According to statistics derived from the Bureau of Justice, the number of women in prison is rapidly growing at nearly twice the rate for male prisoners. Around a third of these are jailed for drug offenses and female prisoners often suffer from substance abuse as well as having high rates of being infected with HIV. In addition, many of them have histories of sexual and physical abuse.
What are the factors behind this unprecedented increase? One major contributor is the ‘war on drugs’ which has resulted in some 25% of the women in prison being there due to non-violent drug-related crimes. Others are imprisoned due to other non-violent offenses such as property-related crimes and robbery.
A lot of women end up behind bars after they are arrested as an accomplice to a partner who is the one who is really engaged in criminal activity. Since their involvement in the criminal activity is marginal, they often have no information which they can trade to the prosecutor in exchange for leniency. Her boyfriend, on the other hand, has more to trade for a deal and thus, often ends up spending less time in prison than his partner, even if he is guilty of an increased number of crimes.
Another factor in the skyrocketing female prison population is the ‘get-tough-on-crime’ tactics adopted by states. While these tactics sound good to voters, they have been remarkably ineffective in reducing incarceration rates and have only unfairly targeted poor minority communities. As a result, female prison population has skewed more towards minorities, primarily Latinos since incarceration rates have significantly decreased for African-American women.
The high rates of female incarceration have also adversely affected their families. A majority of women behind bars report that they have a minor child, while around half of them say that they are jailed in facilities that are over 100 miles away from their families. As a result, a high percentage of them report that they have not seen their children even once while they are in jail. In addition, since many of these women are single parents who are the main caretakers of their children, if they are incarcerated it means that their children are deprived of the only parental figure they have ever known. Thus, there is a high risk that in the future, these children will also turn to criminal activity and end up becoming incarcerated as well.
So what can be done to address the problem? Drug treatment programs for women in prison need to be more readily available to help them address their substance abuse problems. In addition, there needs to be programs that address the issues that led to drug use and addiction in the first place, meaning access to extensive counseling as well as help in reintegrating to society once they are released from prison through job training and education programs. Unfortunately, it seems that these programs will not be readily available, meaning that the issue of increased incarceration of women will not have any easy solutions.