Sep 26 12:00 PM

6 things you need to know about women in prison

"Quick Facts: Women & Criminal Justice", Women's Prison Association, 2009

Over 200,000 women are in prison and jail in the United States, and more than one million women are under criminal justice supervision. 

  • There were 115,779 women incarcerated in either state or federal prisons at midyear 2008.
  • The average daily adult female jail population at midyear 2008 was 99,175.
  • At year end 2007, there were 987,427 women on probation, representing 23% of the total probation population. 
  • Women represented 12% of the parole population (98,923 women) in 2007.

The number of women in prison has grown by over 800% in the past three

  • The female prison population grew by 832% from 1977 to 2007. The male prison population grew 416% during the same time period.
  • Oklahoma has the highest female imprisonment rate at 134 per 100,000 women. 
  • Massachusetts has the lowest rate of female imprisonment at 13 per 100,000 women.

Two thirds of women in prison are there for non-violent offenses, many for drug related crimes.

"Women in Prison: An Overview", American Civil Liberties Union, 2006

Women of color are significantly overrepresented in the criminal justice system.

  • Two-thirds of women in prison in the United States are women of color.
  • In 2004, black women were 4.5 times more likely than white women to be incarcerated.
  • African American women’s incarceration rates for all crimes increased by 800% since 1986, compared to an increase of 400% for women of all races.
  • In Montana, Native Americans are 6% of the population but Native American women constitute approximately 25% of the total female prisoner population.

Girls of color who are victims of abuse are more likely to be processed by the criminal justice system and labeled as offenders than white girls. White girls who are abused have a better chance of being treated as victims and referred to child welfare and mental health systems.

"California's Great Prison Experiment", Tim Stelloh for The Nation, June 5, 2013

By 2006, the California prison system had reached a crisis point: built to house 80,000 inmates, it held more than twice that number. “It was like the USSR,” says Jim Mayer, executive director of California Forward, a nonpartisan government reform group. “It was going to implode on itself.” A few years later, a three-judge panel handed down a dramatic ruling in response to two federal class-action lawsuits filed by inmates: the first, from 1990, claimed that mentally ill prisoners did not have access to minimal care; the second, filed eleven years later, described similar conditions for regular medical treatment. The panel found that inmates had been subject to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The judges ordered California to shrink its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates. The state appealed, but on May 23, 2011, the US Supreme Court upheld the order in a landmark ruling, Brown v. Plata. By June 27, 2013, the Court ruled, California’s prisons would have to look very different.

So began “realignment,” an unprecedented overhaul of California’s thirty-three prisons, described as the largest criminal justice experiment ever conducted in America. Tens of thousands of low-level offenders would be kept in their hometowns instead of being shipped to state prisons. Law enforcement would seek smarter, cheaper justice models. That, at least, was the theory. And while the Court’s deadline has since been pushed from June to December, the question remains: Is California doing enough to reverse its prison crisis?

"Female inmates sterilized in California prisons without approval", Corey G. Johnson for the Center for Investigative Reporting, Jul 07, 2013

Doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sterilized nearly 150 female inmates from 2006 to 2010 without required state approvals, The Center for Investigative Reporting has found.

At least 148 women received tubal ligations in violation of prison rules during those five years – and there are perhaps 100 more dating back to the late 1990s, according to state documents and interviews.

From 1997 to 2010, the state paid doctors $147,460 to perform the procedure, according to a database of contracted medical services for state prisoners.

The women were signed up for the surgery while they were pregnant and housed at either the California Institution for Women in Corona or Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, which is now a men’s prison.

Former inmates and prisoner advocates maintain that prison medical staff coerced the women, targeting those deemed likely to return to prison in the future.

"California’s Continuing Prison Crisis", The Editorial Board for The New York Times, August 10, 2013

Over the past quarter-century, multiple lawsuits have challenged California’s state prisons as dangerously overcrowded. In 2011, the United States Supreme Court found that the overcrowding had gotten so bad — close to double the prisons’ designed capacity — that inmates’ health and safety were unconstitutionally compromised. The court ordered the state to reduce its prison population by tens of thousands of inmates, to 110,000, or to 137.5 percent of capacity.

In January, the number of inmates was down to about 120,000, and Gov. Jerry Brown declared that “the prison emergency is over in California.” He implored the Supreme Court to delay a federal court order to release nearly 10,000 more inmates. On Aug. 2, the court said no. Over the furious dissent of Justice Antonin Scalia, who reiterated his warning two years ago of “the terrible things sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order,” six members of the court stood by its earlier ruling. California has to meet its goal by the end of 2013.

"California legislators urge speedy inquiry into prison sterilizations", Corey G. Johnson for the Center for Investigative Reporting, Aug 21, 2013

Legislators today fast-tracked an audit into why doctors under contract with the state sterilized nearly 150 female prison inmates from 2006 to 2010 without the required authorizations.

During a hearing at the State Capitol, members of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee unanimously approved the investigation into female sterilization and asked the California State Auditor’s office to make the review its highest priority.


Tubal ligations have been restricted since 1994 to instances of medical necessity – and only when authorized by top state corrections officials. But a former medical official told CIR that prison medical staff considered the rule unfair and looked for ways around it.

“For those of us who serve in state government, this is irrevocably unacceptable,” Jackson said. “The fact that this is the 21st century and we have to ask our state auditor to see if women are being coercively sterilized is absolutely unconscionable and, frankly, revolting.


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