Back when the county jail in Burnet, Texas, housed perhaps three women, jailers didn’t have to worry much about contraband mascara, tampon shortages or raunchy love notes in the intra-inmate mail. Over the past decade, the number of female inmates in this rural jail northwest of Austin has surged. Instead of three women, the jail now houses as many as 140, the Dallas Morning News reports. The situation is an extreme example of a statewide trend. Across Texas, the number of women awaiting trial in county jails has jumped by 48 percent since 2011. At the peak in August, more than 6,300 women were jailed before trial, up from under 4,000 in early 2011.
There have been significant increases in women inmates at many jails, especially in rural counties. During the same time period, men in county jails pretrial increased only 11 percent. The surge doesn’t seem to reflect a crime wave. The number of women arrested has dropped by 20 percent since 2011, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. (Arrest data doesn’t necessarily reflect every time an inmate is jailed.) The number of women in state prison — where they usually serve time after sentencing — has been stable. What’s behind the increase in women in county lockups? Interviews with incarcerated women and examination of other cases shows that most of those jailed were poor and were accused of crimes involving drugs or theft. Most had families to care for; few were flight risks. Some could not afford to post bond and get out on bail. More commonly, they failed probation, which promises them clean records if they stay out of trouble. They couldn’t pay their fees and costs, they failed drug tests, they didn’t turn up for court dates, and they were arrested again.