Why It Matters That Women Are Disproportionately Locked Up in America’s Jails

By: Aleks Kajstura, Wendy Sawyer

Data Analysis Jail Populations Women in Jail March 27, 2024

Data is a key part of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, in its efforts to reduce local jail populations across the country. Likewise, a new data-based report by the Prison Policy Initiative highlights a stark reality: Women are disproportionately incarcerated in jails across the country.

In stark contrast to the total incarcerated population, where state prison systems hold twice as many people as are held in jails, more incarcerated women are in jails than state prisons. The outsize role of jails has serious cascading consequences for incarcerated women and their families.

Gender-based data is inconsistent throughout America’s jail systems, not least because the data on women has long been obscured by the larger scale of men’s incarceration. Frustratingly, it is difficult to track changes in women’s incarceration over time because we are forced to rely on the limited sources available.

Nevertheless, the data that are available show us some trends. For example, we know that a staggering number of women who are incarcerated are not convicted. More than 60 percent of women in jails under local control have not yet been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial. And the number of women in local jails—84,000—only scratches the surface of the number of women—2 million—who go through the doors of local jails each year.

When law enforcement locks women up, even for a few days, it can have an outsized impact on their lives. Many women who are incarcerated may be working low-income jobs or serving as caregivers for their children. 80 percent of women in jails are mothers, and most of them are primary caretakers of their children. Thus children are particularly susceptible to the domino effect of burdens placed on incarcerated women.

A short jail stay can mean women lose custody of their children and their housing. Many women who end up in jail are survivors of domestic abuse, so jailing them compounds deeper injustices. Many survivors of domestic and sexual abuse have also been incarcerated for violent crimes that occurred in response to gendered violence and abuse, so excluding them from many criminal justice reforms based on offense categories such as “violent” crimes makes little sense.

Jails are also particularly poorly positioned to provide proper health care. In fact, local jails tend to offer fewer services and programs overall than prisons do, and because most programs are designed for the larger male population, women may not even have access to programming that’s available to men in the same jail. Women coming into the jail system with substance abuse issues or behavioral health challenges may be significantly challenged in the jail setting.

Furthermore, even among women, incarceration is not indiscriminate, and reforms should address the disparities related to LBTQIA+ status, race, and ethnicity as well. A 2017 study revealed that one-third of incarcerated women identify as lesbian or bisexual, compared to less than 10 percent of men. The same study found that lesbian and bisexual women are likely to receive longer sentences than their heterosexual peers, and more likely to be put into solitary confinement.

Although the data do not exist to break down the “whole pie” by race or ethnicity, Black and American Indian or Alaska Native women are consistently overrepresented in state and federal prisons. While we are a long way from having data on intersectional impacts of sexuality and race or ethnicity on women’s likelihood of incarceration, it’s clear that Black and lesbian or bisexual women and girls are disproportionately subject to incarceration.

Even the “whole pie” of women’s incarceration in the chart above represents just one small portion (17 percent) of the women under any form of correctional control, which includes 808,700 women on probation or parole. Again, this is in stark contrast to the total correctional population (mostly men), where one-third (34 percent) of all people under correctional control are in prisons and jails. Nearly three-quarters of women (73 percent) under the control of any U.S. correctional system are on probation. Probation is often billed as an alternative to incarceration, but instead it is frequently set with unrealistic conditions that undermine its goal of keeping people from being locked up.

Reentry is another critical point at which women are too often left behind. Almost 2.5 million women and girls are released from prisons and jails every year,  but fewer post-release programs are available to them — partly because so many women are confined to jails, which are not meant to be used for long-term incarceration. Additionally, many women with criminal records face barriers to employment in female-dominated occupations, such as nursing and elder care.  It is little surprise, therefore, that formerly incarcerated women — especially women of color — are also more likely to be unemployed and/or homeless than formerly incarcerated men, making reentry and compliance with probation or parole even more difficult. All these issues make women particularly vulnerable to being incarcerated not because they commit crimes, but because they run afoul of one of the burdensome obligations of their community supervision.

The picture of women’s incarceration is far from complete, and many questions remain about mass incarceration’s unique impact on women. While more data are needed, the data in this new report lend focus and perspective to the policy reforms needed to end mass incarceration without leaving women behind.


Peer-Support Programs for Domestic Violence in Jail—A Starting Point

By: Katy Maskolunas

Human Toll of Jail Jail Populations Victims Women in Jail August 3, 2023

One in four women experience domestic violence in their lifetime. But three in four women who have been, or are, incarcerated have experienced it. Despite these disparately high rates among incarcerated women, jails too often lack organized domestic violence-specific services for women. Very few jails have programs to address women’s needs related to abuse and trauma. It is time to change that because more research shows providing such services is a good idea. They can help increase the success of reentry services and improve well-being. And that is an important part of efforts to reduce jail populations across the country.

Peer-support groups are the focus of a new report co-authored by survivors. It is a project of the National Center for Victims of Crime with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. Along with our panel of experts with lived experience, we convened a listening session to discuss how to create domestic violence peer-support groups in jails. The experts from this working group identified five principles to guide the development of domestic violence peer-support groups for women who are incarcerated. This is not an exhaustive list, but a starting point for engagement and implementation in institutions. We are hopeful that communities will want to partner with us to embed these principles.

Principle 1: The jail intake process should screen for whether a woman is a domestic violence survivor.

The intake process for women who are incarcerated should include an assessment to detect past domestic violence victimization, and jails should utilize gender-responsive assessment tools for this. Still, women who are incarcerated may not be ready to fully disclose their histories of domestic violence victimization when they arrive at a facility. Jails, therefore, should offer continuous opportunities for women to disclose information about their past.

Principle 2: Implement comprehensive and easily accessible compensation to peer domestic violence guides for their work. 

It is vital that women serving as domestic violence peer guides are compensated, financially or otherwise, for their service. Women should be compensated regardless of whether they serve as peer guides during or after their incarceration. Furthermore, work as a domestic violence peer guide while incarcerated, at a minimum, should constitute an internship with a partnering domestic violence program and qualify as requisite experience for a paid position with the organization upon release. Building relationships with external domestic violence organizations can also help institutions strengthen their policies around working with women who are survivors of domestic violence.

Principle 3: Supportive partnership and collaboration between peer guides and external domestic violence programs is needed. 

In addition to bringing domestic violence programming into jails, community-based domestic violence providers should train incarcerated victims and survivors to serve as peer guides. Community-based domestic violence programs should hire formerly incarcerated domestic violence survivors to work with domestic violence peer-support groups in jails and ensure that peer-support specialists receive just compensation. This duality of lived experience is necessary for peer guides to fully understand the traumas that have occurred before, during, and even after incarceration, and allows the guides to provide stronger and more relevant support for domestic violence victims who are incarcerated.

Principle 4: Ensure access to holistic care to treat the whole person.

Domestic violence peer-support programs in jails should engage holistically with incarcerated victims and survivors. Trauma is an emotional response to an intense event that threatens or causes harm. It is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope with the emotions involved with that experience. Educating incarcerated victims and survivors about trauma can help women realize that they are recovering from a serious stressor and learn more about their own stress responses and coping strategies, allowing them to build a sense of control over those responses. Trauma education can also minimize self-blame and build community among victims and survivors through a better understanding of their shared experiences. 

Principle 5: Correctional officers (CO) who transport women to and oversee domestic violence peer-support groups should be trauma-informed and trained on the dynamics of domestic violence.

The majority of individuals who interface with the criminal justice system, including jails, have been exposed to traumatic events, like domestic violence. However, institutional confinement, like jail, is not intended to house victims and often does not acknowledge or recognize that individuals involved in the criminal justice system are often victims before they committed their offense. Instead, incarceration is another traumatic event. Being locked in a cell is one of the most horrific, stressful experiences a person can endure. The act of locking another human being in a cell is also traumatic and potentially dangerous to the correctional staff. Incarcerated people and correctional staff alike are traumatized, forcing them to react to the world around them from a position of fear, making them more likely to respond with aggression. The trauma shared by staff and people who are incarcerated exists in a constant feedback loop in which no one feels safe.

Given the prevalence of preexisting victimization and ongoing trauma, especially in women who are incarcerated, jails need to embrace a trauma-informed approach and culture. A key part of creating this kind of environment is providing ongoing training to ensure that correctional officers understand the impact and prevalence of trauma and its pervasive effects on the brain and body, as well as the specific dynamics of domestic violence. Doing so can help to break the cycle of trauma for both women who are incarcerated and the staff who work with them.

The report would not have been possible without the expertise of our co-authors, Tanisha Murden and Rylinda Rhodes. We would like to thank them for sharing their knowledge, ideas, and experiences, as well as helping us create a more healing space for all survivors. We hope communities will find the recommendations in the report useful and explore implementing them in their policies. Just because someone is incarcerated does not mean they are not also victims of crime. In the case of domestic violence survivors, often the very actions that resulted in someone’s incarceration could have stemmed from self-defense or another means of escaping an abusive situation. It is incumbent on us, as a society, to support victims of crime in all circumstances.


Pretrial Services Victims Women in Jail July 11, 2023

Implementing Domestic Violence Peer-Support Programs In Jail

Gabriella Alessi, Katy Maskolunas, Jocelyn Braxton, Tanisha Murden & Rylinda Rhodes

Domestic violence (DV), or intimate partner violence (IPV), is defined by the National Domestic Violence Hotline as a “pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.” Those who choose to control their partner believe that they have a right to control, monitor, restrict, intimidate, and harass their partner. This behavior is learned and a choice; it is never the fault of the victim. Power and control can manifest in many ways, including, but not limited to, physical abuse, spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, technology abuse, stalking, and emotional abuse. Domestic violence is one of the most prevalent crimes in the United States, with 1 in 4 women experiencing domestic violence during their lifetime1. Domestic violence accounts for more than 20% of the violent crime that occurs each year2. Domestic violence can affect any person, regardless of age, gender identity, ability status, economic status,citizenship status, race, or gender. Victims and survivors of domestic violence3 may present in many forms with their lived experiences and any past traumas they have experienced.

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.