Mother’s Day Behind Bars

The rate of growth for female incarceration has outpaced that of males by 50 percent since 1980–and over 60 percent of women in state prisons have a child under 18, according to a fact sheet released Thursday by the Sentencing Project, ahead of Mother’s Day.

The rate of growth for female incarceration has outpaced that of males by 50 percent since 1980–and over 60 percent of women in state prisons have a child under 18, according to a national advocacy group report released just ahead of Mother’s Day.

According to an updated fact sheet released by The Sentencing Project, the number of women and girls in detention ballooned from 26,000 to 213,722 between 1980 and 2016.

The incarceration rate of white women in state and federal prisons grew by 44 percent between 2000 and 2016, compared to 12 percent growth for Hispanic women; while the incarceration rate for African-American women fell by 53 percent during this time period.

See also: Treat Women Prisoners with Dignity, Texas Report Says

Incarceration rates– and conditions– vary dramatically throughout the states. Looking at 2016 alone, the states with the highest rates of female imprisonment were Oklahoma, Kentucky, South Dakota, Idaho and Montana. Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Maine were at the lowest end of the spectrum.

Women in state prisons are significantly more likely to have been detained for property or drug crimes than their male counterparts, according to the report.

And while 85 percent of incarcerated youth are boys, over 50 percent of youth incarcerated for running away are girls. Girls are also more likely than boys to be arrested for other low-level offenses such as truancy and curfew violations.

The report also found that Native American girls are incarcerated at four times the rate as white girls, at 134 per 100,000 versus 32 per 100,000. African-American girls were found to be incarcerated at a rate of 110 per 100,000.

The report also said Hispanic girls are 38 percent more likely to be imprisoned than white girls.

A study published by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition in April found that over 81 percent of incarcerated women they polled were mothers. Over 58 percent reported having been sexually abused or assaulted as a child.

According to national studies, pregnant inmates are more likely to have complicated and higher-risk pregnancies than women in the general population,” wrote Lindsay Linder, author of the Texas study, noting that this results “in a higher numbers of stillbirths, miscarriages, and ectopic pregnancies.”

Women who responded to the survey say they had very little access to adequate health care; and some claimed their newborns were taken from them soon after birth.

This summary was prepared by Victoria Mckenzie, deputy editor of The Crime Report.


Women ‘Disregarded’ in Justice Reform, Says Texas Group

Recent prison reforms in Texas and across the country have failed to reverse, or even slow, the rate of women’s incarceration, says the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. In a report released Friday, the group calls on policymakers to address the “root causes” of women’s involvement in the justice system with counseling and diversion programs. instead of putting them in jail.

Women have been left out of the national focus on justice reform, even as the number of incarcerated females has increased, according to a Texas advocacy group.

A report released Thursday by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition says that even as the state has reduced its male prison population, the female incarceration has grown.

“Because women comprise only a small portion of the overall incarcerated population, their needs are largely disregarded in larger criminal justice reform conversations,” said Coalition executive director Leah Pinney in her introduction to the report. “Most of the programs that exist within and outside the criminal justice system are geared toward men.

“With little data on who these women are or how they became entangled in the system, it is not surprising that recent reforms in Texas and across the country have failed to reverse, or even slow, the rate of women’s incarceration.”

The report, written by Lindsay Linder,  says the state corrections system currently holds more than 12,000  women, the majority of them imprisoned  for non-violent offenses.

Even as Texas reduced its male incarcerated population by over 8,500 between 2009-2016, the number of women behind bars increased by 554 during that time–representing an increase from 7.7 percent to 8.5 percent of the total number of incarcerees, the report said.

The report also noted that the number of women in Texas jails awaiting trial,
totaling around 6,300,  has grown 48 percent since 2011, even as the number of female arrests in Texas has decreased by 20 percent over the same time period.

Linder proposed gender-specific support, treatment and diversion options that address the “unique” circumstances that can bring women into contact with the justice system, such as physical or sexual abuse, mental health issues and substance-use disorders.

“These improvements will hold women accountable while helping them heal and allowing them to remain in their communities and with their families—essential steps to improve public safety and reduce costs associated with incarceration,” she wrote.

In a survey of 400 incarcerated women, the organization found that nearly 60 percent said they suffered from sexual abuse or assault as a child and more than half said their household income before taxes was less than $10,000. More than 80 percent were mothers.

The group urged emphasizing pretrial diversion programs for non-violent crimes, especially for pregnant women or those with primary custody of a child, and investing in support programs at the community level to help women deal with trauma before being introduced into the criminal justice system.

It also recommended specialized treatment for women on probation or with substance abuse issues and reforming the bail system to help women in poverty.

Responding to the paper, State Rep. James White, chairman of the House Corrections Committee, said his committee would examine the problems, The Texas Tribune reported.


OK Grapples with High Female Incarceration Rate

Oklahoma leads the nation in female incarceration – at a rate more than twice the national average. On Wednesday, legislators, activists and academics will explore how to reduce the rate in a livestreamed conference hosted by The Atlantic magazine in collaboration with Reveal, of California’s Center for Investigative Reporting.

The stories behind Oklahoma’s disproportionately high female incarceration rate are the subject of an upcoming investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and a forum in Oklahoma City that will explore the experiences of women in the state’s justice system.

On Wednesday, September 20, The Atlantic will host Defining Justice: The Experience of Women and Children Behind Bars in collaboration with Reveal. Journalists from Reveal, including senior editor Ziva Branstetter, will discuss our upcoming investigation and data analysis examining the roots of the problem.

Defining Justice will confront key questions surrounding women in Oklahoma’s criminal justice system: Why is the women’s incarceration rate in Oklahoma so high? What are the long-term human costs to women and children affected by the justice system? And what solutions would create a criminal justice system more responsive to women?

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin will join the program for a one-on-one discussion on the political path toward criminal justice reform in Oklahoma, moderated by The Atlantic’s contributing editor Alison Stewart.

Stewart and Branstetter will moderate discussions throughout the day, along with Allison Herrera, a reporter and social media editor at Public Radio International; and David Fritze, executive editor of Oklahoma Watch. Herrera and The Frontier, an Oklahoma-based news website, partnered with Branstetter on Reveal’s investigation.

Speakers include policymakers, advocates, justice experts, journalists and women who have been incarcerated in Oklahoma prisons. Among the experts taking part in the discussions are Sheila Harbert, chief community outreach officer for the Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma; and Mimi Tarrasch, executive director of Women in Recovery.

Also scheduled to speak are: Kris Steele, executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry and former speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives; and Susan Sharp, presidential professor emerita at the University of Oklahoma and author of “Mean Lives, Mean Laws: Oklahoma’s Women Prisoners.”

“Defining Justice” is the first in a series of three events by The Atlantic examining aspects of the American criminal justice system and how they affect women and children in cities across the country. is running an ongoing digital reporting series, The Presence of Justice, which focuses on efforts across the nation to move beyond the age of mass incarceration.

Reveal will release its investigation into Oklahoma’s female incarceration rate on our website, podcast and radio show with PRX later this month. Sign up for our newsletter to get the story sent straight to your inbox.

Defining Justice will be recorded and streamed live online by The Atlantic. You can follow the discussion on social media using the hashtag #DefiningJustice.

TCR is pleased to republish this article, produced by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a California-based nonprofit news organization. Learn more at and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at Readers’ comments are welcome.


Older Women Leaving Prison ‘Less Likely to Return to Crime’

Women aged 46 and over show greater willingness to rebuild their lives after leaving prison, according to a National Institute of Justice-supported study. Gender-nurtured anxiety about facing life on the outside alone and penniless is one reason. The study authors say their findings should persuade authorities to devote greater resources and job counseling to such women before their release.

Photo by qthomasbower via Flickr

Photo by qthomasbower via Flickr

The older a woman is upon release from prison, the more likely she is to re-integrate into civilian society and avoid recidivism, according to a study by Erin M. Kerrison , Ronet Bachman and Raymond Paternoster.

The study, supported by the National Institute of Justice, examined the cases of 218 women released from Delaware prisons during the 1990s, and followed up with interviews with more than half of them during 2009-2011.   One recurring outcome the authors came across was that women aged 46 or older were more likely to focus on rehabilitating themselves after release than younger women. In some cases, they were motivated by the pressure of time to rebuild lives that had been spent too long away from children or loved ones.

Such women were more likely to “work harder to maintain those important components of identity” when given a second chance, wrote Kerrison (University of California, Berkeley); Bachman (University of Delaware); and Paternoster (University of Maryland).

Even women who had been substance abusers recognized that “a tremendous amount of work had to be done to get clean, stay clean, and redeem their perceived failure at such a significant gender role, like motherhood.” study said.

“… [The momentum] for change appears to be strongly linked to an understanding that the undesired fate of dying alone in prison or on the street is a more conceivable reality for women who are released at a later age, than it is for women who leave prison when they are younger.”

The authors did not include comparative data for men experiencing the same circumstances as the women they interviewed, but  they point out in several places throughout the study that there has been a great deal of research focusing on male reentry rates and patterns.

At a time when women are emerging as a growing demographic in the nation’s corrections systems, they suggest that a focus on separating women by their ages and maturity may help to improve the design of rehabilitating/reentry programming.

But the authors were careful to draw only cautious conclusions from their work.

“We are not advocating for longer prison sentences for drug-involved women.” the authors said, noting instead that more “proactive attention” should be paid to finding post-prison employment or counseling for women likely to benefit from it.

That would “avoid wasting resources [on] people who are not yet ready to desist (and will not benefit from employment) and avoid creating perverse incentives for those who are still actively involved in crime.”

The full study is available here.

This report was prepared by TCR staff intern Shannon Alomar.