U.S. prisons incarcerate more than a third of all female inmates worldwide, many of them for drug offenses.
By Cliff Weathers / Alternet
Women make up nearly 9% of the U.S. prison population and about a third of them are serving time for drug offenses, according to two recent studies. Moreover, with just over 200,000 women behind bars, U.S. prisons incarcerate a third of all female prisoners worldwide.
According to the latest report on women detainees by the International Center for Prison Studies, some 625,000 women and girls are held in penal institutions throughout the world. This includes remanded (pre-trial) detainees and those who have been sentenced. China, with 84,600 female women in detention (and 5.1 percent of its prison population), is a distant second to the U.S, followed by Russia (59,200), Brazil (35,596) and Thailand (29,175).
The worldwide female prison population has increased more than 16% since the first edition of the study in 2006, and is growing on all five continents, the researchers say. North and South America had the largest percentage increase, at 23%, while European nations had the smallest at 6%.
According to the report females compose 8.8% of the U.S. prison population.
In another study, The Sentencing Project reports that a third of the women who are in U.S. prisons are there for drug offenses, and the number of women incarcerated for drug offenses is increasing at nearly double of the rate for men. The organization says that the so-called war on drugs is behind why more women are being imprisoned today than ever before.
“These women often have significant histories of physical and sexual abuse, high rates of HIV infection, and substance abuse,” says the prison-reform organization. “Large-scale women’s imprisonment has resulted in an increasing number of children who suffer from their mother’s incarceration and the loss of family ties.”
A video short, release on YouTube by Brave New Films claims that a significant percentage of women are pregnant while incarcerated, and that some 70% had also been the primary caregivers of at least two children.
Another report by The Sentencing Project shows that reducing the prison population in some states has not lead to more crime, but actually reduced it.
Profiles of three states that have reduced their prison populations, New York, New Jersey and California, have actually seen their crime rates decline at a faster pace than the national average. Combined, the three states have reduced their prison populations by about 25% between 1999 and 2012, while the state prison population across the nation rose 10%.
While downsizing their prisons, these states have seen their violent crime rates fall at a greater rate than the rest of the nation. New Jersey and New York also saw their property crime rates fall significantly compared to the national average, while California’s reduction was slightly lower. Criminologists say that state governments need to do far more to keep non-violent drug offenders out of the prison system, and to give probationers second chances and sentencing alternatives.
The U.S. Justice Department places the total 2013 prison population at about 1.6 million, a slight increase from 2012. The number of federal prisoners, however, dropped slightly in 2012, but it was offset by an increase of prisoners in state prisons.
See the Brave New Films video on women in prison below:
Cliff Weathers is a senior editor at AlterNet, covering environmental and consumer issues. He is a former deputy editor at Consumer Reports. His work has also appeared in Salon, Car and Driver, Playboy, and Detroit Monthly among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @cliffweathers and on Facebook.
Not sure what the story here is.
Is it the war on drugs is a failure?
Is it that it is dumb to incarcerate people for social crimes?
Is it that there is gender inequality in the justice system?
Not in the way the story would suggest.
Women have long been given the powder puff treatment in the courts.
Everyone knows being incarcerated at many levels is, for women, like going to summer camp. They sew curtains and uniforms and make s’mores.
They get opportunities for extra chances men do not. Once released they have placement at halfway houses while men are more often dumped in the street andtold to get a job or go back.
A girl I know called the year she spent in county for her 4th DUI “camp snoopy”.
I rest my case.
Though I reiterate I agree the system is broke.
malcolm kyle says
Prohibition has finally run its course; the lives and livelihoods of hundred’s of millions of people (users and non-users) worldwide have been destroyed or severely disrupted; many countries that were once shining beacons of liberty and prosperity have become toxic, repressive, smoldering heaps of hypocrisy and a gross affront to fundamental human decency. It is now the duty of every last one of us to insure that the people who are responsible for this shameful situation are not simply left in peace to enjoy the wealth and status that their despicable actions have, until now, afforded them. Former and present Prohibitionists must not be allowed to remain untainted or untouched by the unconscionable acts that they have viciously committed on their fellow human beings. They have provided us with neither safe communities nor safe streets. We will provide them with neither a safe haven to enjoy their ill-gotten gains nor the liberty to repeat such a similar atrocity.
Prohibition has (again) evolved local gangs into transnational enterprises with intricate power structures that reach into every corner of society, helping them control vast swaths of territory while gifting them with significant social and military resources—those responsible for this shameful policy—parasitic prohibitionists—should not go unpunished!
Their shameful behavior continues, as I understand it nobody has lobbied harder to block marijuana decriminalization laws and early releases for non violent prisoners as strongly as the correctional officer unions and the corporations who build and operate prisons the government contracts with.
Is the motivation purely financial or is it also the basic human fault of refusing to admit the ideology and practices you adhere to are failed and wrong?
Probably a bit of both.
As for the prohibition aspect for every good argument made about the pitfalls of criminalizing peoples’ personal weaknesses and wanting an easy escape from reality, another and often stronger one can be made against easy access to substances that many will abuse till their lives are irreversibly harmed.
Marijuana is more or less the innocent anomaly of the spectrum so using it to say legalization of drugs can work is a fallacy.
It is not addicting in any serious way one can function on it and its hard to associate violence with it though I recall in my early 20s being easily agitated on days when I didnt have any.(its called “agro”)
However do we really believe more than a unique few could responsibly manage heroin, cocaine, meth, the plethora of prescription drugs known and not yet developed if they were available to them readily without serious detrimental effects to themselves and all society?
For that reason perhaps the best ethical position is to forgive and forget about those fighting a war on drugs. The methods used may be flawed however tbe goal they had probably was the most admirable imaginable.
Not many can say they have never used or abused mind altering substances. Many like marijuana follow the meme “nothing bad ever happened to me because I was high.”
Only followed by the more profound “I don’t know what I would have become if I wasn’t.”
For more serious things its all too obvious. I know at least four who drank themselves to death. Too many of our homeless have substance abuse at the beginning of their story. During the 80s we saw how easily crack cocaine assisted in the downfall of black neighborhoods in the northeast.
For every raver in the 90s who did a little speed and had a good time and forgot about it there are several rednecks in missouri who built a meth lab and forgot to feed their kids.
I post this as someone who has vast experience with some of the above substances and successfully walked away from most but would love to have lived in the best escape from reality imaginable:
One where none of them ever existed.
However one where I would be jailed for indulging in them is indeed no better.