A Tragic Link: Drugs and Rising Women’s Incarceration

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Photo by Giuseppe Milo via Flickr

After skyrocketing for decades, overall incarceration rates have finally been on a slow decline since 2008. But a closer look at the data reveals a major exception.


From 2009 to 2018, there was a 23 percent increase in the number of women in city and county jails — a rise that effectively cancelled out more than 40 percent of the simultaneous 7.5 percent decrease in the men’s jail population.

Meanwhile, reductions in state and federal prison populations have mostly affected men.

Women make up about 10 percent of people in jails and prisons. This means that patterns unique to women’s incarceration are easily obscured when we focus exclusively on the larger, overall incarcerated population.

And when we overlook incarcerated women as a unique group, we also fail to address the additional challenges they face — including different health care needs and a greater likelihood of being a primary caretaker of young children — that make their growing numbers all the more alarming.

Since public health research shows that women are also affected in unique ways by the opioid crisis, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) decided to see whether drug enforcement trends and substance abuse could be contributing to the rising number of women behind bars.

Increased Drug Arrests for Women

Over the past 35 years, total arrests have risen 25 percent for women, while decreasing 33 percent for men.” The increase among women is largely driven by drugs: During that period, drug-related arrests increased nearly 216 percent for women, compared to 48 percent for men.

[see editor’s note below]

Changes in policing in the 1990s contributed to this rise. The shift toward “broken windows” policing — or arresting people for minor crimes to supposedly prevent major crime — resulted in increased arrests for both men and women.

But these policies particularly affected women, who are more likely to be involved in relatively minor drug crimes like simple possession than higher-level drug offenses.

More than a quarter of women in jail are held for drug crimes, which holds true for both convicted and unconvicted women. (Another 32 percent are held for property offenses, which are often linked to drug dependence and abuse.) In state prisons as well, the share of women incarcerated for drug and property crimes is greater than for their male counterparts.[1]

The PPI examined whether the increase in women’s incarceration was driven by rising arrests in rural areas, where the opioid crisis has hit particularly hard. But we found that women’s drug arrests were actually up in all county types over the last decade (by 25 percent in rural, 23 percent in urban, and 26 percent in suburban counties).

Incarceration Rises Among White Women

We also checked to see if there was a significant change in white women’s (jail and prison) incarceration, since the current[2] opioid epidemic is widely viewed as a white issue. Here we did find a relevant trend: Although prison and jail incarceration rates remain higher for Black and Hispanic women than for white women, incarceration is particularly on the rise among white women.

From 2010 to 2019, overall prison incarceration rates for white women increased by 2 percent — while simultaneously decreasing for white men, Black men, Hispanic men, Black women, and Hispanic women. When we look back a decade further, which captures the beginning of the prescription drug crisis, the gender disparity in growth was even greater: Incarceration rates increased 38.2 percent for white women and 28.3 percent for Hispanic women from 2000 to 2010, compared to 2.2 percent and 3.1 percent for white and Hispanic men, respectively.

table courtesy Prison Policy Initiative

We also found that growth in women’s incarceration is primarily happening at the jail level.

Unlike incarcerated men, incarcerated women are more likely to be in county or city jails than in state or federal prison. Most of these jailed women (60 percent) have not been convicted of a crime and are being held pretrial, often because they cannot afford bail.

This isn’t surprising when you consider that most women held on bond have incomes that fall below the poverty line.

Women Opioid Deaths Up 600 % from 1999-2016

Knowing that drug arrests are on the rise, we explored whether addiction is increasing among women, particularly opioid abuse. We found that although women and men are equally likely to develop a substance use disorder, 57 percent of those misusing opioids are women.

The health toll is enormous: Women entered emergency rooms due to painkiller misuse an average of once every three minutes in 2010. Women’s rising opioid use is also reflected in an almost 600 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths from 1999 to 2016, compared to a 312 percent increase for men over the same time frame.

Researchers find that women may be more likely to receive opioid prescriptions due to a variety of factors: Women are more likely to seek out health care, go to the doctor regularly, and report experiencing pain, including chronic pain. Health care providers are also more likely to miss signs of addiction in women.

(Disparate access to health care may also contribute to the rise in the incarceration of white women specifically. White people, who have higher rates of access to health insurance and physicians, were more likely to become addicted to prescription drugs like OxyContin than Black and Hispanic people.)

 Drug dependence is also more pronounced among incarcerated women than incarcerated men. The most recent data available show that in 2009, around 70 percent of women serving sentences in prisons and jails struggled with drug abuse and dependence.[3] And from 2004 to 2009, drug abuse and dependence among women in state prisons grew at twice the rate of men.

Additional Challenges

The growing number of incarcerated women face unique challenges that prisons and jails aren’t equipped to address.

Incarcerated women are more likely to have a history of abuse, trauma, and mental health problems than incarcerated men.[4] One-third of women in jails, for example, report experiencing serious psychological distress in the past 30 days. Women may also have additional health considerations, including pregnancy and reproductive health concerns.

Tiana Herring

Tiana Herring

Incarceration also has devastating effects on the families of incarcerated women. The majority of women in prisons and jails are mothers to minor children, and most incarcerated mothers were their children’s primary caretaker before their incarceration. The trauma of having a parent incarcerated leaves lasting negative impacts on children, and can cause financial instability for families.

For the sake of incarcerated women and their families, more needs to be done to understand the continued rise in women’s incarceration — and to make sure reforms affect women as well as men.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this briefing stated total arrests had risen 15 percent for women, while decreasing 40 percent for men; and that  drug-related arrests increased nearly 190 percent for women and 34 percent for men. This data  comes from the “Arrestee Sex” table from the FBI Crime Data Explorer. These percentages were based on more limited data presented in the FBI Crime Data Explorer tables entitled “Male Arrests By Age” and “Female Arrests By Age.”

Tiana Herring is a Research Associate at the Prison Policy Initiative and recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She welcomes comments from readers.

[1] According to the BJS Prisoners Series reports from 2010 to 2019, the percentage of women in state prisons held on drug offenses remained at around 25 percent from 2009 to 2018, while an average of 27percent were held for property offenses. Over the same time period, an average of 15 percent of men in state prisons were held for drug offenses and 17 percent for property offenses.

[2] In the 1970s, Black and Latinx communities experienced a heroin epidemic that did not receive the same amount of public awareness, sympathy, or resources as the current opioid epidemic.

[3] It’s possible the percentage of people incarcerated who are drug dependent is even higher, since the most recent data are from 2009, and heroin deaths didn’t start to rise until 2010. Additionally, the data exclude people detained in jails who are not convicted — which is about 75 percent of all people in jails.

[4] 73 percent of women in state prisons reported having a mental health problem in 2006. 98 percent of women in jails had been exposed to trauma during their lifetimes, according to a 2005 study.

One thought on “A Tragic Link: Drugs and Rising Women’s Incarceration

  1. I have been concerned about our nation’s prescription drug abuse and overdose epidemic is having on women for a few years and have actually considered writing a book or filming a documentary about this rising problem. Would like to discuss this issue with Tianna Herring to see what can be done to raise awareness and hopefully move along some policy changes that can help. I’m the Founder and Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse and also an Executive Steering Committee of the FED UP! Coalition with a LOT of connections to other coalitions and individual advocates around the country. It seems this network of advocates could do something meaningful to expose this problem and move action along. My contact info:

    April Rovero
    Founder/Executive Director

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