The Unplanned Rise of Incarcerated Women and Girls

Last month was Black History Month, and this month we celebrate Women’s History. So, it seems fitting to me that Represent PA has chosen criminal justice as this month’s featured topic. We all know that for the last several decades, the U.S. prison population has exploded, with the most detrimental impact on people of color. It’s a sad fact that America imprisons more people than any other country. While I’ve known that many more men than women make up the imprisoned population, I was not aware that in modern times the rate of growth for female imprisonment has been twice as high as that of men. Similarly, the proportion of girls to the overall number of young people confined by the U.S justice system has grown substantially. (NOTE: I relied on a number of resources for this blog, including this online report from The Sentencing Project, this report from Prison Policy Initiative and this webinar from The Center for Justice Education at Eastern State Penitentiary. Check these out.)

The reasons cited for the rise in incarceration for women and girls are multi-faceted, as are the unique challenges they face. Since many prisons have limited space for women, state and federal agencies have increasingly paid local jails to hold additional women. And many women are placed in jails by ICE and the U.S. Marshals Service. It’s not surprising then that the population of incarcerated women is disproportionately in local jails. That may sound like a better outcome than being placed in predominately male prisons, but jails can be particularly challenging for women. For one thing, jails are poorly positioned to provide adequate health care – women die of drug and alcohol intoxication in jails at twice the rate of men and are more likely to suffer from mental health illness when entering jail and they suffer severe psychological distress while there. Jails have more communication barriers and restrictions than prisons – phone rates are more expensive, restrictions on receiving letters are more likely – which is particularly challenging for the women who are primary caregivers of children. Jails have fewer post-release programs than prisons, which makes reentry problematic for women. And in all correction facilities – prisons and jails – women are three times as likely as men to be sexually victimized by staff. 

When you look at the whole U.S. corrections system – prisons, jails, probation and parole – the vast majority of women (over 80%) are on probation or parole. While probation is often billed as an alternative to incarceration, it creates specific challenges for women. The steep fees that often come with probation can be difficult for women to afford. Childcare responsibilities make it difficult to meet with probation officers regularly and probation violations can land women in jail or prison who were never sentenced to incarceration. In the wake of the overturn of Roe v. Wade, parole and probation travel restrictions place an impossible burden on women seeking abortion and other reproductive health care.

Nearly 1 in 4 girls confined by the juvenile justice system are confined for non-criminal violations of probation or a status offense (running away, truancy, incorrigibility). Confining girls due to status offenses is particularly troubling since often these behaviors are responses to abuse. Similar to their adult counterparts, girls of color, as well as those who identify as LGBTQ+, are disproportionately confined by the juvenile justice system.

Although much of the information about incarcerated women and girls was unknown to me, I can’t say I’m surprised by any of it. Prison privatization and the nationwide divestment in basic social services – everything from public education, job-training, physical and mental health care – are all factors that have led to the current problems and inequities of our criminal justice system. 

It can feel overwhelming, but I take solace in supporting Represent PA. The women candidates and legislators endorsed by Represent PA are working hard to make change in Harrisburg by focusing on the issues that matter – issues like criminal justice reform, adequate and balanced funding for all public schools and the health and safety of our communities. One recent example is a bill sponsored by Representative Morgan Cephas, which broadens civil rights for imprisoned women who are pregnant or postpartum. The bill was signed into law this past December by Governor Shapiro.

(Check out Represent PA’s “Eye on Harrisburg” to learn more about PA legislative activities.) 

The 2024 election is close at hand. Progressive women legislators like Rep. Cephas can’t continue to make positive changes without more like-minded lawmakers on their side. You can help by supporting Represent PA in the effort to elect more Democratic women and flip the PA Legislature!