Facts About Incarcerated Women


Female inmates comprise 6.7% of all inmates in California, yet they are the fastest growing segment of the total prison population. The yearly growth rate for female incarceration is 1.5 times higher than the rate for men. Women now make up a greater percentage of today’s prison population than ever before.

With the advent of mandatory sentencing laws in the mid-eighties, the female prison population has exploded throughout the country. Nationwide the female prison population grew by 592% from 12, 279 in 1977 to 85, 031 in 2001.  In l986 in California the female inmate population was 3, 564. Today the population numbers approximately 13,000. This constitutes a statewide increase of approximately 340 %. According to the California Department of Corrections, every prison in the state is operating at 200% capacity today, at a cost of $43, 429 per inmate.

More women are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses than for any other crime.

In California 78 % of women are incarcerated for non-violent crimes which are usually drug related. Despite the fact that drug addiction is one of the primary causes of female incarceration, there are very few drug treatment options available to incarcerated women in this state. The California Institution for Women and Valley State Prison for Women each offers a substance abuse program that provides treatment to approximately 50 women at a time. Criteria for entering the program is very narrowly drawn, and often excludes the women who have the greatest need for treatment.

The majority of women in prison are mothers, and they are usually the primary caretakers of the children. The huge increase in female incarceration has significant impact on children and families. An incarcerated woman is at risk of losing her children to the foster care system, and many of the women eventually lose their parental rights altogether. The legal process usually commences while the women are in county jail where there is no legal assistance available and notification of court proceedings is unreliable at best. The separation from family, and the risk of losing their children, is one of the most devastating consequences of female incarceration.

A 1995 study of women in the California prison system found that 71% had experienced ongoing physical abuse prior to the age of 18, and 62% reported ongoing physical abuse
after the age of 18. 41% of the women reported sexual abuse prior to the age of 18 and 41% reported sexual abuse after the age of 18. (Barbara Bloom, Barbara Owen, Profiling the Needs of California’s Female Prisoners)  Despite these numbers the Department of Corrections does not offer counseling programs for victims of sexual abuse. The only program for victims of physical abuse is the inmate activity group, Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA) where the women try to help themselves and each other to deal with their abuse.

Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles Of Incarcerated Women

Drawing by “RJ,” La Vista Correctional Facility, Colorado

In 1974, women imprisoned at New York’s maximum-security prison at Bedford Hills staged what is known as the August Rebellion. Protesting the brutal beating of a fellow prisoner, the women fought off guards, holding seven of them hostage, and took over sections of the prison.

Why do activists know about Attica but not the August Rebellion? Resistance Behind Bars documents collective organizing and individual resistance among women incarcerated in the U.S. and challenges the reader to question why these instances and efforts have been ignored and why many assume that women do not organize to demand change. It fills the gap in the existing literature, which has focused mostly on the causes, conditions and effects of female imprisonment.

Women have significantly disrupted the daily operations of their prison to protest injustices and demand change. More often, however, they have employed less visible means such as forming peer education groups, clandestinely organizing ways for children to visit mothers in distant prisons and raising public awareness about their conditions.

By emphasizing women’s agency in resisting individually as well as organizing collectively against their conditions of confinement, Resistance will spark further discussion and research on incarcerated women’s actions and also galvanize much-needed outside support for their struggle.


Women Executed in America

As of December 31, 2012 there were 61 women on death row. This constitutes 1.93% of the total death row population of 3,146 persons. (NAACP Legal Defense Fund).

In the past 100 years, over 40 women have been executed in the U.S, including 12 since 1976. See, Women Executed in the U.S. Since 1900 for the date, state, race, and method of each execution.

Much of this information is taken from “Death Penalty For Female Offenders, January 1973 through December 31, 2012 [PDF]” by Victor L. Streib, Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University College of Law, with periodic annotations by DPIC (Please see the full-text of the report for more details.)


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