Female incarceration in the US

The United States of America is the country with the highest rates of incarceration in the world.  Despite the fact that it comprises only 5 per cent of the world’s population, it accounts for nearly 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners. One of the reasons of these high numbers is the length of the prison sentences in the US, which exceeds the average length of sentences in any other country.

The US, along with the overall highest incarceration rates in the world, has the highest rates of female incarceration. Women in prison constitute more than one tenth of the whole prison population. The numbers of women incarcerated in state and federal prisons have been gradually increasing over the last 30 years. Where does this increase come from and what does it reveal about the US criminal justice system and the US justice policies? One crucial element that the statistics show is that drug offences substantially contributed to this increase. According to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports here are the most important numbers that designate the increase of the number of women in the US jails in the last 30 years:

more than one million women are under the supervision of the criminal justice system in the US, with all forms of correctional supervision considered.

  • the number of women in the US state and federal prisons increased from 12.300 in 1980 to 182.271 in 2002.
  • between the years 1986 and 1999 the number of women in state prison charged of non-drug offences increased by 129 per cent, while it increased by 888 per cent for those charged of drug offences alone.
  • From 1986 onwards, there has been a 400 per cent increase overall in the number of women behind bars both in state and federal prisons.
  • Between the years 1986 and 1996 a 49 per cent rise in the number of women in the US jails has been observed compared to a 32 per cent of increase in the number of men because of drug offences. 
  • From 1999 onwards, 72 per cent of the women in prison were incarcerated for drug offences.
  • From 1986 onwards, there has been an 800 per cent increase in the number of African American women behind bars.
  • By 2003, 58% of all women in federal prison were convicted of drug offences, compared to 48% of men.

What lies at the heart of this massive increase of women in the US prisons? It seems that drug offences are one of the main causes of criminal convictions and incarceration among women, far surpassing the convictions for violent crimes and public order offences. One of the biggest contributors to the increase of incarceration rates in the US is the war on drugs.  After the passage of Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, the incarceration of non-violent offenses significantly increased. Part of the policy included the introduction of obligatory minimum sentences for minor drug offences. The typical mandatory sentence for a first-time drug offence in federal court was five or ten years, while in other developed countries only 6 months in jail were imposed for first-time drug offences. The war on drugs and the unjustifiably harsh sentences affected women more than men, making the rate of increase for the last decade to reach the figure of 4,8 per cent for women compared to 3,1 per cent for men, according to the
Bureau of Justice Statistics. It is interesting to see that women currently account for one in four arrests in the US, although they constitute only 7 per cent of prison inmates.  This is quite contradictory and poses questions as regards to the reasons why so many women are arrested for-usually minor- drug offences. As the American Civil Liberties Union report shows, women who are not deeply involved in the drug trade most usually pay the price and become the east target of the authorities. This happens because the heads of major drug operations and those who are in control of the drug trade are almost always men, while women remain at the periphery, with lack of knowledge, power and the ability to influence any decisions associated with the drug trade. Women generally play minor roles in the drug trade, such as small scale carriers, sellers and couriers. The worst of all is that, in addition to their minor involvement, they are not usually aware of the legal consequences of their actions; they do not know that they can be easily found guilty and be subjected to long sentences, which has destructive consequences for their lives. The highest percentage of these women are uninformed and poor, who, very often resort to drug use under conditions of coercion by others, who happen to know very well how the drug trade works. Also, those men who are deeply involved in the drug market, can easily reduce their sentences, by providing prosecutors with information and evidence about other contacts and turning other suspects into justice. On the contrary, most of the women who are charged of drug offences are not part of the various networks that sustain the drug trade and therefore are not capable of providing prosecutors with valuable information about others, which results in their longer, harsher –and unfair- sentences. In addition, many women are often condemned and penalized for supporting their partners and family members, without a detailed investigation of the conditions of the support, such as, for example, the extreme economic dependence of women or the violence exercised on them.  These facts, policies and practices justify the following number: According to the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice (2006), the number of women in US prisons has risen 757 per cent, from 1977 to 2005.

Women in the US are the easy targets and only the surface of a much bigger problem. Women who use drugs are subjected to harsh, ineffective and unfair policies that criminalize the use and possession of drugs, without looking at all at the real culprits, at the problematic aspects of the lives of those women, and without having any rehabilitative approach. The majority of women in the US prisons are marginalized, vulnerable, those parts of the society who do not possess the means and the power to fight for their rights and protect themselves. Many of them are low-income mothers, high school graduates, or suffer from mental illnesses. Others might have experienced physical and emotional abuse prior to their incarceration. According to the American Civil Liberties Union statistics, 55 per cent of incarcerated women reported physical abuse in their childhood. It has also been found that incarcerated women who might have suffered from sexual abuse before their imprisonment, continue to suffer from sexual harassment in the prisons, mostly from the prison staff.  The report designates two main factors that define the life of women in the US prisons: the first is the physical and sexual abuse in prison and the second is the denial of appropriate healthcare services. The combination of those two factors leads in the deterioration of the health condition of those women, in high recidivism rates and in irreparable psychic traumas and injury. Their trauma and despair feeds the desire for drugs and places them in an endless cycle of addiction, victimization and violence. Again, these findings show how ineffective and destructive these policies are: instead of reducing the harm which might have been caused by drug abuse, the core of this anti-drug strategy increases the harm, by attacking the powerless and vulnerable women and by not providing medical help and adequate treatment.

Punitive measures in the case of drug offences –especially in the case of minor ones- should not be an option for policy design. Punishing the victims in order to serve the justice system not only does harm to the victims, but negates the term of justice itself. Before considering of punishing those women who might use or possess even big amounts of drugs, the US justice policies should focus on the transformation and purification of the US prisons which have become the centre of abuse, neglect and harassment of innocent women. In a purified system of justice, those who deserve a real and serious condemnation should be the ones who commit crimes against humanity and dignity, and not those who might use or possess an amount of drugs. The addicted drug users should be integrated in units of treatment and various health programmes, adapted for the different needs of the patients.