By Stacy M. Brown
America imprisons many more of its citizens than any other developed nation, with men comprising most of the incarcerated.
But the rate of growth for female imprisonment has been twice as high as that of men since 1980, according to The Sentencing Project, which estimates that 976,000 women are currently under the supervision of the criminal justice system.
The nonprofit documented a 525% increase in women’s imprisonment in America between 1980 and 2021; the vast majority are Black females.
“As this year marks fifty years since the United States began its dramatic increase in imprisonment, it is clearer than ever that our criminal legal system is not working,” Amy Fettig, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, said in a statement. “The continued over criminalization of women and girls does nothing to improve public safety but needlessly destroys lives, families, and communities.”
In 2021, the Sentencing Project reported that the imprisonment rate for Black women – at 62 per 100,000 – was 1.6 times the rate of imprisonment for White women – 38 per 100,000.
Latinx women were imprisoned 49 per 100,000 or 1.3 times the rate of White women.
Additionally, 58% of women in state prisons have a child under 18.
While the overall imprisonment for Black and Latinx women has declined since 2000 and increased for White women over that same period, Black and Native American girls remain more likely to face incarceration than White, Asian and Latinx girls.
Over one-third of incarcerated girls are held for status offenses, like truancy and curfew violations, or for violating probation.
The statistics compiled by The Sentencing Project arrive after several reports revealed mass incarceration’s heavy burden on Black women in general.
“The war on drugs treated Black women as if they were just collateral consequences,” Ashley McSwain, executive director of Community Family Life Services, which serves formerly incarcerated women, said during a panel discussion on mass incarceration. “We were well into this war and this crisis before we realized that women were being affected at alarming rates,”
She continued: “When you arrest a woman, … you got her, her three kids, her grandma, an aunt — everybody’s incarcerated when a woman goes to prison. “So, the impact is huge, and we never seem to talk about that.”
Three years ago, the National Black Women’s Justice Institute partnered with the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide and The Sentencing Project to co-lead the Alice Project, an initiative to end the extreme punishment of women in America and globally.
The group wanted to get advocates, researchers, activists and academics to work together to get rid of gender bias in extreme sentences.
In an earlier interview, Shamika Wilson explained that her husband is serving a life sentence in a San Diego prison after recently being transferred from a prison much closer to home.
She said the facility didn’t allow for overnight family visits.
“Financially, it’s hard all around. Before, he was no more than an hour or two away from home, but now it can be close to a ten-hour drive at times,” Wilson responded. “It can cost over $1,000 to go see him. This is about cycles, and these cycles are going to continue. They don’t think he needs time with his kids to teach them not to go down the same path he did. Their regulations keep families apart.”
Wilson told NBC News that she suffers from diagnosed depression due to stress. She said the situation is taking a toll on the entire family.
“It affects my kids because they wake up crying, asking for their dad. Fifteen minutes [on the phone] is not enough time to read them a bedtime story or see how their school day went,” she said.
“We have to decide between things like using $50 dollars for a [pre-paid phone card] or saving it so that we can eventually go visit him.”
Black women – mothers, grandmothers, daughters, wives — often must choose between posting bail for their loved ones and missing important bills or allowing a loved one to languish in jail, Democratic Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley stated.
“Sometimes, when their romantic partner or co-parent is behind bars, Black women are forced to provide for their families alone,” she remarked after reading a study by the bipartisan criminal justice reform organization FWD.us and Cornell University.
Pressley said that with firsthand knowledge, one can speak truth to power, a fact that is not limited to legislators and politicians but includes the millions who understand the injustice of the prison-industrial complex intimately.
“There are 113 million Americans who know what it’s like to see their loved one behind bars — even more if we broaden the definition of family,” Pressley wrote on her website.
“Imagine if these millions of people voted as an entire bloc in 2020, demanding that their candidates — for President, Congress, state legislatures, and judges — were dedicated to passing comprehensive and bold criminal justice reform? Such a powerful movement would help to end the oppression and exploitation in our prison systems.”