Women’s prisons are overcrowded: surprise, surprise


Randall G. Shelden


Two stories centering on Nevada published about two months apart reveal what has already been noted by many, namely that women represent the fastest rising portion of the prison population during the past couple of decades.

            Back in December an AP story noted that the “number of women behind bars in Nevada soared 16.3 percent over the year ending June 30, 2004 compared with the national average of 4 percent” (Las Vegas Sun, Dec. 11, 2005).  Then, it was reported that the women’s prison in North Las Vegas was overcrowded (Las Vegas Sun, February 4, 2006). 

            About 11 of every 1,000 women will be in prison at some point in their lives.  For Hispanics it is 15 out of every 1,000; for black women it is 36 of every 1,000.  Only 5 of every 1,000 white women will end up in prison. Black women have an incarceration rate that is almost eight times higher than white women.

The incarceration rate for women remained fairly stable for most of the 20th century, ranging from 6 per 100,000 population in 1925 to 8 in 1975.  After 1975 these rates changed dramatically, doubling to 17 in 1985 and then almost tripling to 45 by 1994; by 2003 the rate stood at 62. There are now more than 100,000 women in federal and state prisons (compared to only 8,850 in 1976). These latest figures represent an incredible numerical increase of 1,043% during the past 30 years.  Moreover, the incarceration rate of women increased by 675%, more than doubling the increase for men. 

Much of the increase in women’s incarceration rate comes from the impact of mandatory sentencing laws, passed during the 1980s crackdown on crime.  Under many of these laws, mitigating circumstances (e.g., having children, few or no prior offenses, non-violent offenses) are rarely allowed.  One survey found that just over half (51%) of women in state prisons had none or only one prior offense, compared to 39% of the male prisoners.

            These increases do not match the increases in women’s crime as measured by arrests, except if we consider the impact of the “war on drugs.”  During the past 25 years there has been a dramatic change in the criminal justice system’s response to female drug use.  Of all female offenders sentenced in federal court in 2002, 39% were charged with drug offenses.  It was highest among black women (46%), with Hispanic women a close second at 44%; for white women it was 36%. According to the most recent figures, almost three-fourths (72%) of the women in federal prison and 30% of women in state prisons are in for drug violations.  In contrast in 1979 only ten percent of women in prison were drug offenders.  

Many of these women were convicted of “trafficking,” which usually involved being “drug couriers” or “mules” (those who carry drugs for the drug cartels and other high level dealers), often doing so because of threats to their lives for their husbands or lovers. Women are indeed very small cogs in the illegal drug market, with many getting involved as “a means of supplementing income in the face of unemployment, low-wage and unstable jobs, lack of affordable housing, and cuts to social programs such as child care, social assistance, and health care,” notes an ACLU report.  In many cases their role is “limited to answering telephones or living in a home used for drug related activities.” Even though they are such minor players in the drug world, they receive sentences that are similar to “high level” drug offenders, according to Department of Justice study.

The Nevada stories noted above merely reflect a national pattern started about 30 years ago.  Given the hysterics over drugs and the use of the legal system to repress their use, why should anyone be surprised?  Overcrowded prisons are what we get for using the criminal justice system to deal with a public health issue.

Incidentally, what many forget is that there are many “collateral damages” to sending so many women to prison.  Among these damages is the large number of children left behind.  An estimated 2 million children have a parent in either prison or jail.  Who will take care of them should be a question the public should ask.  I’m getting tired of repeating this, but isn’t it about time to strop criminalizing drug use?


© 2006, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.