With more than one million women behind bars or under the control of the criminal justice system, women are the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population, increasing at nearly double the rate of men since 1985. Nationally, there are more than eight times as many women incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails as there were in 1980. Women of color are significantly over-represented in the criminal justice system. Among female state prisoners, two-thirds are mothers of a minor child.
The special issues facing female prisoners are not getting the attention they desperately need. Most programs to aid former prisoners are designed for men. Programs for women, when they exist, are often cookie-cutter copies of programs designed for men, despite the very different challenges they face. For example, women are typically incarcerated for property or drug possession offenses and are likely to have serious and long-term substance use problems. Female prisoners returning home face more difficult reentry challenges with fewer skills and more deficits than men, and those differences manifest in higher rates of relapse and recidivism. Women are almost twice as likely as men to be back behind bars within a year after release, typically due to a drug-related offense or a property offense driven by addiction problems.
Even though the broad issues facing formerly incarcerated women are quite similar, each woman’s story is unique; each woman’s transition back into society is singular; each woman’s pain is her own. By telling these individual stories, I hope to spur a broad reassessment of our societal approach to the problems facing released prisoners, most of whom are eager to become productive citizens again.