We are in the midst of a separation crisis, and I’m not talking about what’s happening at the border. I’m talking about what’s happening in our country’s prison and jail systems.
The impact of female incarceration extends far and wide. Its consequences demand our attention, and we must examine what’s going on behind bars. Because when we do, we’ll discover a perturbing link between female incarceration, the gender pay gap, and our country’s economic stability.
The United States of Incarceration
With 2.2 million prisoners, the United States is home to the world’s largest prison population. It also has the world’s highest incarceration rate. Even my home state of Colorado, considered progressive regarding incarceration, continues to lock people up at more than double the rate of the US’s international allies.
On a brighter note, America’s incarceration rates as a whole appear to be declining. Unfortunately, we aren’t seeing this same trend for a specific demographic: women. Their incarceration rates are increasing nationwide. Since the 1980s, women’s incarceration rates have been growing twice as fast of men’s.
Rural areas have some of the worst numbers, where women’s jail admissions increased by 45 percent between 2000 and 2013. In urban areas, women’s jail admissions increased by 13 percent during the same period. Men, in contrast, saw their jail admissions fall by 1 percent in rural areas and by 24 percent in urban areas.
The Rising Trend of Female Incarceration
Even though the U.S. holds five percent of the world’s female population, it is home to 33 percent of the world’s female prisoners. America’s propensity to imprison women is growing. In 1983, women made up 9 percent of all U.S. jail admissions. By 2016, that 9 percent jumped to 23 percent.
In the past four decades, state prisons have increased their population of female prisoners by more than 800 percent. Local jails are home to fourteen times more women today than in the 1970s, and many of these women haven’t been convicted of a crime. They are in jail because they cannot post bail while awaiting trial. Although people sent to local jails stay, on average, only a few weeks, these shorter stays come with big consequences. They take away opportunities to prepare an effective defense, increasing the likelihood to plead guilty. Jail stays also result in the loss of jobs, housing, and even child custody.
Behind the Bars: Why Is This Happening?
Low-level, nonviolent offenses such as drug possession, shoplifting, and parole violations. That’s why the majority of incarcerated women find themselves in jail.
For every three women in jail, two of them are awaiting resolution of their cases. For every two women in jail, one of them has not been convicted of a crime. The issue of affording bail comes into play here. In many parts of the US, the inability to post bail results in more women staying behind bars prior to ever receiving a fair trial. Texas, for example, saw a 50 percent increase of women in jail largely due to an inability to post bail.
Available data on income chronicle the situation further. The Prison Policy Initiative found that the median income for women who cannot make bail is almost 30 percent lower than that of men who cannot make bail.
With the persistent gender pay gap in the US, women have fewer resources to make bail. Fewer resources to make bail means more women behind bars for far too long, even for crimes they’ve only been charged with. These women are often found innocent.
Bail, vis-a-vis the gender pay gap, has effectively created the gender jail gap. It strikes the hardest at women, mothers especially, of color. (And it doesn’t help that white men make up nearly 80 percent of U.S. prosecutors. Women of color? Less than 1 percent.)
Female Incarceration Rates By Race
- One in 111 white women will face incarceration.
- One in 18 black women will face incarceration.
- One in 45 Latinas will face incarceration.
Gender Pay Gap By Race
- White women earn 77 cents for every dollar their white male peers earn.
- Black women earn 61 cents for every dollar their white male peers earn.
- Latina women earn 53 cents for every dollar their white male peers earn.
Mommy Pay Gap By Race
- Mothers on average earn 71 cents for every dollar white, non-hispanic fathers earn.
- Black mothers earn 54 cents for every dollar white, non-hispanic fathers earn.
- Latina mothers earn 46 cents for every dollar white, non-hispanic fathers earn.
When the U.S. has 219,000 incarcerated women, 102,000 of whom are in jail, and 80 percent of those jailed are mothers, we have a problem.
Female Incarceration: Bad for Children, Bad for Policies, Bad for Economies
“…When we incarcerate a woman we often are truly incarcerating a family, in terms of the far-reaching effect on her children, her community, and her entire family network.” Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch made those remarks in 2016 at the White House. Let’s unpack what she meant.
First, The Children.
The domino effect of incarcerating mothers cannot be overstated. Not only do we inflict grave harm on mothers, we also inflict harm on their children.
More than a quarter of a million children in the U.S. have a mother in jail. Children of these incarcerated mothers suffer throughout childhood with increased risk of violence, victimization, and chronic health conditions. They are five times more likely to live in foster care than children with incarcerated fathers. By law, states have the right to terminate parental rights within two years, giving mothers an extra incentive to plead guilty to crimes they haven’t committed because pleading guilty speeds up their release.
The dropout rate for an adolescent boy increases by 25 percent when his mother is incarcerated. He is also more likely to wind up incarcerated himself.
Some states have created prison nurseries in an attempt to curb the harm inflicted on children with incarcerated mothers. Unfortunately, this solution does not get to the heart of the problem. As Carolyn Sufrin, a professor at Johns Hopkins who researches pregnancy in prisons, puts in, “What are the unspoken and immeasurable consequences of that early environment?” We don’t know.
Second, The Policies
Our political system depends on the diversity of the people it represents. Jail time decreases the likelihood that someone will vote by several percentage points. The circumstance dims for African Americans who are an astonishing 13 percentage points less likely to vote.
Any given presidential election misses somewhere between 100,000 to 150,000 black voters nationwide as a result of spending time, even if it’s just days, locked behind bars. When we silence people we create policy imbalances that leave everybody behind.
Third, The Economy
Investing in women is an investment in our economy. The benefits obtained by women flow to their families and communities. It’s advantageous for us to keep women out of jail—and not only from an investment perspective. Think about the resources we must allocate to keep our prison system operating. The cost, estimated at between $63 billion and $75 billion per year, should concern us. These are our tax dollars at work. How do we want to use them?
The Choice Is (Y)ours.
Data needs context to be useful. When we intersect incarceration rates with gender equity, we find that the gender pay gap leads not only to wealth inequality and inequitable access to resources, it also leads to mothers being separated from their children at alarming rates. This separation crisis has already left and will continue to leave a mark on our society, and it’s not a mark to be proud of.
We cannot choose whether or not we pay for people, but we can choose how we pay for them. Do we want to invest in our population, providing people with a path to economic self-sufficiency and prosperity, or not? The choice is ours.