Lessons About Criminalizing Women’s Poverty from A Study of the Buncombe County, North Carolina Jail

By: Tara Dhanraj Roden

Women in Jail March 1, 2023

A recent research project by the Vera Institute of Justice offers lessons for jail systems around the country on the dangers of criminalizing women’s poverty.

The picture for women in America’s jails remains troubling. Women in the United States only make up 4% of the world’s population, but the United States itself incarcerates 30% of the world’s population of women behind bars.

A stark example of the challenge in Buncombe County is that most of the women who were incarcerated at the Buncombe Country Detention Center in 2020 hadn’t even been convicted of a crime. More than two-thirds of women on average were jailed pretrial; fewer than 10% were serving a sentence. Many could go home if they had the money, but they remained in jail because they couldn’t afford to post bail.

In Buncombe County, the women’s jail incarceration rate increased tenfold from 1970 to 2019. Since joining the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, Buncombe County’s jail population has increased, making the report’s recommendations all the more timely and urgent. Although the total Buncombe County Detention Facility population dropped by about 35 percent from spring 2019 to spring 2020, from 420 people to 272 people—largely due to swift action and collaboration between the detention center, law enforcement, court partners, and other key stakeholders in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic—the population rebounded and surpassed pre-COVID numbers in 2022. It is important to note that the jail population has started to decrease in the last few months as the county has made progress in identifying and implementing strategies that better address the drivers of incarceration. Although women make up a relatively small portion of the jail population—approximately 16 percent from 2017 to 2019, declining to about 11 percent in 2020, and then increasing through 2022—their circumstances and needs remain distinct and warrant particular attention.

The research project was part of the broader jail reduction work of the Safety and Justice Challenge Network, with findings based on administrative data from the jail and virtual surveys and interviews with 40 incarcerated women, representing nearly all the women who were held in the jail in September 2021.

Of the 40 women surveyed in the Buncombe County Detention Center, all but one said they struggled with drug or alcohol use. All but two said they were survivors of some form of violence, including domestic assault or physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.

In uncovering the paths that led to women’s incarceration in the county detention center, we concluded that many of them were there because their poverty had been criminalized. More than 20% of women who were admitted to the jail in 2020 were charged with a property crime, like larceny, burglary, or trespassing—low-level charges rooted in surviving the pressures of poverty.

In line with national patterns, women’s pathways into the jail in Buncombe County are shaped by economic instability, policies that criminalize acts of survival, and acts related to substance dependency.

Another theme that emerged was poor jail conditions and the costs associated with detention. Most of the women stated that they have no source of income when in detention. They shared that the average amount of money needed to cover necessities was $70 a week. The most common costs were for phone calls, hygiene products, and medical visits. Several women said they went for two weeks or more without toothpaste, shampoo, or clean underwear, which we believe may have been exacerbated by COVID. Women reported that the jail provides “indigent kits”—basic hygiene kits—but these cost $2 each, which is out of reach for people who are indigent.

One woman described:

“$20 for an ibuprofen. I’ve ordered the indigent kit for $1.98 and I’m $7 in the hole and I haven’t received anything. . . . I have no soap, no toothpaste.”

Another woman commented:

“Have to beg for these terrible pads. This happened this morning. I waited for an officer. She said, ‘It’s about to be shift change so ask someone else.’ I needed new underwear.”

In December 2021, jail staff stated that the indigent kit fee was eliminated. According to jail officials, the policy is that no incarcerated person is denied basic hygiene items due to lack of funds in their account.

On top of this is the county’s $20 charge for a medical visit to a nurse or doctor. As a result, women struggle on their own with ongoing medical conditions, pain, and lack of medication—which can result in health crises or hospital visits, a costly consequence of the initial, prohibitive fee. According to jail officials, the medical fee was waived during the height of COVID-19 and has since been reduced to $10.

Our study makes several recommendations to reduce the criminalization of poverty in Buncombe County. They include better housing options, alternatives to arrest and jail for certain charges, and creating a policy where the District Attorney’s office declines to prosecute certain low-level charges, especially those related to poverty or that pose no public safety risk. The study also recommends reforming bail practices, and codifying and expanding on COVID-era practices, such as the use of unsecured bail and warrant grace periods. It also recommends assessing the ability to pay before setting bail. The County can improve jail conditions, eliminate costs, and ensure better interagency coordination and communication to ensure women receive frequent and clear communication about their case status.

The study also recommends expanding time out of cells for women, and allowing in-person visits with family, especially children. It recommends expanding access to in-person and virtual programming, beyond substance use treatment. Buncombe County must ensure medical visits, phone calls, video calls, and virtual programming are free to incarcerated women.

Buncombe County’s Community Engagement Workgroup established a subcommittee to oversee county implementation of recommendations. There is a clear opportunity for jurisdictions like Buncombe County to invest in supportive community-based services, to reduce future criminal legal system involvement, and prevent it in the first place for many people, especially women.

We Can Do Much for Women in Jails

By: Wanda Bertram

Data Analysis Human Toll of Jail Women in Jail March 22, 2022

March is Women’s History Month, and the picture for women in America’s jails remains troubling. Focusing on women in jails is an important part of the work of the Safety and Justice Challenge as it seeks to reduce jail populations across the country. Here are just a few examples of the challenges women face in jail.

We Lock Up More Women Than Any Other Country

Only 4% of the world’s female population lives in the U.S., but the U.S. accounts for 30% of the world’s incarcerated women. Such an alarming disparity should prompt us to consider how our policies and practices are contributing to it. Nearly half of the 231,000 women and girls locked up in the U.S. each day are in local jails. Compared to other countries, the U.S. locks women up at the highest rate on the planet.

Racial Disparities

White women are incarcerated at a rate of 108 people per 100,000, less than half the incarceration rate of Black women. Native women are incarcerated at a rate of 349 people per 100,000. Black women are incarcerated at a rate of 285 people per 100,000.

Unsupportive Environments for Pregnant Women

58,000 pregnant women go to jail annually. But recently published findings from the groundbreaking Pregnancy in Prison Statistics (PIPS) Project and other datasets shed light on a common but rarely discussed experience: being pregnant, postpartum or giving birth while incarcerated. In total, 22 state prison systems, all federal prisons, 6 jails, and 3 youth confinement systems participated in the PIPS Project, a systematic study of pregnancy and its outcomes among incarcerated women. The project shows that being pregnant in jail or prison, or youth confinement, is characterized by a lack of supportive policies and practices. For example, only one-third of prisons and jails had any policy about breastfeeding and lactation. Even where policies supporting lactation did exist, relatively few women were breastfeeding or pumping.

Absence of Reproductive Choice

Two articles recently published in medical journals analyzed incarcerated people’s access to abortion and to permanent and reversible contraception. The studies reveal that abortion and contraception access varies greatly between states — and that abortion access for incarcerated people is related to broader state policies. Even in states that officially allow abortion, many people may be effectively blocked from obtaining the care they need, thanks to insurmountable barriers like self-payment requirements and physical distance from abortion caregivers. The studies make clear that people behind bars often have very few, if any, choices and autonomy when it comes to their reproductive health and decisions.

Rise in Jail Deaths Troubling as Jail Populations Become More Rural and Female

New data show record high deaths of people locked up in jail, as jail populations have shifted toward smaller, rural jails and growing numbers of women. A lack of accountability and acknowledgement of women’s unique disadvantages all but ensures more deaths to come. Women’s jail populations and rural jails are growing together. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of women in jail increased 43 percent in rural counties, while declining 6 percent in urban counties. For decades, jails in non-urban jurisdictions have quietly proliferated, fueled by increases in pretrial detention. Additionally, researchers have found that women entering rural jails are significantly more likely to have co-occurring serious mental illness and substance use disorder, despite being severely under-identified by their jails as having such needs.

Prisons and Jails Separate Millions of Mothers from Their Children

2 million women are jailed in the U.S. each year, and 80% are mothers. Every Mother’s Day, nearly 150,000 incarcerated mothers will spend the day apart from their children. Most of these women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Most are also the primary caretakers of their children, meaning that punishing them with incarceration tears their children away from a vital source of support. Women incarcerated in the U.S. are disproportionately in jails rather than prisons. Having to leave their children in someone else’s care, these women will be impacted by the brutal side effects of going to jail: Aggravation of mental health problems, a greater risk of suicide, and a much higher likelihood of ending up homeless or deprived of essential financial benefits. Most women who are incarcerated would be better served though alternatives in their communities.

Drug Law Enforcement Appears to Have Driven Women’s Incarceration

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: women. From 2009 to 2018, the number of women in city and county jails increased by 23% — a rise that effectively cancelled out more than 40% of the simultaneous 7.5% decrease in the men’s jail population. Meanwhile, reductions in state and federal prison populations have mostly affected men. Over the past 35 years, total arrests have risen 25% for women, while decreasing 33% for men. The increase among women is largely driven by drugs: During that period, drug related arrests increased nearly 216% for women, compared to 48% for men. Knowing that drug arrests are on the rise, we looked to see if 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% 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% increase in opioid overdose deaths from 1999 to 2016, compared to a 312% increase for men over the same time frame.

Challenges on Release

1.9 million women are released from prisons and jails every year. Formerly incarcerated women (especially women of color) have higher rates of unemployment and homelessness; and are less likely to have a high school education, compared to formerly incarcerated men.

More on Women in Jail

As strategic allies of the Safety and Justice Challenge, I encourage readers to check out the Prison Policy Initiative’s Women and Gender page, for more of our original research and visualizations, and our research library for work done by other organizations looking at the incarceration of women.

Cumberland County, ME

Action Areas Pretrial Services Victims Women in Jail

Last Updated

Background & Approach

Cumberland County in southern Maine is the state’s most populous county and contains Portland, the economic center of the state. Cumberland County established Project Safe Release, a partnership between the pretrial service agency, the domestic violence resource center Through These Doors, and the jail to assist justice-involved women. The project assists justice-involved women and works to understand their histories of victimization. The program connects these women with essential services, risk and needs assessments, and trauma-informed safety planning.

Cumberland County continues to engage with the Safety and Justice Challenge Network to rethink and redesign its criminal justice system so that it is more fair, just, and equitable for all.

Lead Agency

Maine Pretrial Services, Inc.

Contact Information

Shawn P. LaGrega, Jen LaChance, Jenny Stasio


Through These Doors, Cumberland County Sheriff's Office

Blog Posts

Campbell County, TN

Action Areas Women in Jail

Last Updated

Background & Approach

Campbell County is a rural Tennessee county, just north of Knoxville, on the border between Tennessee and Kentucky. The county implemented the Women in Need (WIN) program to assist women facing incarceration for the first time with a misdemeanor offense. The program used a gender-responsive risk and needs assessment and provided comprehensive wraparound services to fit individual needs.

Lead Agency

Community Health of East Tennessee


The Campbell County Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office, the Office of the Public Defender, the District Criminal Court, and the Campbell County General Sessions and Juvenile Court.

Blog Posts


Data Analysis Interagency Collaboration Women in Jail March 27, 2020

Assisting Women throughout the Justice Continuum

Marina Duane, Megan Russo, and Matthew Williams—Urban Institute

This case study describes Project Safe Release, a pilot implemented in Cumberland County, Maine, to better identify the needs of women entering the Cumberland County Jail, understand their victimization histories, and connect them to appropriate services before and after release.