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In a November 2018 report compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, it was stated that there are approximately 219,000 incarcerated women in the United States. Despite being home to about 5% of the world’s female population, the United States is responsible for about 33% of the world’s incarcerated female population.

This Prison Policy Initiative report, therefore, brings to the fore an issue that has been largely ignored over the years: the continuous increase of incarcerated women in the United States yearly. While there are hundreds of women’s issues to look into today in our present society including dating in a cyber world, equal pay for equal work and other humanitarian issues, Women in Prison is an issue that is rarely spoken of; especially why the numbers are increasing at an alarming rate. Considering this large prison population, this puts a giant question mark on the term “land of the free.”

Causes of Incarceration

The increase in the number of women in prison is linked to the war on drugs and non-violent crimes. A lot of these women are caught at crossroads, where they end up breaking the law to fend for their families. For many of them, direct experiences with substance abuse, sexual abuse, poverty, physical abuse, and mental illness play a considerable role in their entry into prison.


However, the law doesn’t recognize the intent behind the crime but only the offense. As such, this has led to the mass incarceration of women, especially women of color. The Women in Prison Project in 2007 released a report which confirmed that on average, more than 70 percent of women in prison were incarcerated for drug-related crimes or other non-violent crimes rather than for a violent offense.

The role of upbringing, educational level, and background can’t be ignored in these statistics. Research has shown that 60% of all inmates are illiterates with 85% of the total juvenile system being illiterate juveniles as well. As a lot of these juveniles have once been in the custody of child protection services, this suggests a dysfunctional family system. These women in prison are mainly without firm guidance that can be gotten from a background that offers the needed physical and emotional support.

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How Prison Affects Women With Children


Most women in prison are sisters, daughters, wives, and most importantly, mothers. Many of them were trying to raise their children, often, alone until they got caught by the law. For these women, the effects of being in prison have an even more devastating impact on their children.

When the mother gets incarcerated, the most common option is to hand them over to the parents of the arrested mother. However, since a lot of their background consists of abuse or neglect from their parents which sent them into drug abuse and crime, these children will have to go through the same cycle. They are being sent back into the same dysfunctional situations their mother faced when growing up and the court doesn’t see the irony in handing a grandchild over to a parent that failed in taking care of their child.

Although there is the perception that the grandparents may have had years to mature and learn from their errors before having grandchildren placed in their care, however, a large percentage are not any different. A way of curbing this is for the courts to develop a follow-up system that ensures that displaced children are adequately monitored. With this, they can detect any problems that could lead to repeating the criminal activities of their mother and effectively remove them from such a disastrous family unit.

Compared to when a man is sentenced to time in prison, children are displaced more from their custodial parent when it is the mother that goes to prison. This shows that the children are more affected by the incarceration of a mother than father, according to a 2007 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Regardless, these children end up developing unique childhood issues as a result of this incarceration. In several states in the United States, women get pregnant in prison and must be separated from their children when they turn three years old or more depending on the specific state rules.

For a mother who still has several more years to spend in prison, the agony of separation from the child after some years of bonding is sometimes bittersweet. That child is then left to grow up in a different environment, influenced by a lot of factors, including family. They suffer the loss of their primary caregiver and security. 

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Challenges With Women Being in Jail or Prison

This report by HuffPost gives a detailed overview of the challenges of being in jail, a significant one being sexual abuse. It is considered illegal for women in prison to have sexual contact, but their rights are trampled continuously upon by Correctional officers who rape them when they resist this abuse. Rape and violence are routine for women in prison, a core part of their daily lives.

A lot of them who have experienced abuse before being incarcerated end up being a victim of even more abuse while being the property of the state. Apart from the violation, the meals in prison are not exactly tantalizing. The women in prison will describe them as plain trash. It is challenging to get access to basic amenities in prison, especially for gender-specific issues like sanitary products for periods.



Rather than putting these women in prison, subjecting their children to risky situations, and exposing them to the possibility of relapse after leaving prison (as there is no welcoming system in the real world), they should be given better alternatives. These women should be given access to education, vocational training, and parenting skills that will ensure that they become productive members of society.

Society erroneously believes that when these women are released from prison, they will be miraculously cured and productively employed.  Instead, there should be a working crisis intervention program with aspects such as mental health, parenting classes, and drug and alcohol counseling adequately covered for women ex-convicts to ensure their smooth transition back into society. This will help in breaking the unfortunate cycle of mass incarceration.

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The topic of women in prison is a very important issue that affects society on a large scale. Young children, the relatives of children of incarcerated parents, human services, the foster care system, child protective services, and others may have to step in and become involved when single mothers go to jail or prison, especially for lengthy periods. It is important that we discuss, find, and create viable and realistic solutions to help combat this issue and help women in prison and affected by incarceration experience personal growth and become productive members of society. 

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For more information about women in prison and the criminal justice system, click on the links below: 

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The Courage to Soar Behind Bars: Collected Stories from Women in Prison Kindle Edition by Patrice Weber

Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison (Paperback) by Piper Kerman