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Women behind bars: Female jail population quadruples since 1970

Women make up the fastest growing segment of inmates in the U.S. correctional system.

According to a 2016 study conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice, the number of women in jail grew from under 8,000 in 1970 to over 110,000 in 2014 and nearly half of them are in small county jails. 

According to Prison Policy Initiative, more than 219,000 women were incarcerated in the U.S. in 2017. When looking at the number of women in local jails, nearly 60 percent of them have not been convicted but are awaiting trial. 

“Small counties are driving the growth of the number of women in jail — with numbers increasing 31-fold between 1970 and 2014,” the Vera report states. 

While female inmate populations have exploded within the last several decades, there is surprisingly little research as to what has caused such an increase. Vera Institute and Prison Policy point to factors like substance abuse, mental illness, trauma and poverty that land women in jail and also inhibit their ability to get out. One thing is clear though — the local jails in Western North Carolina are not equipped to handle the sudden growth.

Jackson County Detention Center only has eight beds for females in its 72-bed facility, Macon County’s 75-bed facility has a dozen female beds, Swain County’s 109-bed facility has 25 beds for females and Haywood’s 148-bed facility can house up to 31 females. 

Sheriffs and jail administrators say their female inmate populations have grown rapidly in the last 10 years. Jackson County and Macon County regularly have to transport female inmates to other county facilities, which drives up jail costs. Macon County’s average female inmate population has grown from eight in 2013 to 21 in 2017. 

Vera’s study, “Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” found that in 1970, 73 percent of counties in the U.S. did not hold one single woman in jail, yet now they are in almost every county. More women are incarcerated in local jails — which includes pre-trial confinement — than are serving sentences in prison. 

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Looking at the female jail populations in Western North Carolina, sheriffs and jail administrators say they are seeing more women being booked on drug-related charges. Out of the 57 people being held at the Jackson County Detention Center on Monday, Aug. 13, 14 were female — four with drug possession charges, four with larceny charges, five with failure to appear and/or probation violations, one charged with solicitation of prostitution, one charged with robbery with a dangerous weapon and one charged with murder. 

According to Vera Institute, a vast majority of women in jail in the U.S. are charged with non-violent offenses — 32 percent property offenses, 29 percent drug offenses and 21 percent for public order offenses. What’s even more telling is that 86 percent of women in jail report having experienced sexual violence in their lifetime and 32 percent of women in jail report having significant mental illness, which is more than double the rate among men in jail.

With her background as a social worker, Marsha Crites — co-founder of the Clean Slate Coalition — said that so much of what people deal with as adults is a result of something that happened to them as a child. Children exposed to a number of traumatic experiences are more vulnerable to mental health and substance abuse issues as adolescents and adults. 

Crites said a majority of women who turn to drugs and alcohol have been abused physically and sexually before the age of 10 and are looking for anyway to numb that unprocessed pain. Addiction to drugs and alcohol can then make women more desperate to fulfill that addiction by stealing or prostituting. 

Crites also hypothesized that a changing society and family structure could be a factor in more women being incarcerated in local jails. 

“I think as more and more women become stressed out about having money to be able to take care of their families, more are turning to drugs and alcohol and then get put in jails and prisons,” she said. 

However they find themselves behind bars, Vera Institute’s study found that being incarcerated can retrigger those past traumas in women and cause further trauma. Unless the symptoms of a recent trauma are dramatically apparent when a woman is arrested or booked, correctional officers can miss it when going through the screening process. 

Once inside the jail, women with a history of sexual abuse or violence are more likely to experience further trauma because jail standards and procedures don’t take those past experiences into consideration. 

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“Undergoing a full-body search for contraband or being supervised by male staff while showering, dressing, or using the bathroom, for example, can trigger painful memories and physical and emotional symptoms of PTSD,” the Vera Institute reported. “In turn, the way survivors typically respond to perceived threats — by fighting, fleeing, or freezing — can lead to punishment, particularly if jail authorities do not know how to detect or respond to the common symptoms of trauma.”

Women being incarcerated can also have a much deeper impact on family ties and stability. Vera reported than some 80 percent of women in jail are mothers and most of them are single parents. Incarcerating a single mom creates an unfortunate series of events — the mom could lose her job and her ability to provide for the family, her children could be placed into the foster care system and her extended family could disown her for her alleged crimes. 

As a result, many women return to their families and communities far worse off than when they entered the jail. As former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in her remarks at the White House Women and the Criminal Justice System Convention, “Put simply, we know that when we incarcerate a woman we often are truly incarcerating a family, in terms of the far-reaching effect on her children, her community, and her entire family network.”

Even the shame of being incarcerated can take a toll and diminish someone’s outlook on life, making them more likely to end up back in jail. Anisa, a current resident at Clean Slate Coalition, has struggled with drug and alcohol abuse for 12 years in addition to being in multiple abusive relationships. While the Clean Slate program is providing her the support she needs to finally get sober, she said her past experience in jail only made her condition worse. 

“You may detox in jail, but then you get out and have to deal with being so ashamed and so you do more of the same,” she said. “The longest I was in was two months, but you feel so depressed and you still feel like people are looking at you like you’re a criminal so you cover it up with drugs and drinking.”

Rehabilitation has helped Anisa regain some self-esteem with other women around her who have gone through similar struggles in their lives whether they’ve been incarcerated or not. 

“I finally have hope something good is going to come out of this for me and for the first time I don’t care if they judge me,” she said. 

For more information about the impact incarceration has on women, visit www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2017women.html and www.vera.org/publications/overlooked-women-and-jails-report.

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