This report has been updated with a new 2018 version.
With growing public attention to the problem of mass incarceration, people want to know about women’s experience with incarceration. How many women are held in prisons, jails, and other correctional facilities in the United States? And why are they there? While these are important questions, finding those answers requires not only disentangling the country’s decentralized and overlapping criminal justice systems, but also unearthing the frustratingly hard to find and often altogether missing data on gender.
This report provides a first-of-its-kind detailed view of the 219,000 women incarcerated in the United States, and how they fit into the even larger picture of correctional control. Since 2014, the Prison Policy Initiative has quantified the number of people incarcerated in the United States, and calculated the breakdown of people held by each correctional system by offense in an annual Whole Pie: Mass Incarceration report. This report, done in collaboration with the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, finally provides similar data on women incarcerated in the Unites States. We break the data down to show the various correctional systems that control women, and to examine why women in the various systems of confinement are locked up:
In stark contrast to the total incarcerated population, where the state prison systems hold twice as many people as are held in jails, incarcerated women are nearly evenly split between state prisons and local jails.
The explanation for exactly what happened, when, and why does not yet exist because the data on women has long been obscured by the larger picture of men’s incarceration. The disaggregated numbers presented here are an important first step to ensuring that women are not left behind in the effort to end mass incarceration.
Women are disproportionately stuck in jails
A staggering number of women who are incarcerated are not even convicted: more than a quarter of women who are behind bars have not yet had a trial.Moreover, 60% of women in jail have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial.
Avoiding pre-trial incarceration is uniquely challenging for women. The number of unconvicted women stuck in jail is surely not because courts are considering women, who are generally the primary caregivers of children, to be a flight risk. The far more likely answer is that incarcerated women, who have lower incomes than incarcerated men, have an even harder time affording cash bail. A previous study found that women who could not make bail had an annual median income of just $11,071. And among those women, Black women had a median annual income of only $9,083 (just 20% that of a white non-incarcerated man). When the typical $10,000 bail amounts to a full year’s income, it’s no wonder that women are stuck in jail awaiting trial.