Here's How Prison and Jail Systems Brutalize Women, Especially Mothers

Considering our nation’s merciless criminal justice policies, it comes as no surprise that the United States has the largest prison population and highest incarceration rate in the world.

What you may not know, however, is that women are a fast growing demographic of the prison population. There are currently 219,000 women — mostly mothers — behind bars in our nation’s overlapping criminal justice systems, according to a new report released last week by the Prison Policy Initiative and the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice. To put that in perspective: Only five percent of the world’s female population lives in the U.S., yet nearly one-third of all the female prisoners in the entire world are here in the United States.

Nationwide, the criminal justice system is failing communities, hurting the economy, and destroying families — and putting women and mothers disproportionately behind bars for drug and property crimes. We’ve narrowed down some of the most horrific impacts the United States’ culture of incarceration has on women and mothers:

  1. Many states still shackle women during labor and delivery. You read that right. Some women are shackled while being transferred to the hospital and even in their beds while giving birth, making labor and childbirth all the more challenging. Even in states where anti-shackling laws have been put in place, this inhumane practice continues to occur all too often.
  1. Women are separated from their children. Eighty percent of women in jails are mothers. Most of them are primary caretakers of their children. Excessive incarceration hurts innocent children the most, causing them to experience severe feelings of isolation and trauma. And, since the criminal justice system disproportionately locks up people of color, children of color also disproportionately suffer. As a society, we should know better than this. Period.
  1. Economic impact. This country’s pay gap problem — the yawning gap between the wages of Black women and white men — can have especially onerous implications in the criminal justice system. Economically disadvantaged Black women have fewer resources to make bail, causing them to wind up behind bars for far too long, even for crimes they’ve only been charged with and often are not found guilty of.

    Sixty percent of women in jail, according to the ACLU’s Smart Justice Campaign and the Prison Policy Initiative, have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial. That means that poor people are automatically criminalized more often and for longer periods of time. This extra time in jail can lead to a seemingly never ending downward financial spiral. Defendants can lose their jobs, along with access to benefits and even their housing. In short, incarcerating a woman who is poor will only make her poorer.
  2. Too many women in prison are there for drug offenses. Twenty-five percent of the women in state prisons are serving nonviolent convictions related to drugs. Strict penalties designed to combat the distribution of illegal drugs have done little to stem the drug trade. Instead, these overly harsh penalties have swept up people experiencing challenges related to drug addiction into an ever-expanding criminal justice system. These folks need treatment and counseling, not jail time.

We must divest from mass incarceration and invest in our families and children instead.

This article is part of a series featuring women’s perspectives on incarceration. Read a report on the drivers of women’s incarceration.

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Dr. Joseph Goebbels

It's a jail, not a charm school.


Do you just purposely monitor every ACLU article to be able to comment immediately and have your hateful and uninsightful comments right at the top for everyone to see what a bigot you are?


Said like a true Nazi idiot! We know what happened to them in the second world war. Got there asses kicked.

Dr. Winston O'Boogie

You people should leave Dr. Gobells alone. His puerile posts here are second to none.

Dr. Joseph Goebbels

Yes I "purposely monitor every ACLU article to be able to comment immediately and have your hateful and uninsightful comments right at the top for everyone to see what a bigot you are". What's it to you ?

Juliet Elisabeth

It takes a real coward to hide behind a pseudonym. Not to worry, I'm petitioning the ACLU to monitor trolls in the comment threads. I'll assume 2 things if you don't reply to my comment: 1.) You got booted when your IP address was blocked. OR 2.) You're wrongly incarcerated for what you feel is a non-violent crime of having your 1st Amendment rights trampled on, even though, cyber-trolling is a crime.

On the sunnier side of things, of course jail is not a charm school. Neither, apparently, are comment board threads. I'm sorry for whatever incredible injustice, bad relationship, hardship, or other trauma caused you to feel a need to lambaste concerned advocates and activists fighting for social justice. Maybe in the past you never received the justice you thought you deserved. Now, it appeals to you to take this dark hurtful place deep inside your heart and mind and flip it around to hurting others on the ACLU page. You are in the right place to voice your pain and frustration. But you are going about it wrong.

Mr. or Ms. Pseudonym: Your frustration turned to bullying and trolling is exactly what happens when the justice system fails. This is why we are here. There are so many better uses of our time. You are in the right place. We feel a lot like you do. If you went thru a wrongful divorce, a nasty custody case, a job loss, healthcare injustice, jail time for a non-violent or drug related crime, lost custody of your kids, if your ex or kids resent you because you weren't there because the powers that be locked you up behind bars, if you were homeless, if you had to accept less pay for more work, if you don't get sick leave... Please vent your frustrations here. We feel your pain!

I want to give you a hug, but I understand trauma and boundary issues. Sometimes it's so much easier to sit behind a computer screen or type vehemently into your iPhone 8. Because, it feels safer. You are in your safe space. Even though you don't know exactly what to say, and others seemingly are attacking your point of view, it is less scary then actually speaking a truth you stuffed down so long ago out of fear. It is hard, so hard, to unburden your troubled soul. Sometimes, we hide a secret hurt so well we forget why we are hiding this truth well after the situation is over and the imminent threat is gone. We lose that sense of immediacy. Instead, we begin to carry the guilt and shame our abusers told us we should feel. We carry on that legacy. We resist help as weakness. We passively accept our fate as abandoned losers, even to the point we lash out and get into trouble ourselves. We resent helping our tormentors who turned us into drug mules or pretended we were Bonnie and Clyde.

We suffer so much as tortured souls, living with Stockholm syndrome, identifying with our oppressors, because we think if we can't beat them, join them. These are very common thoughts. And they are normal. You are not alone. You are in the right place, Mr. or Ms. Pseudonym. When the wheels of freedom are stalled or broken, the ACLU is like AAA for justice. Just contact them. Free yourself from the shackles of a corrupt justice system!

I hope this helps.


If there is a equality under Law -- men and women deserve the equal administration of justice that fits the acts of crime. But rarely are women who commit a crime are given an equal act of judgement -- instead most are not judged in the America, even fewer are convicted, after which far fewer convicted by a jury criminal women are sent in an equal manner to sentenced men. -- In America this has become are farce often rendered by gender biased judges - who hold the belief of the "Fairer Sex" myth. Far many more women should be in jail today due to their distinct individual acts of crime. - Women deserve no less than equal conviction & punishment once confirmed by a Jury of the same crime as a man. If a Father commits a crime the Mother should be equally held accountable and placed in the punishment of prison or more.

Dr. Joseph Goebbels

"...the yawning gap between the wages of Black women and white men ... " There you go playing the race card again.


stuff it


It may not be charm school, but its about (1) rehabilitation, and (2) safe encapsulation until then; it is NOT about (1) punishment (ineffective rehabilitation attempt), nor (2) retribution, and certainly not (3) a profit opportunity. Some examples are prison systems in Netherlands and Denmark.


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