Women Are Disproportionately Held in Jails Rather Than Prisons, Increasing Harms

    More women are being held in local jails than in state prisons, according to a report released October 29 by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) in collaboration with the ACLU. Of the 231,000 women incarcerated in the US, nearly half, or 114,000, are held in jails. This includes local and county jails, ICE detention facilities, and women held in jails for other state or federal agencies.

    Women are disproportionately held in jails compared to men. Local jails account for only about 26 percent of the total prison population of about 2.3 million, as opposed to almost 50 percent of women, and this disparity is a concern. 

    As PPI explains, women in jails are subjected to even harsher conditions than those in prisons. Many jails impose higher costs for services like phone calls, and more severely restrict communications with the outside world, to the point of banning paper mail. Women in jails are also more vulnerable to experiencing mental health complications and psychological distress without receiving proper treatment.

    “This is especially troubling given that 80 percent of women in jails are mothers, and most of them are primary caretakers of their children,” said study author Aleks Kajstura. “Thus children are particularly susceptible to the domino effect of burdens placed on incarcerated women.” Kajstura also noted that childcare responsibilities contribute to women being charged with parole violations if they can’t afford expensive fines or make mandatory meetings with their officer.

    Also concerning is that between 2016 and 2017, the number of women in jail on any given day grew 5 percent, even as the overall jail population declined. PPI stated that because of insufficient reporting data from relevant government agencies, they cannot yet explain the rise in the women’s jail population.

    Even more troubling, about a quarter of women held in detention are not convicted of a crime and are awaiting a trial or other decision. And 60 percent of women in local jails are not convicted of a crime. PPI hypothesized that this can be explained in part by the increased difficulty women have paying bail fines, as women behind bars have lower incomes than men. But even after conviction, women are disproportionately incarcerated in jails compared to men.

    The report also includes the 7,700 women who are held by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in immigrant detention. On any given night, more than half of this number, or 4,500 women, are detained in local jails under ICE contracts.

    PPI also found that 6,600 girls are held in youth detention. “Of the girls confined in youth facilities, nearly 10 percent are held for status offenses, such as ‘running away, truancy, and incorrigibility’,” said Kajstura. “These statistics are particularly troubling because status offenses tend to be simply responses to abuse.”

    PPI urges that further research and data is needed to understand these trends in women’s incarceration. “The picture of women’s incarceration is far from complete, and many questions remain about mass incarceration’s unique impact on women,” said Kajstura. “While more data is needed, the data in this report lends focus and perspective to the policy reforms needed to end mass incarceration without leaving women behind.”


    Graphic courtesy of the Prison Policy Initiative.

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