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Study Finds the Number of Women Held in Local Jails Has Grown 'Exponentially'

The Waller County jail cell where Sandra Bland was found dead on July 13, 2015. Image via AP.
The Waller County jail cell where Sandra Bland was found dead on July 13, 2015. Image via AP.

The latest available statistics from the Justice Department document 1 in 36 adults, or 6,851,000 people, as having been under the supervision of the U.S. correctional system in 2014. Of that number, 744,600 were held in local jails. A new report from the Vera Institute of Justice and the Safety and Justice Challenge featured in the New York Times found that the number of women incarcerated in jails is growing at “a faster rate than any other correctional population,” including that of men.

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Although the total correctional population has dropped slightly since peaking at a whopping 7,339,600 in 2007, the study finds that the number of women held in jail for misdemeanor crimes or awaiting trial/sentencing (in 2014, 6 in 10 jail inmates were legally innocent) has increased 14-fold since 1970, from approximately 8,000 to 110,000 (the total jail population has obviously increased quite a bit since then as well, from 157,000 to 745,000 in 2014—despite the fact that crime rates have plunged). Rural counties, according to the study, account for much of this increase.

From the New York Times:

The trend echoes what has occurred in policing over the past two decades, as the police and prosecutors have focused on offenses that might have once been overlooked, even as rates for more serious crimes have declined, according to the Justice Department. The result, critics say, are overcrowded prisons and jails, many of them filled with nonviolent offenders.

“As the focus on these smaller crimes has increased, women have been swept up into the system to an even greater extent than men,” said Elizabeth Swavola, one of the authors of the Vera report.

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According to the study, 82 percent of women are in jail for nonviolent offenses, and nearly 80 percent are mothers (most of them single). Although a recent Washington Post analysis of DOJ data found that black incarceration rates have declined over the past decade, racial disparity levels remain extremely high, although less so among women than men. The Vera Institute study notes that nearly two-thirds of women in jail are women of color.

The study emphasizes that the U.S. correctional system, ill-equipped as it is to deal humanely with anyone, is even more dangerous for women. More than half of women in jail report having a current medical problem, as opposed to 35 percent of men. Serious mental illnesses such as major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia affect 32 percent of women in jails; 86 percent were victims of sexual violence and nearly 1/3 had experienced PTSD, the latter of which can be easily exacerbated by standard correctional procedures like searches and solitary confinement. Contraception, menstrual hygiene products, and abortion access are often unavailable, and a majority of states don’t ban the shackling of pregnant women.

The jailing of women also has a significant effect on the communities and families they leave behind:

Once incarcerated, women must grapple with systems, practices, and policies that are designed for the majority of the incarcerated population: men. With limited resources, jails are often ill equipped to address the challenges women face when they enter the justice system, which can have serious and lasting public safety and community health implications. As a result, many women return to their families and communities far worse off than when they entered the jailhouse door. As U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in her remarks at the White House Women and the Criminal Justice System Convening on March 30, 2016, “Put simply, we know that when we incarcerate a woman we often are truly incarcerating a family, in terms of the far-reaching effect on her children, her community, and her entire family network.”

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The Times interviewed Dolfinette Martin, 46, who was jailed for a number of shoplifting arrests between 1994 and 2005 and described a cycle of poverty that leads you to “kind of give up.”

During an interview, Ms. Martin said that her children — ages 10 to 16 when she was last arrested — had all once excelled in school, but that they had lost their ability to focus during her absences after the shoplifting arrests. None of her five children, who were taken care of by one of Ms. Martin’s nieces, graduated from high school, and her eldest two were incarcerated for various periods, she said.

“I missed a lot of time,” said Ms. Martin, who recently received her associate degree in business office technology. “You live with a lot of regret, a lot of guilt — tremendous guilt — when you have kids in the street trying to survive.”

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Read the full report here.

Ellie is a freelance writer and former senior writer at Jezebel. She is pursuing a master's degree in science journalism at Columbia University in the fall.

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DISCUSSION

I’m tired, so I don’t know how well this will turn out, but I’m wondering how much of this is can be somewhat explained by the evolution of the role of women in our society- more autonomous and independent- and maybe also seen as capable of committing crimes? I hope that makes sense. There were fewer women employed outside of the home and at that time, although it was a great time for change for women, it was still common (still is, for some) for women to be seen as not as smart, needing to be taken care of, etc. I’m wondering how often women were caught committing crimes, and how often they might have been let go primarily for being women. And this isn’t me bashing on feminism or saying that’s what women get for wanting equality (I’m a woman. Who’s all about all that). But I’m genuinely curious about some of the outside factors.

That being said, we have a shitty criminal justice system that often punishes the poor for being poor and then makes it even less likely they’ll get out of poverty. It’s terrible, and if you’re poor and get caught up in the system then you’re likely screwed.

tl;dr; our justice system needs reform stat.