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Prisons: Prisons for Women

The Composition Of Women's Prisons

The profile of women in prison has remained consistent: Female prisoners are primarily low income, disproportionately African American and Hispanic, undereducated, unskilled, and unemployed. They are mostly young and heads of households with an average of two children. At least two-thirds of incarcerated women have children under the age of eighteen. Substance abuse, compounded by poverty, unemployment, physical and mental illness, physical and sexual abuse, and homelessness also characterize the women's prison population (Owen and Bloom). Surveys conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (1991b, 1994), the American Correctional Association (1990), and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Klein), as well as individual state profiles (Owen and Bloom) provide information about the demographic characteristics of women in prison. These descriptions remain accurate even as the numbers of women in prison continue to surge upward. The following factors characterize this population.

Race and ethnicity. In addition to gender differences between male and female crime, women's arrest and incarceration rates vary by race (Chesney-Lind). Minority women are disproportionately represented in the U.S. prison population, with the percentage of African American women who are incarcerated growing at increasing rates. In 1991, African American women made up about 40 percent of the female prison population; by 1995, this population had grown to 48 percent. The percentage of Hispanic and Latina women is also growing at a somewhat slower rate (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1997, 1994).

In spite of this disproportionate racial and ethnic composition, racial conflict has not been a primary feature of the social order of female prisons. While racial and ethnic identity is predominant in male prison culture, these conflicts do not shape the way women do their prison time. Women in prison generally live and work in an integrated environment and form personal relationships that often cross racial lines. Racial and ethnic gangs have not yet appeared in women's prisons to the extent they are found in male prisons. While a small number of women may enter the prison with some street gang or clique affiliation, the subculture of the women's prison offers little support for these pre-prison identities. Women seeking the personal and community ties found in street gangs are likely to find substitutes within the prison families or other personal relationships (Owen).

Race relations with staff, however, are potentially more antagonistic. The majority of correctional staff is both white and male in most U.S. prisons for women. Minority women prisoners have reported race-based instances of name-calling, job and program discrimination, and unfair disciplinary practices (Owen; Bloom). Faily and Roundtree (1979) found that African-American prisoners are more likely than other women to be cited for disciplinary infractions.

Age at first arrest and criminal history. The American Correctional Association (ACA) survey found that most women in prison were first arrested at a young age. One-third of those interviewed were first arrested between fifteen and nineteen years of age, and another quarter between twenty and twenty-four years old. Just over 9 percent were arrested prior to their fourteenth birthday and just over 10 percent were arrested after age thirty-five. According to the 1994 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, over half of the women in prison were serving their first prison term. This survey also found that most women serving a second term had been convicted in the past for only nonviolent offenses. Nearly two-thirds of all female inmates had two or fewer prior convictions. Almost three-quarters of all state female prisoners had served a prior sentence to probation or incarceration, including 20 percent who had served a sentence as a juvenile.

Drug use and drug arrests. In the 1990s, substance abuse played a key role in the imprisonment of women and contributed dramatically to the increasing numbers of women prisoners. Women are more likely to use drugs, use more serious drugs more frequently, and be under the influence of drugs at the time of their crime than males (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1994). In the national studies, over one-third of all female prisoners interviewed in 1991 reported being under the influence of some drug at the time of their offense. Around 40 percent reported daily drug use in the month before their offense. Almost one-quarter of the 1991 sample reported committing their crime to get money to buy drugs (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1994).

Victimization. Women in prison have extensive histories of sexual and physical abuse. In the 1991 national surveys, an estimated 43 percent of women in prison reported previous physical or sexual abuse. Others found higher rates of abuse among women in prison (Owen and Bloom). Violent offenders were most likely to have previously experienced this abuse (Bureau of Crime Statistics, 1994). An estimated 50 percent of women in prison who reported abuse said they had experienced abuse at the hands of an intimate, compared to three percent of men. More than three-quarters of the female inmates who had a history of abuse reported being sexually abused. An estimates 56 percent of the abused women said that their abuse had involved a rape, and another 13 percent reported an attempted rape (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1994). The 1990 ACA survey found that 50 percent of the women reported a history of physical abuse, with 35 percent reporting sexual abuse. This abuse was likely to be at the hands of husbands or boyfriends.

Other demographic factors. According to surveys conducted in the early 1990s, just over half of the women in prison at that time had been employed in the year prior to their arrest. Most were unmarried; 45 percent of the women prisoners had never been married and another third of female inmates were either separated or divorced. Just about 60 percent grew up in households without both parents present. Almost half (47%) had an immediate family member incarcerated at some time. About 35 percent had brothers and 10 percent had sisters who had been incarcerated. Eighty percent of the prisoners interviewed in a national survey reported incomes at or below the poverty level (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1994).

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPrisons: Prisons for Women - History, The Contemporary Prison, Co-corrections, Prison Subcultures, Population Increases, The Composition Of Women's Prisons