Incarceration In America

The U.S. prison population is more than 20% larger than the rest of the world, despite the fact that it only makes up 5% of global population. Since 1970, the U.S. prison population has grown by 500%, with 2 million people now in jail or prison. This is far more than the population growth.

One in three Black boys, and one in six Latino boys born today, can expect to be sent to prison during their lifetime. This compares to one out of every seventeen white boys. women make up the fastest-growing population of incarcerated Americans.

In the federal prison system, there are twice as many people in local detention centers who are awaiting trial but presumed innocent. Each year, 650,000 Americans return to their communities after serving time in prison. Nearly 50,000 federal, local, and state legal restrictions make it difficult for them to reintegrate into society. This could include the loss of their voting rights.

Our prison system costs taxpayers an average of $80 billion per annum.

women in prison

Women Are The Fastest Growing Segment of Incarcerated Individuals

The United States is among the top countries in the world for incarcerating women. A new Report by the Sentencing Project shows the number of women in American jails and prisoners increased by 700% between 1980 and 2016. From 26,378 in 80 to 213,722 today.

The report, which analyzed the latest data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), found that, while the number of male prisoners far outnumbered the number of female prisoners, the growth rate for female prisoners has been twice that of men since the 1980s.

In 2016, there were 1,031,999 women in the criminal justice system. This includes women on probation and parole. Nearly half (102,300 women) of the 213,722 women who were incarcerated in 2016 were in jail. An earlier study suggests that more than 50% of women in local prisons have not been convicted.

The rate of imprisonment of African American women has declined since 2000. However, the 2016 rate of 96 per 100,000 was more than twice that of white women (49).

Women are more likely to be in prison for a drug offense or a property crime than men. 25 percent of women in prison have been convicted for a drug crime, compared to only 14 percent of men. 27 percent have been convicted for a property offense, compared to just 17 percent of men.

Girls of color have a much higher chance of being incarcerated compared to white girls. The number of incarcerated children has decreased, but the placement rates for African American and Native girls (110 per 100 000) are more than three times higher than for white girls (32/100 000). Girls are more likely than boys to be incarcerated, even for low-level offenses. For example, 38 percent of youth who are incarcerated are girls for status offenses such as truancy or curfew violations. More than half of those incarcerated are girls for running away.

The Prison Policy Initiative recently found the progress made by states in reducing their prison populations since 2009 was uneven and disproportionately impacted men. The number of men in state prisons decreased by more than 5 percent from 2009 to 2015, while the number of women in prisons dropped only by 0.29 percent. This disparity is due to the lack of diversionary programs for women, policy changes that led to mandatory arrests or “dual” charges for fighting domestic violence, the criminalization and criminalization of girls who are in school, and the criminalization and criminalization of women who support themselves by sex work.

Researchers have found that women in prison face different issues than men. These issues are often exacerbated because of incarceration. Women are more likely than men to have a past of abuse, trauma, and mental health issues when they enter prison. However, treatment in prisons is often inadequate or non-existent. Prison health systems often fail to meet the unique physical health requirements of women, including reproductive health, menopause management, nutrition, and treatment of substance abuse disorders.

More than 60% of women in state jails have children under 18 years old. There are fewer women’s prisons. This means that women are more likely than men to be incarcerated away from home. Face-to-face visitation is difficult and expensive. The increasing incarceration of women causes more disruption in families, as they are often the primary caregivers of their children. Women who were already earning less than men before they were incarcerated are also affected by the collateral effects of incarceration.

Race and Ethnicity in Prisons

  • In 2021, Black women’s imprisonment rate (62 per 100 000) was 1.6x higher than the rate of White women’s imprisonment (38 per 100 000).
  • Latinx women were jailed at a rate 1.3 times higher than white women (49 per 100,000 vs.38 per 100,000).
  • Since 2000, the rate of imprisonment of Black and Latinx Women has decreased while that of white women has increased.
  • Between 2000 and 2021 the rate of Black women’s imprisonment in state and federal jails decreased by 70%, while the rate for white women’s imprisonment rose by 12%.

The highest and lowest female state imprisonment rates (per 100,000 U.S. dollars) Female Residents, 2021

*In states with integrated jails and prisons, data includes both jail and prison populations. Source: Carson, E.A. (2022). Prisoners in 2021: Statistical Tables. Washington, DC Bureau of Justice Statistics

State Variation

The rate of women’s incarceration varies widely from one state to another. In 2021, 47 women out of 100,000 were incarcerated at the national level. This includes both state and federal prisons. Idaho has the highest female prisoner rate (127) while Massachusetts has the lowest rate of female incarceration (6).

Indictment types for men and women in state prisons

  • Women are more likely to be in prison for a drug offense or property crime than men. 25 percent of women in state prisons have been convicted for a drug offense compared to 12 percent of men. 19% of women incarcerated have been convicted for a property crime compared to 13 % of men incarcerated.
  • The percentage of women in prison convicted of drug offenses has increased from 12% to 25% by 2020.




Sickmund, M., et al. (2021).