The Number of Women in U.S. Jails Has Risen Faster Than Men but Gone Unnoticed

At this point, most people are aware that America has an absurd number of people behind bars compared to other developed countries, but now, the number of women in U.S. jails is increasing at a faster rate than men. There are still far more men locked up, but the typically low number of female inmates held for misdemeanor crimes was 14 times higher in 2014 than it was in 1970. Because the mass incarceration problem is believed to predominantly affect men, the ways women have been sucked in have largely gone unnoticed.

“Once a rarity, women are now held in jails in nearly every county — a stark contrast to 1970, when almost three-quarters of counties held not a single woman in jail,” said a report by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Safety and Justice Challenge detailing the drastic rise. In 1970, less than 8,000 women were in municipal and county jails for minor offenses, compared to about 110,000 in 2014, according to the study. The national jail population rose from 157,000 to 745,000 during the same time period, and while that number includes more men than women, the sharp increase in female inmates is alarming.

Similarly to the male jail population, 30 percent of female inmates are black, while black women only make up 13 percent of the U.S. female population, and 16 percent of female inmates are Hispanic, while Hispanic women only account for 11 percent of American women.

The report, released Wednesday, showed that a lot of the rise in women being locked up happened in small counties with fewer than 250,000 people. The rate in these rural areas rose from 79 women per 100,000 behind bars in 2000 to 140 per 100,000 in 2014. Most were arrested and convicted for drug or shoplifting misdemeanors, which speaks to the fact that most of them are poor women.

Because the prison system is used to dealing with mostly men, it’s not equipped for female inmates. “Once incarcerated, women must grapple with systems, practices, and policies that are designed for the majority of the incarcerated population: men,” the report says. This causes problems in terms of making sure female inmates have enough tampons and pads, pregnant inmates have adequate health care, and mothers can see their children. One of the biggest differences between the female and male jail populations is that 80 percent of female inmates are mothers, according to the study, while far fewer men in jail have kids to take care of.

This new research makes it clear that mass incarceration is deeply affecting women as well as men, meaning it’s even more of a pervasive issue in poor, rural communities than was previously known.

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