Incarceration of women
This article discusses the incarceration of women in correctional facilities. According to a study reported in September 2014 by the International Center for Prison Studies, as of August 2014, across the world, 625,000 women and children are being held in penal institutions with the female prison population growing on all five continents.
Globally, women form an underrepresented population within prison systems, as the vast majority of incarcerated peoples are men. Incarcerated women have been and continue to be treated differently by criminal justice systems around the world at every step of the process, from arrest, to sentencing, to punitive measures used. This disparity is largely due to both tangible demographic differences between the severity of crimes committed by male and female prison populations, as well as a persistent belief by society at large that female criminals are better able to be rehabilitated than their male counterparts.
Although women form a minority in the global prison population, the population of incarcerated women is growing at a rate twice as fast as the male prison population. Those imprisoned in China, Russia and the United States comprise the great majority of incarcerated peoples, including women, in the world. Trends observed in the global growth of the female prison population can be explained in part by evolving policies regarding the sentencing and parole of female inmates. As criminal justice systems across the world move towards gender-blind sentencing, this has resulted in a tremendous increase in the rate of female incarceration. Concurrent elimination of parole and toughening of penalties for parole violations in many areas of the world also contribute to high rates of reentry and reoffending, further driving up rates of incarceration of women.
Social and political conditions leading to incarceration
International developments in the political response to social issues, specifically the global drug epidemic, have catalyzed many of the changes in the composition of the prison populations, and subsequently the types of conditions prisoners experience while incarcerated. The War on Drugs has accounted for the large population of female low-level offenders, who are usually imprisoned for narcotic use or possession. The global proliferation of the so-called “War on Drugs” has largely been advocated by Western powers, particularly the United States.
While there is no globally uniform representation among female prisoners in terms of the types of crimes they are imprisoned for, it is widely acknowledged that there are a number of underlying social inequities which make affected women disproportionately more likely to commit crimes and therefore become incarcerated. The most prominent of these conditions is that of poverty, as well as the conditions which give rise to poverty. Another inequity deemed partially culpable for the rate at which impoverished women in particular are incarcerated is the lack of access to mental health care. Many incarcerated women suffer from mental illnesses, and their incarceration can be directly linked to an absence of treatment for their conditions.
Early facilities were considered inhumane with little regard for health and safety. Men and women were housed in a large room where the strong preyed on the weak. As of 1964, in most of the Western world, the guards in female prisons are no longer exclusively female. As of that year, both men and women work as guards in women's prisons in the United States. However, some states have laws requiring female officers as well as a female superintendent. While most states have only one or two institutions for women, some facilities are considered "unisex" and house both male and female inmates in separate areas.
There is massive variation in the quality of living standards both between prisons around the world and between prisons within individual countries. Variations in national wealth, apportionment of national budgets and different approaches to criminal rehabilitation all contribute to the absence of uniformity in prison living standards. Other phenomena, such as the privatization of prisons in many countries with large prison populations, such as the United States, also give rise to variability in the environmental quality of women's prisons. Once a corporation assumes governance over a prison and its budget, the presiding government has relatively little oversight of the maintenance of prison standards and prisoner wellbeing. There are many ongoing political debates surrounding the continuation of private prisons.
Certain prison populations, including the population of women in prison, have special health needs which often go unmet. For example, one study in the journal Health and Social Care in the Community found that in England and Wales, which have the highest prison populations of any European countries, women's specific mental and physical health needs are under-researched and not sufficiently cared for, with 40% of female prisoners reporting long-term health problems in comparison with the male statistic of 33%.
In New Zealand there are three correctional facilities specially for women. These include: Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility (ARWCF), Arohata Women's Prison, and Christchurch Women's Prison. At these facilities, women are offered various prisoner assistance programs while they are serving their sentences in prison. These consist of baby unit spaces for new mothers, mental and physical disability assistance, feeding and bonding facilities, cultural hobbies, and special food accommodations for dietary restrictions. While many of these activities are permission based and evaluated with a case-by-case approach, these prisons have started offering these options to women who are incarcerated in the recent years.
In New Zealand, the total number of convicted women increased by 111% between 1996 and 2005. In 1963, women made up 7.7% of those convicted in New Zealand's court system, with most causes of arrest being offenses against property and some offenses being crime against persons and/or assault. Then, in 1972, women's incarceration rates increased to 11% in lower court systems. Again, with mostly the same two leading convictions. As of 1996, prosecuted females on average had fewer previous convictions than prosecuted males in most first world countries such as New Zealand. The number of women incarcerated in New Zealand peaked in 2010 and has decreased since. As of 2014, the female conviction percentage is up to 23%. Crimes against property make up a higher percentage of the total 23% female conviction ratio, at 33%. According to a 1991 study published by the Department of Justice, Greg Newbold notes that in comparison to women, men were twice as likely to commit a more serious crime.
Although the number of males far outweighs the number of females in the correctional facilities of New Zealand, the rate of increase of women incarcerated is growing at a pace significantly higher than that of males . Overall, the incarceration rate of women has been growing all over the world, not just in New Zealand. The most recent advocated hypothesis regarding why the rise is occurring is that women's crime rates are not increasing, rather the criminal justice system is changing. This change has led to an increase in attention to minor offences, which women are statistically more likely to commit. Gill McIvor, Professor of Criminology at the University of Stirling, supports this hypothesis with research published in 2010 which confirms that the rise of female incarceration rates in New Zealand is not due to the increasing severity of crimes committed by women. As well as this, McIvor also makes the claim that New Zealand women are overrepresented in less serious types of crimes such as theft and fraud and underrepresented in more serious types of crime such as crimes of violence.
According to statistics from 2014, there has been a slight increase of women prisoners in each of these facilities. Although the Department of Corrections notes that women in New Zealand only make up 7.4% of the total incarceration population, the increases in population are connected to four main crime categories specifically. These include illicit drug offenses, theft and related offenses, fraud and related offenses, and robbery, extortion and related offenses. Three of these four categories saw an increase of 60%, however, the lowest category (illicit drug offenses) saw the smallest increase at 40%.
In general, statistical information in regards to the rate of incarceration for women in China has been found difficult to compare that to other countries around the world. However, some scholars argued in 2003 that approximately one-fifth of the total number of women in the United States would be equivalent to that of the total population of women incarcerated in China.
According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, as of August 2014, the Chinese women prison population is the second largest in the world (after the United States) with 84,600 female prisoners in total or 5.1% of the overall Chinese prison population.
Within the last decade, the rate of incarceration for women in China has increased by 46%. Women make up only 6% of the total population of individuals in prison within the country. While it is difficult to correctly evaluate the statistic regarding the total number of women incarcerated due to the underreporting of these cases, China is on track to imprison more women than the United States.
Circa 2017, according to the World Prisons Brief, women make up about 20.8% of Hong Kong's inmate population. Of any sovereign state or dependency, minus very small countries/microstates, Hong Kong, as of circa 2017, has the highest percentage of women in correctional supervision. In August 2017 the Hong Kong Correctional Services had 1,486 incarcerated women, and it had a total of 1,764 women under correctional supervision if the 279 on remand were included.
In Great Britain, in 1996 a new policy was passed, and women no longer have to be restrained while giving birth when serving their sentence. The British services for human rights and the United Nations standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners say that no one should be subjected to degrading punishment. Some prisoners refuse to go to child care events or funerals because of the humiliation the restraints show. Women in Britain fought for their right to not be restrained while giving birth to their child, however they must be restrained while being escorted to and from the hospital. More women than men try to escape the prison system in Britain. Of those women who escape almost half escape while receiving medical attention at a hospital.
As of March 1, 2012, the Russian Criminal Justice system housed about 60,500 women, 8.1% of the total number of people incarcerated in the country. Russia has been slow to implement reform for the rights of its incarcerated population, especially for women. Russia has some criminal laws that contain articles that govern the treatment and status of women in the criminal justice system; however, with the exception of a law preventing women from receiving the death penalty, these laws are mostly limited to the status of incarcerated women as child bearers, and seem to focus more on the status and rights of children incarcerated with their mothers. For instance, if a woman is pregnant or has a child under fourteen years old, her sentence has the potential to be postponed, reduced, or cancelled. Additionally, women in prison with their children are entitled to “improved living conditions, specialized medical services, and more rations and clothing”. As for the women that do not have children, they face overcrowded conditions and inadequate medical care. Furthermore, women are often brought through transit prisons on what could be a two-month journey to their final destination, regardless of where the final destination is actually located.
In the United States, authorities began housing women in correctional facilities separate from men in the 1870s. The first American female correctional facility with dedicated buildings and staff was the Mount Pleasant Female Prison in Ossining, New York; the facility had some operational dependence on nearby Sing Sing, a men's prison. In the 1930s, 34 women's prisons were built, by 1990 there were 71 women's prisons in the country, but only five years later there were 150 (Chesney-Lind, 1998:66).
Unlike prisons designed for men in the United States, state prisons for women evolved in three waves, as described in historical detail in Partial Justice: Women in State Prisons by Nicole Hahn Rafter. First, women prisoners were imprisoned alongside men in "general population," where they were subject to sexual attacks and daily forms of degradation. Then, in a partial attempt to address these issues, women prisoners were removed from general population and housed separately, but then subject to neglect wherein they did not receive the same resources as men in prisons. In a third stage of development, women in prison were then housed completely separately in fortress-like prisons, where the goal of punishment was to indoctrinate women into traditional feminine roles.
According to an article published in 2018 from The Prison Policy Initiative, of the world's female population only 4% live in the U.S.; however, over 30% of the world's incarcerated women are in the United States.
The Prisoners in 2014 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics determined that Black women make up 23% of incarcerated women in the United States. Black women comprise about 14% of the U.S. female population and because corrections agencies do not separate prisoner data by race and gender, “we rarely know how many of the black prisoners are women, and how many of the women are Black”.
Rape in prison
Rape in female prisons has been commonplace for a long period of time in both the US and the UK. In England and Wales, a report showed that female prisoners are being coerced into sex with staff members in return for various favours, such as alcohol and cigarettes. Rape may even be more common than reports show, given that it is difficult to know the full truth about what goes on behind the walls of a prison, along with the fact that inmates often have no legal remedy to seek justice for abuse and rape.
In the United States, the Alabama prison scandal at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women revealed gross sexual misconduct by male staff members against female inmates, including rape. Trying to report these abuses would be punishable by humiliation and solitary confinement while punishments for the sexual offenders were rare and small.
Between 2010 and 2011, the rate for imprisonment with female drug offenders was at 5.7%, a drop from 6% in 2010. The treatment in which female drug offenders receive has also been closely analyzed in the U.S. In the U.S., compared with male prisoners, women offenders have been more likely to report instances of childhood trauma, abuse, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, interpersonal violence, adolescent conduct disorder, homelessness, as well as chronic physical and mental health problems, and because of such problems, women are more likely to commit criminal activity or have a severity to addiction. One of the problems female offenders are facing is that they need more special substance abuse treatment for their gender, but the treatment they receive are mostly male oriented programs such as Therapeutic Community (TC) models. As substance abuse treatment is not fairly granted in prisons across the U.S., recidivism is likely to go up with in 2011, the most serious offense for 59.4% of women incarcerated in federal prisons being drug violations.
Issues in studying the incarceration of women
Before the 1980s, there was a lack of female representation in criminology around the world, making research in this area very difficult. This low level of representation was due to the fact that gender was not a large topic of debate. When studies would come up regarding the subject of criminology, most theories regarding crime were largely male modeled due to the significant portion of crime attributed to males. However, due to the feminist movement in the 1960s, demand for information concerning female incarceration arose. Due to this growing demand that gained speed in the 1980s, research in crimes committed by women has surged.
Children of incarcerated parents
The number of children with mothers in prison has doubled during the last 17 years, according to a 2007 report ran by the Bureau of Justice Statistic (BJS). Mainly, Black and Hispanic children are part of the 1.7 million children whose parents are incarcerated. Sleep disorders and behavioural problems tend to be present on children with mothers in prison.
Moreover, a study ran by Child Welfare Services (CWS) concludes that the likelihood of being in a vulnerable situation is higher among children whose parents are behind the bars than other children treated by CWS.
The constitutional rights of pregnant inmates in US prisons have been undergoing codification and expansion in the 2000s. Data from 2010 show that female incarceration rates are growing more rapidly than male incarceration rates in the United States. One out of every four women in prison is pregnant. Less than half of prisons in the United States have official policies about medical care for pregnant inmates. About 48% of prisons have prenatal services. Of these 48%, only 15% of prisons have programs implemented to help mothers find suitable work after they give birth. Additionally, only 15% of prisons have policies that require light work or no work for pregnant women. Throughout the United States, pregnant inmates are treated poorly by prison staff because there is a permeating prejudice that pregnant inmates are not "worthy enough to have children". There are psychological stressors experienced my pregnant inmates during pregnancy and during the birthing process. For example, thirty-five states allow women to be chained to the bed while in labor and giving birth. In states where shackling is illegal, there are a significant amount of lawsuits claiming that shackling was used during childbirth. Researchers have argued that allowing women to remain shackled to a bed during birth is inhumane and undignified.
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Individual articles in English:
- Fili, Andriani. "Women in Prison: Victims or Resisters? Representations of Agency in Women’s Prisons in Greece." Signs. Vol. 39, No. 1, Women, Gender, and Prison: National and Global Perspectives (Autumn 2013), pp. 1–26. DOI: 10.1086/670862.
- Geltner, Guy. "A Cell of Their Own: The Incarceration of Women in Late Medieval Italy ." Signs. Vol. 39, No. 1, Women, Gender, and Prison: National and Global Perspectives (Autumn 2013), pp. 27–51. DOI: 10.1086/670768.
- Miller, Jody and Kristin Carbone-Lopez. "Gendered Carceral Regimes in Sri Lanka: Colonial Laws, Postcolonial Practices, and the Social Control of Sex Workers ." Signs. Vol. 39, No. 1, Women, Gender, and Prison: National and Global Perspectives (Autumn 2013), pp. 79–103. DOI: 10.1086/670770.