Offender Monnek Hall, left, spends time with her daughter Ayona Hall, age 13..
Mass Incarceration Women's Prisons

As Women Inmate Population Increases, So Do the Problems on the Inside

The population of women behind bars increases for their non-violent offenses. With 80% of them mothers, there is little support for their kids and families.

It’s no secret the United States has a problem with mass incarceration. While we account for only 4.4% of the world’s population, our prison population makes up 23% of the world’s incarcerated people. This figure is projected to continue to balloon.

Kids with parents in prisons

The Incredible Growth in the Women Inmate Population

While more inmates are men, the fastest growing population in prisons today are women. Between 1980 and 2014, the number of incarcerated women increased by 700%.

There are over 1.2 million women under the supervision of the criminal justice system in the US today.

There are a lot of factors at play here. Perhaps one of the most compelling is:

  • Of the women incarcerated, 25% of them are put away for drug offenses
  • This compares to 15% of men for the same offenses

One thing to consider is drug offenses for women are more likely to be non-violent offenses. Because of the post-80’s War on Drugs culture, women are being incarcerated despite the severity of their crimes at an alarming and climbing rate.

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Looking at the Figures: People of Color in Prisons

As is the case in the rest of the justice system, people of color are disproportionately affected by increased incarceration rates. The knowledge that the demographics have evened somewhat since 2000, makes the current figures even more staggering:

  • In 2014, the imprisonment rate for African American women was more than twice that of white women
  • Additionally, Hispanic women were incarcerated at 1.2 times the rate of white women

The problem becomes more apparent when one considers people of color are also given statistically harsher sentences than white people. Not only are they being sent to prisons more, they are also staying longer.

Perhaps the worst part of the system is these women are not the only ones affected by the mass incarcerations. When someone goes to prison, it affects the entire family. Especially when the prisoner has children.

Of the 1.2 million women under the supervision of the justice system today, 80% are mothers. That means there are millions of children affected by the issue.

Because of the structure of the system, these children often become completely estranged from their parents. And, there is very little a mother behind bars can do. If it is possible for her to meet with her children, she must do so under strict supervision.

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The imprisoned mother is allowed a single hug at the beginning of her visit, and one at the end. Afterward, she can’t:

  • Touch the children
  • Hold their hands
  • Set them on her lap

All of this comes after the dignity breaking treatment she receives of being strip-searched by guards prior to her visit.

Life Behind Bars for Women in Prisons

The difficulties of life behind bars for women doesn’t stop at being strip-searched before seeing visitors. Or the fact that cross-gender supervision continues in several prisons, despite the PREA cross-gender rules.

For the work inmates do, they are paid 82 cents per hour, on average. Yes, you read that right. 82 cents! But hey, what do inmates have to spend money on, anyway?

They receive meals. They have a bed to sleep in. They should be fine! They have the necessities.

Well, it turns out… they don’t.

Offender Monnek Hall, left, spends time with her daughter Ayona Hall, age 13..
Offender Monnek Hall, left, spends time with her daughter Ayona Hall, age 13. Girl Scouts Beyond Bars at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women in Jessup. Image Source: Capital Gazette

The Enormous Costs of Surviving as a Woman in Prison

In many prisons, money is needed for toothbrushes, toothpaste, and shampoo. If you want to make a phone call to your son or daughter, it costs you. If you want to write your sister a letter, you’ll have to buy the paper and the pen.

The prices on these items are usually much higher than they would be out of prison. Often inmates are forced to choose between staying in contact with their family members and their personal health and hygiene.

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Worst of all, tampons and pads are included on the list of items a woman must buy for herself. Adding another costly item to the list of necessities.

The problem is compounded by the fact that many of those incarcerated come from families of little means. Often, the work a woman does might be her only source of support while she is incarcerated.

On the other side, sending money to a family member who is in prison can make the difference on whether you can come to see them.

Mass Incarcerating Women

The results impact the problem of reintegration for those in prison. It makes it remarkably difficult to secure your own physical health amidst all the mental dissonance. Fortunately, there are systems in place trying to help.

Organizations, like the ACLU, are turning up the volume on the much-needed discussion about women in prisons. It is through continued discussion and the resulting action that real change can begin to take place.

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N. L. Sweeney
N. L. Sweeney is an English Creative Writing graduate from Western Washington University. His work has been published by Flash Fiction Magazine, Niteblade, Defenestration Magazine, Jeopardy Magazine and Inroads: Writers in the Community. He currently writes editorials and feature news pieces for Prison Rideshare Network. When Sweeney's not writing, he busies himself with petting furry animals, learning Chinese and making friends in local tea shops.