Prince Amir Al Saud

Women and Criminal Justice: a life behind bars

Women and Criminal Justice: a life behind bars


 With growing public attention to the problem of mass incarceration, people want to know about women’s experience with incarceration. How many women are held in prisons, jails, and other correctional facilities around the world?The number of women and girls in prison around the world has jumped by more than half since the turn of the century, according to a new report.

While overall imprisonment rates have declined in many countries, the number of women and girls in prison has surged. According to a recent analysis in the Worldwide Prison Report, by researchers at Birkbeck University’s Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) in London, since 2000, there has been a 53 percent rise on the 466,000 estimated to be behind bars only in 2000. The rates at which women are getting locked up globally are becoming very alarming. They are thrown into prisons in every country at rates higher than the population growths of each country.

Statistical research says a total of more than 714,000 girls and women are held in penal institutions worldwide; the number includes those on remand and awaiting trials as well as inmates who have been convicted and sentenced. 

Orange is the new black. United States first  

For the past few years, America has started to take a closer look at its soaring prison population. Decades of tough-on-crime policies mean 2,3 million people are incarcerated – the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. And who are the fastest-growing group of prisoners in the US?Women and girls.

Only five percentof the world’s female population lives in the U.S., yet the country accounts for over 30% of the world’s incarcerated women.What you may not know, however, is that women are a fast-growing demographic of the prison population. There are currently 219,000 women- mostlymothers- behind bars.Despite recent reforms, the United States still incarcerates 698 people for every 100,000 residents, more than any other country.  And while the overall U.S. incarceration rate is falling, the women’s rate remains at an historic high.

The mass incarceration of women is correlated highly with racial segregation, poverty, mental-health problems, and childhood abuse. Moreover, women are also disproportionately burdened by childcare responsibilities and so require targeted support to restore their family lives post-release.

Though living

Men still make up the vast majority of inmates, but women in prison face unique challenges.  Prisons limit money for basics liketampons, pads, and other hygienic products. Inmates' struggles mirror the daily lives of women behind bars. Poorly funded libraries, pregnancy-related issues, and lack of support regarding their cases, families, and re-entry to public life are just a few of the problems that can plague inmates in global jails. And that's not to mention the ways women of color, LGBTQ inmates, and inmates with disabilities are faced with unique obstacles. They are also more likely to be sexually assaulted, particularly by guards, as no surprise. Many prisons still shackle women during labor and delivery. Some of them are shackled even while being transferred to the hospital and in their beds while giving birth, making labor and childbirth all the more challenging. Even in states where anti-shackling laws have been put in place, this inhumane practice continues to occur all too often.Women are separated from their children. Eighty percent of women in jails are mothers. Most of them are primary caretakers of their children. Excessive incarceration hurts innocent children the most, causing them to experience severe feelings of isolation and trauma.

The majority of those women entering jail are black and Hispanic, mirroring demographic trends that cross gender lines. Women, however, tend to enter jails in more vulnerable situations than men, as a higher percentage of them being held in jail were using drugs, unemployed, or predominantly low-income, or elsereceiving public assistance at the time they were arrested.For example, about a third of all women in jail have a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression – more than twice the rate that exists for jailed men.

Most people detained in jails, have not been convicted of any crime and are awaiting trial. The vast majority of women in jail have been charged with nonviolent property and drug crimes,or have committed low-level offenses, and so-called “public order” offences, which include prostitution.Women who become incarcerated are “encountering a system that was created for the majority of people who are in the criminal justice system, who are men. It doesn’t really account for the differences that women bring to the system.”

Women’s incarceration across the world

The U.S. makes up 27 of the world’s most carceral places for women. Thailand comes in 28th place, and El Salvador stands as the world’s 35th most zealous incarcerator of women, who are still routinely jailed for miscarriages.

Data about women’s incarceration globally remain scarce, as many common criminal justice databases do not include separate counts of women, which makes it harder to get full data. To calculate the number of women in prisons and jails, we had to use data from 2015, because this the newest data that allows us to ensure that women held for state prisons in local jails are not counted twice. A newer version of the report is available, but no longer includes a breakdown by gender, as it did in older versions. Databased is based upon a variety of sources. In almost all cases the main and original source is the national prison administration of the country concerned, or else the Ministry responsible for the prison administration. Most of the figures are recent and efforts are being made to update them to ensure that the information is as accurate as possible. 

More than 700,000 women and girls are held in penal institutions throughout the world, according to the third edition of the World Female Imprisonment List, published by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at Birkbeck, University of London. More than 200,000 are in the United States (205,400). The countries with the next highest totals are in China (103,766 plus an unknown number of women and girls in pre-trial detention or “administrative detention”), the Russian Federation (53,304) Thailand (44,751), Brazil (37,380), Vietnam (20,553), India (18,188) and Mexico (13,400).

Female prisoners generally constitute between 2 and 9% of the total prison population

The proportion of both women ang girls within the total prison population is lowest in African countries, where the median level is 2,8%, and highest in Asian countries, where the median level is 6,0 %. The median level in Europe is 4.9% and the overall world median is 4.4%.

A Worldwide Trend: More Women Are Being Imprisoned Than Ever Before

The analysis indicates that female prison population levels have grown much faster than male prison population levels,with the number of women and girls in prison increasing by 50% in the past 15 years,when the total amount was estimated in approximately 466,000.As globalization has quickly pushed more women from the kitchen into the labor market, it has also made them more sensible to criminalization, thus increasing their susceptibility to punishable offenses.

The female prison population has risen in all continents. The increases have been greater than the overall growth in national population levels, except in Africa where the rise in the female prison population was only half as great as the increase in the population of the continent. Rises in the female prison population in the Americas, in Oceania and in Asia have been, respectively, three, four and five times the increases in the population of those continents.

The number of women and girls in prison has risen particularly in some countries, notably in central America: Guatemala (almost quadrupled since 2001) and El Salvador (almost eight times the level at 2000), in south America: Brazil (almost four times the level at 2000) and Colombia (almost three times the level at 2000); and in south-eastern Asia -Cambodia and Indonesia (both more than quadrupled since 2000). 

Inequalities between men and women in world prisons.

There is the age-long adage that whatever a man can do, a woman can do better. This is becoming truer in the area of incarceration. More women and girls are going to prisons all around the world while the total imprisonment rate is on the decline. What this means is that while governments everywhere are trying to reduce imprisonment rates, more women still make their way to prison.While men may walk free for minor offences, women get incarcerated for them. Compared to their male counterparts, women are more often incarcerated for minor and non-violent crimes, typically involving property or drug-related charges. The conclusive message is simple: the governments play a double standard where they promote women rights and emancipation, yet herd them off into incarceration for the slightest offenses.The fact that female imprisonment levels have been increasing at a very much faster rate than male imprisonment levels should prompt policy makers in all countries to consider whether it is really necessary to hold so many women and girls in custody. Female imprisonment has a high financial and social costs, and its excessive use does not contribute to public safety.


Returning to society, or picking up the pieces of their broken lives, seems harsh issue for women globally. They speak about the obstaclesex-prisoners getting out of prison must surmount. After release, many of them find their houses have been foreclosed on, so it takes them to go to a shelter, often with their kids. Many doors remain closed, which comes as a result in restrictions on employment, education, housing, as well as building up new relations. For all the thousands of women and girls in the world with a criminal record, there are still endless barriers for people with previous convictions, but even when they have paid their debt with justice, the stigma of a sentence is difficult to overcome.

Article contributed by Sonia Russo  

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