The XX Factor

The U.S. Rate of Incarcerated Women is Shockingly High, and Rising

Sheriff Joe Arpaio addresses inmates in 2003 at his notorious Tent City, Arizona jail.

Photo by Ed Karnafel/Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office/Getty Images

Though it’s home to only 5 percent of the world’s female population, the U.S. claims nearly 30 percent of the world’s women in prison. That’s according to a startling new report from the Prison Policy Initiative. 

West Virginia has the highest rate in the U.S.: 273 women out of every 100,000 are incarcerated there. The study points out that Illinois and El Salvador imprison women at around the same rate—88 and 87 per 100,000, respectively—even though El Salvador, which criminalizes abortion, regularly throws women in jail for having miscarriages. Even the state with the lowest incarceration rate for women—Rhode Island, at 39 women per 100,000—outpaces all but 14 countries, not including the U.S.

Using 2010 census data, the Prison Policy Initiative found that 206,000 women are imprisoned in the U.S. today, or 127 per 100,000 women. That number has risen sharply since the late 1970s, when state and federal lawmakers started enacting aggressive policies such as mandatory minimums and three-strikes rules. In the years between 1980 and 2010, the U.S. incarceration rate for women increased by 646 percent, and it’s continuing to rise at nearly double the rate for men.

The vast majority of women in U.S. prisons have not committed violent crimes; a third are in for drug charges. As with the male prison population, women of color and black women in particular are overrepresented in U.S. prisons. Thirteen percent of the country’s women are black, compared to 30 percent of incarcerated women.

“Within the U.S., it is commonly noted that women are incarcerated far less frequently than men,” the study concludes, “but comparing women’s incarceration rate to that for men paints a falsely optimistic picture.” Women face gender-specific brutality in prisons, including rape by prison authorities, shackling during labor, and inferior medical care. The tighter we pack our prisons with women, the worse their conditions will get.