Women and the Carceral State

By Chinaechelum Vincent

As the discussion of mass incarceration booms forward, there seems to be a focus on the incarcerated male population. However, it’s extremely necessary that we pause and take a look at the phenomenon occurring before our very eyes. It is often overlooked, but as the ACLU has found, “women are the fastest growing group of incarcerated people in the United States.”[1]Although women only make up 15% of the incarcerated population, in the last 20 years we have seen a 744 percent growth in the female incarceration rate. To make matters worse, every 1 in 5 women is pregnant at the time of the arrest.[2] Especially now during Women’s Month, it is detrimental that we shed light on this issue. As this increase in the number of incarcerated women occurs all over the country, it is necessary to see how Pennsylvania itself fits into this discussion.

Women in Incarceration

(Graph: Wendy Sawyer, January 2018) This graph is a part of the Prison Policy Initiative report, The Gender Divide: Tracking women’s state prison growth.

As seen in the graph above, the incarcerated women’s population in Pennsylvania has been on a steady climb since the 1980s. This is a result of the growing forces of the carceral state, where people are not necessarily committing more crimes, but the criminalization of various acts is increasing. Over-policing also plays a role in this jump. In Pennsylvania alone, it has been estimated that about 40,000 women spend some time behind bars per year.[3]

It is also vital to recognize the more personal effects of incarceration on not only women, but their children and families. The majority of the time, when women are incarcerated in Pennsylvania, the prisons are at least 100 miles from their homes. This means that they are no longer easily accessible to their loved ones. For a child, this lack of communication is detrimental. Even when children see their mothers, they are prohibited from touching her in any way, and if they do, the mother is punished. Sen. Kamala Harris of California has stated, “Having a parent in prison, particularly a mom, makes a child more likely to end up in prison later in life. Eighty percent of current U.S. prisoners have had some experience with child services or the foster system.”[4]

The conditions and treatment of women inside the facilities can also be recognized as horrid. A recent example is Allegheny County Jail where pregnant women were being kept in solitary confinement. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania got involved and found that women were being kept in these conditions for up to 22 days. It was found that, “The women were sent to isolation for minor, nonviolent rules infractions, including possession of too many pairs of shoes in one case and possession of a library book in another.”[5] As we’ve discussed in our past newsletters, the effects of solitary confinement are very harmful to mental health as the women are kept isolated for 23 of 24 hours in a day and are not consistently permitted to shower. The ACLU brought a lawsuit against the prison and was successful in banning solitary for pregnant inmates but noted how disappointing it was that a lawsuit was what it took to bring about better conditions.


People across the country suffer as incarceration rates continue to grow, but the silent growing population of incarcerated women must be recognized and addressed. Often times in this country, women are put on the back burner of discussions, or always seem to come second or are disregarded in large issues. Mass incarceration is a monster in which we are actively working to defeat, but it is essential that we include women in this discussion as they are victims of the ever-growing carceral state as well.

[1] “Incarcerated Women and Health Care”, ACLU Pennsylvania, 27 March 2018.

[2] Johnson, Peak. “6 Takeaways for Philly from a national conference about women behind bars,” The Reentry Project, July 25, 2017.

[3] Johnson, Peak. “6 Takeaways for Philly.”

[4] Johnson, Peak. “6 Takeaways for Philly.”

[5] Schmitt, Ben. “Allegheny County Jail to Stop Putting Pregnant Inmates in Solitary”, Triblive, November 9, 2017.

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