Women in Jails

Printed with permission from Elizabeth Swavola, Kristine Riley, and Ram Subramanian at the Vera Institute for Justice

Despite recent calls to reform the criminal justice system in light of increasing numbers of incarcerated people, one trend has received little attention: the dramatic rise in the number of women being held in local jails. Since 1970, the number of women in jail nationwide has increased 14-fold – from under 8,000 to nearly 110,000 – and now accounts for approximately half of all women behind bars in the United States. Once a rarity, women are now held in jails in nearly every county a stark contrast to 1970, when almost three-quarters of counties held not a single woman in jail.

Available research to help explain why women are increasingly incarcerated in U.S. jails is scarce, dated, and limited in scope. Nevertheless, general data about women in the criminal justice system provides clues about who these women are, and why they end up in jail. Like men in jail, they are disproportionately people of color, overwhelmingly poor and low-income, survivors of violence and trauma, and have high rates of physical and mental illness and substance use.

The majority are charged with lower-level offenses – mostly property and drug-related – and tend to have less extensive criminal histories than their male counterparts. Unlike incarcerated men, women in jails are often primary caregivers to their young children – nearly 80 percent of women in jails are mothers, and most are single parents.

Women often become involved with the justice system as a result of efforts to cope with life challenges such as poverty, unemployment, and significant physical or behavioral health struggles, including those related to past histories of trauma, mental illness, or substance use. More than half of women in jails report having a current medical problem—compared to 35 percent of men.1 Approximately two-thirds of jailed women report having a chronic condition—compared to half of men in jails and 27 percent of people in the general population. 2 Among a sample of nearly 500 women in jails across various regions of the country, 82 percent had experienced drug or alcohol abuse or dependence in their lifetime. 3 Older research shows that at the time of the offense, incarcerated women were more likely than men to have been using drugs. 4 Additionally, 60 percent of women in jail did not have full-time employment prior to their arrest – in contrast to incarcerated men, 40 percent of whom lacked full-time employment. And nearly 30 percent of incarcerated women receive public assistance, compared to just under 8 percent of men.5

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. As a result, many women leave jail with diminished prospects for physical and behavioral health recovery, with greater parental stress and strain, and in even more financially precarious circumstances than before becoming caught up in the justice system.

As interest in rolling back the misuse and overuse of jail increases, women frequently remain an afterthought in discussions about reform; yet the roots and trajectory of their increasing rate of jail incarceration demand further study. This report documents the existing foundation for reform that can potentially set the stage for further, well-crafted programs and practices to stem the flow of women cycling through the nation’s local jails.

How jail traumatizes women

Spending time in jail can be a deeply traumatizing experience for women. They are far more likely than men to experience sexual victimization in jail.6 Between 2009 and 2011, women represented approximately 13 percent of people held in local jails, but 27 percent of victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization and 67 percent of victims of staff-on-inmate sexual victimization.7

 Furthermore, standard correctional procedures, such as searches, restraints, and use of solitary confinement, do not take into account the violence, trauma, and mental illness the majority of incarcerated women have experienced outside of jail and can reactivate trauma in women who have suffered abuse.8 Undergoing a full-body search for contraband or being supervised by male staff while showering, dressing, or using the bathroom, for example, can trigger painful memories and physical and emotional symptoms of PTSD.9

Trauma survivors are likely to perceive the often invasive nature of many daily correctional procedures, and the close quarters in which incarcerated women live, as profoundly threatening, activating the distress that both underlies and accompanies trauma.10 In turn, the way survivors typically respond to perceived threats—by fighting, fleeing, or freezing— can lead to punishment, particularly if jail authorities do not know how to detect or respond to the common symptoms of trauma. This may also result in further victimization of trauma survivors, both by staff and other incarcerated people.11

Weakened Family Ties

For jailed women with children, separation is a major source of stress during incarceration. Typically, they face challenges just staying in touch as well as planning for reuniting when they are released. Because so many women in jail are single parents, their incarceration aggravates already strained finances and support systems.12 Research on women in prison has linked these parental stresses to incarcerated women’s misconduct and reoffending after release.13

The Downward Financial Spiral of Justice Involvement

Justice involvement—even when charges are ultimately dismissed—can carry significant costs given the many fines, fees, or surcharges that jails, courts, and other criminal justice agencies often charge defendants. In total, these fines and fees can reach tens of thousands of dollars.14 Imposition of fines and fees is more common in cases involving misdemeanors, infractions, and other less serious crimes than in felony cases, and thus may have a disproportionate impact on women.15

Because many women who enter jail are already in a precarious financial condition, involvement with the justice system can push them and their families into even deeper financial crisis or, worse, provide a direct pathway back to jail for failure to pay off onerous criminal justice debt.16

Curbing Women's Jail Incarceration

As national crime rates have declined over the past two decades, law enforcement agencies are more willing to explore approaches that help people who come into contact with the police get treatment or other services rather than a jail stay. In some communities, for example, police departments have set

up diversion programs, designed to refer people whose behavior may indicate trauma, substance use, or mental health problems – issues prevalent among justice-involved women – to treatment. In other jurisdictions, officers may respond to calls for assistance by contacting a mobile crisis team from the public mental health system or other specially trained law enforcement officers to help address the crisis.17 These approaches help make treatment more accessible, and may also avert the short- and long-term disruption to women’s lives from even a short stay in jail and the collateral consequences of a conviction.


This excerpt from the Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform report published in August 2016 was included with the support of the Vera Institute for Justice. To read more about the trend of incarcerating women in America, download the full report at: https://www.vera.org/publications/overlooked-women-and-jails-report

1 Laura M. Maruschak, Medical Problems of Jail Inmates (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2006), 2.

2 Laura M. Maruschak, Marcus Berzofsky, and Jennifer Unangst, Medical Problems of State and Federal Prisoners and Jail Inmates, 2011-12 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2015), 4-5.

3 Shannon M. Lynch et al., Women’s Pathways to Jail: The Roles and Intersections of Serious Mental Illness and Trauma (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance, 2012), 14-15.

4 Lawrence A. Greenfeld and Tracy L. Snell, Women Offenders (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000), 8.

5 Greenfeld and Snell, 2000, p. 8.

6 Allen J. Beck, Ramona R. Rantala, and Jessica Rexroat, Sexual Victimization Reported by Adult Correctional Authorities, 2009-11 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2014), 9, 12.

7 Ibid.

8 Barbara E. Bloom, Meeting the Needs of Women in California’s County Justice Systems: A Toolkit for Policymakers and Practitioners (Oakland, CA: Californians for Safety and Justice, 2015), 9.

9 Ibid.

10 Alyssa Benedict, Using Trauma-Informed Practices to Enhance Safety and Security in Women’s Correctional Facilities (Washington, DC: National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women, 2014), 3.

11 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services: Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) 57 (Rockville, MD: SAMHSA, 2014), 7; Benedict, 2014, pp. 2-3.

12 Becki Ney, Rachelle Ramirez, and Marilyn Van Dieten, Ten Truths That Matter When Working with Justice Involved Women (Washington, DC: National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women, 2012), 9-10.

13 Patricia Van Voorhis et al., “Implementing the Women’s Risk/Needs Assessment (WRNAs): Early Lessons From the Field,” Women, Girls & Criminal Justice 10, no. 6 (2009): 81-84; Emily M. Wright et al., “Lessons From the NIC/UC Gender-Responsive Classification Project,” Women, Girls & Criminal Justice 10, no. 6 (2009): 85-96.

14 See American Civil Liberties Union, In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors Prisons (New York: American Civil Liberties Union, 2010), 6-8.

15 Alexes Harris, Heather Evans, and Katherine Beckett, “Drawing Blood from Stones: Legal Debt and Social Inequality in the Contemporary United States,” American Journal of Sociology 115, no. 6 (2010): 1770.

16 See U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), “Justice Department Announces Resources to Assist State and Local Reform of Fine and Fee Practices,” press release (Washington, DC: DOJ, March 14, 2016), https://perma.cc/L5B8- D7GD.

17 GAINS Center for Behavioral Health and Justice Transformation, Creating a Trauma-Informed Criminal Justice System for Women: Why and How (Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2011), 3.