in drug networks also have driven women’s prison growth.
“Women’s incarceration demands more attention because of the distinct ways in which prisons and jails fail women and their families,” wrote Sawyer. “Research consistently shows that incarcerated women face different problems than men and prisons often make those problems worse.”
PPI used two incarceration datasets from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research and population data from the United Nations and other sources for its reports.