Roughly 213,000 women and girls and roughly 2 million men and boys are imprisoned in the US. During their incarceration, women often have a very different experience than men do. This is due to a number of factors, most of which stem from their roles as mothers and inadequate services offered to them while incarcerated.
While there are almost 4,500 prisons in the US only 170 of these are women’s prisons. The main difference between men’s and women’s prisons is the level of security. Women’s prisons most closely resemble men’s minimum or medium security prisons.
There tends to be less violence in women’s prisons. Women are less likely to be violent offenders than men, and there are less incidents of violence between prisoners and prisoners and guards.
In addition to being held in prisons, women are more likely to be held in jails. Of the roughly 219,000 incarcerated women, more than half are held in jails. Compared to prisons, it is much harder to make phone calls and other communication is often restricted. Aleks Kajstura, in an article entitled Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019, writes: “This is especially troubling given that 80% of women in jails are mothers, and most of them are primary caretakers of their children.”
Furthermore, jails have less rehabilitation services. They are poorly equipped to offer mental health services and women in jails experience higher levels of psychological distress than men in both prisons and jails.
Although strides have been made towards prison reform, women’s incarceration rates show that women have been left behind in this effort. While the population growth of men in prison has been steadily plateauing, women’s population growth has been sharply increasing since the 1980s.
As Angel Davis points out, “if we look at imprisoned women […] we learn not only about women in prison, but we learn much more about the system as a whole than we would learn if we looked exclusively at men.” It is important to look at the differences in men’s and women’s incarceration experiences to understand the parts of our corrections system that are broken.