Women in Prison: Why are there more now than ever before?


Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Currently there are 714,000 women in prison in the world. 7% of the global prison population – the total being 10 million prisoners. This may not seem like a significant or even important number in comparison. However, what if I tell you that in 2000 this number was 466,000: an increase of 53% over the past 20 years. In comparison to the increase in male incarceration (namely 20%) or when taking into account the overall world population growth (also around 20%), 53 suddenly becomes an eyebrow-raising number that begs the question: why is the incarceration of women increasing so fast?


Female incarceration by number

When looking at the number 714,000, almost a third of these women can be found in one single country: the United States of America. Second comes China (107,131), then Russia (48,478) and Brazil and Thailand make a close 4th and 5th.

Data source: World Prison Brief.

But to compare countries, we take a look at the rate (female prisoner per 100,000 inhabitants) and this shows us a slightly different top 3.  Again led by the USA with almost 66 female prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, it is followed by Thailand (61) and El Salvador (58). In comparison, the average rate in Africa is 3 and in Europe it is 4.

And when taking a look at the increase of the rate of women in prisons, El Salvador rises to the top with an increase of 10 times the amount of 2000. Cambodia and Indonesia increased their female prison population by 6 fold and are closely followed by Guatemala (5x) and Brazil (4.5x).

To explain this increase, especially in the Americas and Asia, we immediately face a problem: each country has its own specific criminal justice system, prison functioning and, most importantly, social tendencies and gender norms influencing the increase in incarceration of women. Therefore I want to share with you two interesting cases for this article. First we take a look at the biggest incarcerator of women: the USA, and then we look into the circumstances of the country that crowns the list of sharpest increase: El Salvador.


Incarcerating 1/3 of the world’s female prisoners: USA

Research institutions and social policy organization agree on the main cause of the high amount and continuing increase of female prisoners in the US: the disproportionate punishment of women as part of the so-called “war on drugs”.

A women in an US prison. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Since the 1980s, the amount of women in US prisons has increased by over 800%. While in 1980 there were 12,300 female prisoners, this amount has risen to 211,870 in 2015. The increase goes together with the popularity of law and order and the increasingly harsh sentencing on drug-related crimes. Especially due to minimum sentencing policy, where offenders for drug-related crimes get a set (and disproportionately high) prison sentences without regard for the circumstances or personal background, women were imprisoned for non-violent drug-related first-time offences more so than men . Currently, 40% of women in US prisons are there for drug crimes and 34% for non-violent crimes (such as burglary, fraud).

80% of women in prison were the primary caretakers of their children

Moreover, the background and social situation of female prisoners are different from that of men. For example, 2/3 of US women in prison were or are addicted to drugs and about half of them were under the influence when committing their crime. Also, 92% of female prisoners have been physically or sexually abused in their lives. And as if this isn’t enough, their imprisonment does not only influence their lives but also that of their children, as around 80% of women in prison were the primary caretakers of their children at the time of their arrest.

Thus, while aiming to tackle drug crises for over 30 years, the USA has punished women disproportionately harshly without regard for their social situation or background.


A miscarriage of female justice: El Salvador

In comparison to the 200,000 female prisoners in the US, the 3834 women in El Salvadoran prisons should not be raising any eyebrows. Or so it may seem. Since the turn of the century, the female prison population multiplied by 10 fold, while the male population increased by 4. This makes El Salvador the country with the sharpest increase in women incarcerated by far.

“I had a miscarriage. The judge accused me of murder.”

Gang violence, drug wars and harsh law enforcement actions since the 1970s have created an environment of normalized violence in this Central American country. The violence is fueling machismo and misogyny which has profound consequences for women and girls and making it the most dangerous country for women in the world. Let me give you an example: according to Plan International, 1 in 3 pregnancies involves a teenage girl, the majority a result of abuse or incest. And here comes the crux: El Salvador has one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the world, making international headlines with jailing women for miscarriages. As the national law does not allow for any form of abortion, neither in cases of rape or incest, nor when the life of the mother is in danger, the burden of proof falls on the woman, even in case of a miscarriage.

Listen to the stories of these El Salvadoran women accused of murder for loosing their child:

Since the strictest anti-abortion law come into existence in 1998, over 600 women have been jailed for solely miscarrying. Official data on the women sentenced to prison for other situations of abortions is missing, but presumably high.


Gender approach

So, on the one hand, we have a country that locks up more women than any other and which can send you to prison for an unreasonable amount of time, in disregard of your circumstances, forcing you to leave your child behind. On the other hand, the country that is increasing its women behind bars will do so because of you losing a child.

The largest problem with the increase in female prisoners, is the lack of interest in the topic. The amount of women in prison seems so insignificant, but take a closer look and their situation seems dire, maybe more so than others. As their often excessive imprisonment – may it for non-violent crimes or even loosing their child – has a huge consequence not only on their lives, but also on the lives of those they take care of. And so, their excessive imprisonment will have major long-term consequences on a societal scale. To counteract the trend of increasing female incarceration, a gender-approach to punishment and imprisonment should be applied globally rather sooner than later.

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