Jails Seen as ‘Failing’ Needs of Incarcerated Women

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Photo by Giuseppe Milo via Flickr

More women are being held in local jails than in state prisons, but little attention is paid to the health care, counselling and family services they need in order to succeed in civil society when they are released, according to the latest annual report by the Prison Policy Initiative.

The total number of women incarcerated in jails, state and federal prisons, federal detention centers and other facilities was 231,000 in 2017, the last year for which data were available. Of these, 99,000 were held in state prisons, and 101,000 were in jails, where health care and counseling programs are much harder to access than in state facilities.

At least 60 percent of the female jail population have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial, largely because they are unable to afford money bail.

“Troublingly, the newest data available show that from 2016 to 2017, the number of women in jail on a given day grew by more than 5 percent, even as the rest of the jail population declined,” the report said.

The rise in the female jail population is exacerbated by the fact that women in the U.S. criminal justice system have a “dramatically different” experience than men, and require special attention by authorities to their rehabilitation needs, wrote Aleks Kajstura, Legal Director of the Prison Policy Initiative and author of the report.

“Women’s incarceration has grown at twice the pace of men’s incarceration in recent decades, and has disproportionately been located in local jails,” Kajstura wrote.

The new report, Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, “helps us see why many recent criminal justice reforms are failing to reduce women’s incarceration,” Kajstura wrote.

“The outsized role of jails has serious consequences for incarcerated women and their families,” and underscores the need for advocates of jail reform to take the lead in devoting more attention to the needs of incarcerated women, he added.

The report echoed earlier research showing that many jails make it more difficult for women to stay in touch with their families, an essential element in helping them reintegrate with civil society.

Outgoing jail calls, for example, are three times as expensive as prison calls. Some jails limit mail to postcards.

“This is especially troubling given that 80 percent of women in jails are mothers, and most of them are primary caretakers of their children,” Kajstura wrote in the Prison Policy blog.

The failures of jails don’t just impact women who are U.S. citizens.

On any given night, 4,500 immigrant women are held for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in local jails, which is over half of the 7,700 women detained in immigration centers, the report found.

The Prison Policy Initiative used longitudinal data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Surveys of Inmates in Local Jails, Military Correctional Populations data, and Juvenile Justice Census data, among other documents and studies to create a vivid pie chart.

The chart depicted graphically the reasons why women are incarcerated:

      • 73 percent of women in prisons and jails were arrested for nonviolent offenses. This is a stark contrast to the 57 percent of all people, mostly men, in prisons and jails for nonviolent offenses;
      • In the juvenile system, 10 percent of girls (compared to 3 percent of boys) are held for “status offenses,” such as running away, truancy, or “incorrigibility”—which, the author notes, wouldn’t be a crime if committed by an adult; and,
      • 27 percent of women in prisons and jails are locked up for violent offenses, including acts of violence committed in self-defense against spouses or partners.

Kajstura noted that the “Whole Pie” analysis doesn’t include the more than one million women who are under correctional supervision.

“Ultimately,” she wrote. “We need more data to fully explain what’s behind the recent growth in women’s jail populations.”

The report was produced in collaboration with the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice.

The full report, including the four visual aids, can be accessed here.

This summary was prepared by TCR staffer Andrea Cipriano.

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