We’ve talked here a lot about our nation’s mass incarceration problem, but I was surprised to learn that the fastest growing prison population in the United States is women. While over 80-90% of the U.S. prison population is male, the number of women in prison jumped 646% between 1980 and 2010, making women the fastest growing prison population in our country. To put this in perspective: almost one-third of the entire world’s female prison population consists of women in prison in the United States. And here’s the really messed up part: as we lock up more and more women in prison, according the U.S. Justice Department, only 7% of adult female offenders are actually being incarcerated for a violent offense. That’s a whole lot of non-violent women in prison. Sixty-two percent of these incarcerated women are the mothers of minor children, so it’s also a whole lot of non-violent moms who are getting locked up.

Pop culture has glamorized women in prison with shows like Orange is the New Black or the reality television series Women In Prison. But retired Judge Donna Leone Hamm has described what the real women in prison population looks like:  “the female prison population consists of women who’ve been sexually, physically and emotionally abused since childhood, as well as those who are drug-dependent, those who have moderate-to-severe mental health issues, and some fewer who are criminally-inclined.” During the so-called War on Drugs years, when there was no push for treatment or rehabilitation for drug offenders, countless women received long sentences for non-violent drug crimes — sentences that continue to tear apart families and accomplish nothing. Also, many women in prison ended up there on undeserved federal conspiracy charges, where they were charged with a drug case because they were unwilling or unable to snitch on their drug dealing boyfriends.

Once there, women in prison find a system unable to meet their health needs. Routine gynecological care and mammograms are non-existent in most prisons, so women die from diseases like cervical and breast cancer that may have been treatable if detected early.   There is little or no medical care for other treatable conditions, like asthma, diabetes, sickle cell anemia, or late-term miscarriages, so those conditions also often cause death or serious injury to women in prison. Communicable diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C are rampant. When a woman has the misfortune of being incarcerated while pregnant (nearly 5% of women in prison are pregnant), there is typically no prenatal care, no healthy foods or vitamins, and in most states, they are forced to deliver their baby while shackled. Can you imagine a woman successfully fleeing mid-delivery because the officials had the decency to unchain her from the bed while she gave birth? No? Me neither. Can you imagine a woman trying to deliver a baby while shackled at the wrists and ankles? What a horror.

On top of the health risks, women in prison face a serious risk of being sexual assaulted. The assailants are usually prison staff, not fellow inmates, so there is an added dose of powerlessness and degradation for the victims. I know we’ve written before about sexual assault in prison, so I’ll just remind you how the prison system re-victimizes anyone who complains of rape. Of the prisoners reporting sexual assault by prison staff, less than 4% are administered rape kits or given HIV/STD testing (standard medical procedures for rape victims on the outside), but about 46% of the victims are punished with a transfer or placement in solitary confinement.

The bottom line is that our prison system is ill-equipped for the flood of women our courts have sentenced. The United States rate of incarceration is 5 to 10 times higher than the rate of incarceration in any other democracy, but it does not need to be this way. Long prison sentences for drug offenders just disrupt families and entrench the poverty that is the root cause behind most of the crime. There are many alternatives for non-violent offenders, particularly those struggling with addiction. Tossing more and more women in prison is not the answer.

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