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In the U.S., There Are 219,000 Women Behind Bars

Chaining pregnant prisoners to hospital beds as they give birth and forcing female inmates to wear blood-soiled clothes after denying them menstrual products: These are just a couple of the unjustifiable conditions common in U.S. jails and prisons, where populations of women have been skyrocketing. Fortunately, a number of state legislatures have mobilized this year to push criminal justice reforms aimed at the unique needs of female prisoners.

In January, Arizona state Rep. Athena Salman introduced a measure requiring the free provision of tampons and menstrual pads to incarcerated women. It was blocked by the House Rules Committee chair, but this prompted an activist campaign (#LetItFlow) and ultimately a decision from the Arizona Department of Corrections to up the allowance of such products per inmate.

Connecticut started discussing reform after a woman gave birth in her jail cell in February. Gov. Dannel Malloy proposed legislation that would ban shackling pregnant women during labor and create friendlier kid visitation policies for incarcerated mothers.

Lawmakers in Kentucky—which now has the second-highest female incarceration rate in the U.S.—are also considering reforms. In March, the state Senate passed a bill that would both improve conditions for pregnant inmates and seek to send fewer women to prison in the first place, by directing pregnant women with drug problems to treatment rather than jail.

"The criminal justice system was built for men," said the bill's sponsor, Republican state Sen. Julie Raque Adams, but her bill prioritizes "the welfare of babies and the women who are carrying them."

More than half of all incarcerated women have children. It's past time that states stopped ignoring the needs of this group. But there's a dark side to the reforms as well: They're gaining ground because female prison populations are exploding, the result of ineffective government policies, particularly when it comes to policing drugs and sex.

Keeping nonviolent offenders locked up for not having bail money is also a culprit. More than 60 percent of women incarcerated in local jails have not been convicted of a crime, according to a 2017 report from the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) and the American Civil Liberties Union.

There are now around 219,000 women behind bars throughout the U.S., with most in state prisons (45 percent) or local jails (43 percent). And while men still make up the vast majority of incarcerated people—about 93 percent in 2015—"women's prison populations have seen much higher relative growth than men's since 1978," PPI's Wendy Sawyer wrote.

In state prisons, the female inmate population grew 834 percent between 1978 and 2015, a rate more than double that of the male population. The number of women in federal prison has also grown since the 1970s, though not as quickly.

"States continue to 'widen the net' of criminal justice involvement by criminalizing women's responses to gender-based abuse and discrimination," Sawyer noted. "Policy changes have led to mandatory or 'dual' arrests for fighting back against domestic violence, increasing criminalization of school-aged girls' misbehavior—including survival efforts like running away—and the criminalization of women who support themselves through sex work."

Drug criminalization also played a role, particularly in the 1990s. These offenses contributed to the spike in female incarceration, though there has also been a significant rise in the number of women convicted of violent crimes.

Individual states show strong variation here, with Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Texas, Wisconsin, and Washington seeing female prison populations rise even as male incarceration declined between 2009 and 2015. In Michigan, the men's rate shrank 8 percent while female incarceration grew 30 percent. Idaho added 25 percent more women to its prisons over this period. And a new report out of Texas found 8,500 fewer male inmates in 2016 compared to 2009, but 500 more women behind bars.

Kudos to some states for acknowledging the challenges these surging populations create and for working to meet the specific needs of female prisoners. Let's hope they're also committed to addressing what's putting so many women in jail and prison in the first place.

Photo Credit: Joanna Andreasson

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  • SQRLSY One||

    "...men still make up the vast majority of incarcerated people—about 93 percent in 2015..."

    Sounds like the Mighty Arms of Government Almighty needs to FIX this!!! More kangaroo courts for women for pot-smoking or for blowing on cheap plastic "lung flutes" w/o the permission of a physician, or more male murderers released, till the numbers MATCH PRECISELY!!!! We must demonstrate that the likes of James Damore are LIARS when they hint that men and women might be different in behavioral characteristics!!!!

  • OpenBordersLiberal-tarian||

    What a preposterous argument. When feminists say "men and women are equal," we mean equally capable when it comes to good things like pursuing a STEM career, or rescuing people from burning buildings. We absolutely do not mean men and women are equally likely to commit violent crime.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    You missed a golden opportunity to squeak for equal outcomes, just as with equal pay. I suppose that would have been too obvious. You have pretty good self-control while typing this stuff, but that might have been too tough a slog for you.

  • Cloudbuster||

    Wage gap!

  • buybuydandavis||

    Equality now!
    End the Prison Gap!

  • Ken Shultz||

    "Chaining pregnant prisoners to hospital beds as they give birth and forcing female inmates to wear blood-soiled clothes after denying them menstrual products: These are just a couple of the unjustifiable conditions common in U.S. jails and prisons, where populations of women have been skyrocketing."

    Do we have any links to show that these conditions are common, or is this one of those things we should take on faith because your intentions are good?

  • Don't look at me.||

    They may have happened once or twice, so you know that means we need MOAR LAWZ , then everything will be ok.

  • Cy||

    Let's not mention the hundreds of thousands of men getting ass raped in prison every day, those conditions are fine. They're men, they deserve it, right?

  • Cy||

    Correction: tens of thousands.

  • MarkLastname||

    They're being raped by other men, which cancels it out. To a collectivist, when a man rapes another man, a net of 0 crimes were committed.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Funny how you don't hear the collectivists talking about interracial crime disparities. At least the Leftist collectivists don't.

  • MasterThief||

    These articles really fall on deaf ears for me. Almost all prisoners are men and yet I should focus on the fact that women in prison don't have it easy? Honestly, fuck off. This is sexism when the lesser plight of women is held as more important than far greater and more common violations of men.
    I'm all for criminal justice reform and making laws make much more sense, but people have strange ideas of what prison is. The most reforming aspect of being locked up is that it should be so uncomfortable that the convicted person will do everything in their power to avoid ending up there again.

  • Banake||

    "These articles really fall on deaf ears for me. Almost all prisoners are men and yet I should focus on the fact that women in prison don't have it easy? Honestly, fuck off. This is sexism when the lesser plight of women is held as more important than far greater and more common violations of men." [2]

  • MasterThief||

    These articles really fall on deaf ears for me. Almost all prisoners are men and yet I should focus on the fact that women in prison don't have it easy? Honestly, fuck off. This is sexism when the lesser plight of women is held as more important than far greater and more common violations of men.
    I'm all for criminal justice reform and making laws make much more sense, but people have strange ideas of what prison is. The most reforming aspect of being locked up is that it should be so uncomfortable that the convicted person will do everything in their power to avoid ending up there again.

  • hello.||

    "States continue to 'widen the net' of criminal justice involvement by criminalizing women's responses to gender-based abuse and discrimination," Sawyer noted.

    Lol. Yeah no. They finally started arresting women for domestic violence instead of hauling away the man by default. Since women commit more domestic violence than men more women actually go to jail for committing crimes now. Boo fucking hoo. That equality you keep pretending you want means you can actually get arrested just like a man. Ain't that some shit? And then you can go to jail like a man and get treated like shit like a man. And then you can whinge into your menstrual cup because you lost your cunt privilege. Be careful what you wish for.

  • Banake||

    Yeah, reading this all I could think was "is she saying that there is more women in prisons now because we are being sexist by acknowledging that women could be abusive? Is she seriously?"

  • Banake||

    I mean, I'm not a "War-on-drugs-harsh-on-crime" guy, but "women's responses to gender-based abuse and discrimination" is such an amount of bullshit. "Women are never abusive, they're ALWAYS just responding to men's abuse." Arghhh...

  • Illocust||

    It seems to be an article of faith for a lot of feminist, that women only do bad things because of men. It's really damn weird, because it basically says that women can't make decisions for themselves, they are just passive vessels for men's decisions.

  • Ariki||

    Yeah that's the irony about this whole 3rd wave feminist bullshit.
    On the one hand they are crying for equality because "girls can do anything better then a man!" and on the other crying for protection from the evil world of men where you have to compete and work your arse off to be the best at anything. The meritocracy is misogyny.

    Typical woman, hold two contradictory positions simultaneously and expect a man to translate it into some form of coherent thought.

    The good women are few and far between.

  • Illocust||

    Dude, I'm a woman. Blame feminist for that attitude not the entire gender.

  • Banake||

    I guess Jordan Worth is a poor victim of the patriarchy. -> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KeGVpMPAwuw

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Yeah many years ago I lived with a violent woman. She would attack at full force for no logical reason. I never hit her back. The culture has always deferred to women because They make babies which is a pretty big deal. But the idea that women aren't capable of violence is horseshit. And feminine violence is nothing new. My experience happened 40 years ago. I love women but, in the past at least, they could be as violent as they wanted to be because they could always get away with it. If they're being prosecuted for their assaults I gotta think that's a good thing.

  • ||

    Well now that they aren't having babies, what now?

  • TGoodchild||

    Huh - I always thought women's prisons were like those in Chained Heat, where the wrongfully-convicted yet hot new inmate causes a ruckus and the sultry warden needs to break her.

  • Don't look at me.||

    Go on....

  • OpenBordersLiberal-tarian||

    Chaining pregnant prisoners to hospital beds as they give birth and forcing female inmates to wear blood-soiled clothes after denying them menstrual products: These are just a couple of the unjustifiable conditions common in U.S. jails and prisons, where populations of women have been skyrocketing.

    This is indeed terrible, but it's nothing compared to what will happen if Drumpf is still President a year from now. If Mueller doesn't save us from this nightmare soon, ALL birthing parents (remember, men can get pregnant too) will endure these conditions, incarcerated or not. It'll be just like The Handmaid's Tale!

    #Resist

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Oh, that really is weak tea. Your mind must be focusing elsewhere; is it perhaps struggling with the temptation to demand equal outcome here as in pay?

  • buybuydandavis||

    I liked it.

    It's funny how nobody cares about Reason articles anymore. I come here to read OBL and Ken.

  • Cy||

    You resisted on the first comment, but just couldn't hold back any longer.

  • Nardz||

    Um, wouldn't #letitflow be more appropriate for anti-tampon activism?

  • Banake||

    Lol

  • Banake||

    Lol

  • Banake||

    Lol

  • Banake||

    Lol

  • Dizzle||

    All you need to do is walk any city street and see there's way more ratchet bitches now than their used to be. And obviously more ratchet = more problematic.

  • No Longer Amused||

    The root causes of the problem aren't addressed here - you're just listing symptoms.

    Also, you don't consider that perhaps women have been previously underrepresented in prison, getting a free pass on criminal behavior simply because they are women.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Oh FFS.

    First of all 200,000 women is about 0.1% of the adult female population. That means the other 99.9% are all saints or some are getting away with shit. Either way, sounds like substantial bias. And we all know that bias based on sex is evil, right?

    Second, this could be the ultimate (and self-condratictory) argument "for the children". Can't lock up some felonious bitch cuz she's a mom? So women get out of jail free given their status as breeders? But over on the progressive media, I see hundreds of screeds about how women are not to be defined by biology, including traditional roles as mommies.

    Sign me--Confused.

  • Weigel's Cock Ring||

    I'll explain it to you: Elizabeth Nolan Brown is a virulent man-hating feminazi.

    She thinks that even if a woman commits some horrible crime, like murdering her husband or boyfriend for example, that the guy almost certainly had it coming to him and she shouldn't really be seriously punished, and that therefore there should be zero women in prison.

  • Sevo||

    OK, there is blatant under-representation of an exploited class in incarceration rates.
    I demand an increase in the number of women behind bars and I demand it now!

  • Dadlobby||

    Gynocentric, feminist, relational violence BS. Because they are 8% of the population in prison? I expect that men's prisons are like resorts, no "rape" or sexual abuse, no violence. Multiple studies have corroborated female impunity with women charged with lesser crimes (if charged at all), given lesser sentences (if not excused entirely because of their sex and circumstance), and once incarcerated treated much more leniently than men.

    "The criminal justice system was built for men" says the bills sponsor speaks volumes to the sexist anti-male inequality in this. As men of color are disproportionately incarcerate under the current U.S. "justice" system, can you explain to me how this is not both sexist and racist?

  • Hank Phillips||

    Without looter collectivism there is no meaning to neologisms like sexist and racist.

  • Emotional Opposition Animal||

    Wouldn't be #CurrentYear Reason without leftist double standards.

    Chaining pregnant prisoners to hospital beds as they give birth

    Chaining? You mean wrapping them in chains? That's going to require a link.

    If you mean cuffing them to the hospital bed, that's the same they do to male prisoners who are in a hospital, for obvious reasons. Not sure what's so different about giving birth.

    "The criminal justice system was built for men," said the bill's sponsor, Republican state Sen. Julie Raque Adams, but her bill prioritizes "the welfare of babies and the women who are carrying them."

    It was built AGAINST men. It is not intended for the welfare of the criminals it punishes.

    More than half of all incarcerated women have children. It's past time that states stopped ignoring the needs of this group.

    What about incarcerated men who have children? Oh I forgot, they're men, fuck them.

  • esteve7||

    Woman is incarcerated for child abuse

    prog wants to let hpothetical woman go because women shouldn't be in jail. uh huh

  • Longtobefree||

    To quote Popeye; "well, blow me down!"
    EVERY SINGLE RECOMMENDATION in that article is unconstitutionally discriminatory based on sex / gender / preference / whatever separates men and women this week.
    Here we have absolute equality, and it is railed against. Could it possibly be that the raging progressives cannot reconcile actual equality with preferential treatment based on sex?

  • fafalone||

    You're just now noticing that progressives haven't ever been equality? They're for transferring and expanding privilege and power from men to women and white people to minorities. They believe equal treatment and merit-based treatment to be tools of white male supremacy/patriarchy (yes, really-- because it results and different outcomes, and since it's impossible for there to be group differences...).

    Women are extremely upset about going from only being 1% as harshly treated for crime as men to 10%. There'd be riots in the street unlike the world has ever seen if they were ever actually arrested and punished exactly like men when they commit a crime.

    (But come on, "every single recommendation"? Please give them menstrual products lol)

  • buybuydandavis||

    Besides the fear, hatred, and resentment, identity politics is about "more for us" politics, not equality.

  • BigT||

    Separate but equal is inherently unequal. Put 'em in with the men!

  • fafalone||

    Exactly. That's how we solve the whole trans-bathroom issue too-- all unisex all the time! If separate but equal is inherently unequal, and under the same law we can't have black/white bathrooms (because it doesn't matter if someone is uncomfortable changing with another race-- which they certainly were when this was decided), then how can we possibly have men and women given such unequal treatment?
    Oddly enough, I've never seen anyone argue that bathrooms are unique in their exemption with anything other than 'because women and most men want it that way'... like a blacks only bathroom would be ok if they wanted one.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    Just imagine how many more women we could incarcerate if we had sensible gun control laws.

  • MichaeI Hihn||

    This feels similar to Black Lives Matter. Perhaps the root cause is the system itself is barbaric, as well as costly in fiat and productivity. Just taking incarceration rates into account with clearance rates, there's clearly a situation here. US prisons have been a human rights disgrace for at least a generation, maybe more. It's openly bragged about.

    The article was well-researched. Excellent writing, as per usual. Liz was always better than Robbie on both scores. I just wish it hadn't been so needlessly limited in scope, and am concerned that relegating it to identity politics cheapens the subject matter.

  • ||

    I get it now, Michael Hihn is Elizabeth Nolan Brown incognito. It all makes perfect sense.

  • Hank Phillips||

    As long as the LP platform retains that suicidal "good faith" plank negating the Roe v. Wade decision the LP wrote and the Supreme Court adopted to strike down mystical Comstock laws, women will cross the street to avoid us. Canadian women used Roe v. Wade as a springboard for abolishing ALL girl-bullying Comstock and book-burning laws. There is not a word about birth control in the Canadian LP platform, for that battle is won. The only ones whining--since 1976--are the girl-jailing Prohibition and Republican parties.

  • Azathoth!!||

    Why are there so many people who think prison is supposed to be Happy Fun Time! ?

  • fafalone||

    My guess is because when their vengeance boner went down they took a look at the countries that treat their prisoners far better and saw that they had lower recidivism and more former prisoners becoming normal productive citizens.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    So let's outsource our tattooed gang-bangers to jails in those countries.

  • Ymmarta||

    "the welfare of babies and the women who are carrying them."

    I thought pregnant women were carrying products of conception, not babies.

  • buybuydandavis||

    It's a fetus when a woman wants to kill it.
    It's a baby when a woman wants an easier prison life.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Oh, fuck them all.

    Oops, somebody already did.

  • ||

    Wow, Nolan really did take a break this Mother's Day weekend, might as well have been at the cottage. Would "fighting back" not be completely and utterly sacrosanct in court as self-defence? I don't even buy that for one second as the reason for increases in female penitentiary percentages.

  • shame on you||

    I read a speach by Ron Paul he gave to congress back in the early 90's ( transpcript, I don't know when he gave it), but it truly disturbs me the arguments I read on this site. Really, so many that call themselves libertarians have lost their way....or maybe it doesn't mean anything to be a libertarian anymore. I see so many bitching about inequality when the sad truth is too many are being imprisoned! And for consensual crimes! Please folks.....step back and remember your roots. Without this failure of a drug war and constant attact on consenual crimes our prison population would be a fraction of what it is today. The only people that deserve to be in prison are those that harmed another....you guys forget the non-aggressive principal?????
    Girl lost in Philly

  • buybuydandavis||

    A lot of us are just getting our snark on because of the endless sexist hypocrisies of the feminist Left.

    Case in point: "directing pregnant women with drug problems to treatment rather than jail"

    Seems like *inequality* gets loudly demanded and enforced by law when it leaves men on the short end of the stick.

  • Banake||

    "Lost their ways". No. I support drug and prostitution legalization. It's things such as ""Policy changes have led to mandatory or 'dual' arrests for fighting back against domestic violence...". I support dual arrest. Women are at least 50% of domestic abuse. This idea that men are the reason for domestic abuse put a lot of men who were beaten or attacked and didn't fight back in prison and their attackers were left free. She is not fighting back, she is fighting. A lot of times when the guy didn't fight back.

  • Banake||

    I should be clear, I don't support dual arrest, I prefer dual arrest to send just the man to prison. Because contrary to what the article said, a lot of women aren't fighting back. They're just fighting.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "More than half of all incarcerated women have children. "

    What percentage of incarcerated men have children?

    "Female prison populations are exploding"

    Progress at last! Equality is coming!
    We'll wipe out the Prison Gap in no time!

  • Liberty Lover||

    It still boils down to "if you can't do the time, don't do the crime".

  • buybuydandavis||

    And keep your eye on the sparrow
    When the going gets narrow.

  • MaleMatters||

    How many men behind bars are fathers? No one cares.

    Find out why in Warren Farrell's stunning new book "The Boy Crisis."

    Excerpt:

    "If your son commits a minor crime, he is also more likely to go to jail or prison than your daughter. First, if he has no criminal history and has committed a crime identical to that of your daughter, your son is more likely to be charged; second, he is more likely to be convicted of that crime; and third, when he is convicted, on average your son will receive a 63 percent longer sentence."

    My heart goes out to anyone wrongly jailed, but Brown's commentary seems straight out of Ms. Magazine. What would Brown write if 93 percent of prison inmates were women?

  • BILKER||

    the number of women in prison growing is the fact that women have been whining and bitching about being equal. well there you go bitches. equality is now being administered.

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