March, 2020

U.S. Briefing Report on
Civil Rights of Women in Prison

A new detailed report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights examined the civil rights of women in prison. Following numerous findings, the report’s authors concluded with an offering of thirty-four recommendations, a number of which will be referenced below.

The number of women incarcerated in state and federal prisons has substantially increased over the years; between 1980 and 2016, for example, the number of women incarcerated increased by about 730%. In 2016, there were about 112,000 incarcerated women – about 7% of the total prison population – in state and federal prisons. About 88% of those are serving sentences in state prisons, and about 7,000 of those women are serving life sentences. The report found that, between the years 2000 and 2016, the incarcerated rate for women increased in four states while decreasing for men. In Michigan, women were incarcerated at a rate of 44 per 100,000, which was below the national rate of 57 per 100,000. In contrast, in Oklahoma, women were incarcerated at the rate of 149 per 100,000. In comparison to men, women are imprisoned at a higher rate for non-violent drug-crimes, larceny, and fraud offenses.

he report found that women were less likely than were men to have been employed full-time prior to the incarceration. About 73% of women inmates showed signs of mental health issues, in contrast to about 55% of male prisoners, and in contrast to about 11% of the general population. About 40% of the prison population has chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes and high-blood pressure. About 20% of the prison population has an infectious disease, in contrast to about 5% of the general population. The rate of women in prison with HIV is twice that of their male counterparts. Almost 4% of the women incarcerated were pregnant, and, a report for one year showed there were, in the prisons, 753 live-births, 46 miscarriages, and 7 stillbirths or newborn deaths. The women giving birth in prison were less likely than non-incarcerated women to have a preterm birth (10% of live-births, generally, but 6% of in-prison births).

The report found that prisons traditionally were not designed primarily for the mental health or physical care of the prisoners. Prison systems spend about one-fifth of the prison expenses on prisoner-related health matters, but the annual expenditures vary greatly state-by-state. For example, the annual average in Louisiana in 2015 was $2,173.00 per inmate, while in California it was $19,796.00 per inmate. Co-pays are required at some institutions, which leads some inmates – about 70% of women in one report – to forego medical services due to the costs involved.

Once incarcerated, the report found, women faced a greater likelihood of disproportionate disciplinary action than did men for similar conduct, and they were more likely to lose good conduct credits – potentially affecting eligibility for earlier release – than were men. Also affecting the chance at earlier release was the fact that women, overall, were less likely than men to be able to provide information to law enforcement that might yield a benefit for the prisoner. Diversionary programs, such as boot camp that could lead to earlier release from a prison sentence, were not as available to women as they were to men.

Minority women were, generally, incarcerated at a greater rate than were white women. For example, Native American women were incarcerated at a rate about 6.7 times greater and black women at a rate of about 3.9 times that of white women. However, by 2016, the incarceration rate for black women decreased by 52% since 2000, increased 44% for white women, increased 12% for Latina women, and increased 31% for Native American and Pacific Islanders.

Native American women were found to have less pre-incarceration access to social services than other women, and that was found to factor into a higher incarceration rate. For example, in Montana, where Native American women are about 3% of the state’s overall population, they comprised 36% of the women in prison. Similarly, in North Dakota, Native American women were about 5% of the state’s population but were 34% of the prison population. The inadequate access to necessary social services was a significant factor in subsequent prison sentences; a survey of district court judges revealed that 70% of the judges indicated that prison sentences were imposed on non-violent, low-risk Native American women to ensure access to rehabilitative and social services that were unavailable, but available in the prison system.

LGBT women are incarcerated at a greater rate than are other women. For example, according to a 2017 study referenced in the report, 42% of the women in prison are in a sexual minority, and 33% identify as lesbian or bisexual. LGB inmates are more likely (28% vs 18%) than non-LGB prisoners to be housed in solitary confinement or segregated housing. Transgender prisoners face additional challenges, including that they are about ten times more likely than the general prison population to be sexually assaulted while incarcerated.

Studies show that prolonged isolation, as in protective or segregated custody, adversely affects the physical and psychological health of prisoners and, also, lessens a prisoner’s opportunities to access rehabilitation programs that are otherwise available to the general prison population and that might facilitate earlier release. Still, in many states, trans-women are often – to reduce the risk of abuse, and not because of misconduct – placed into solitary confinement or protective custody.

Women faced a greater risk of sexual and physical abuse than men. The risk of abuse generally declines for males after childhood, while the risk of such abuse for women continues through their juvenile and into their adult years. Women prisoners reported prisoner-on-prisoner sexual incidents at a greater rate than did male prisoners (in federal prisons, 6.9% vs 1.7%; in state prisons, 13.7% vs 4.2%).

Women, particularly those in federal custody, are often incarcerated at great geographical distances from family. For example, the 25 federal women’s facilities available results in about 25% of the women prisoners being housed more than 500 miles from their prior residences. While video-conferencing systems are available at about 55% of the facilities, the inmate incurs costs for those services. Additionally, federal laws prohibit – with lifetime bans – formerly incarcerated persons with certain drug-related convictions from accessing a number of services, including federal loans, housing, and assistance programs, such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). For example, it is estimated that, between 1996 and 2011, 180,000 women were affected by federal bans. Some studies suggest that the bans lead to an increased risk of recidivism (mostly of theft and drug-delivering offenses), less access to residential treatment programs, and an increase in food and housing insecurity.

Incarcerated women who are mothers face a greater risk of losing parental rights – even where there have been no allegations of abuse – than do their male counterparts. Those women who were the primary caregivers prior to incarceration were five times more likely to have their children placed into foster care. Also, a study conducted between 2006 and 2016, and covering 3 million parents, found that about 1 in 8 incarcerated parents lost parental rights.

Women in prison have more programs available to them than do male prisoners, but the programs tend to be more stereotypically gender-related; for example, the women have programs such as cosmetology, or cooking and sewing courses, while the males may have more vocational and trade-related programs available. However, in Michigan, a relatively new program established a vocational village for women prisoners, where up to 180 women can get training and certification in areas such as 3D printing, computer coding, and other areas. More than 70% of the women who successfully completed the new program were subsequently employed.

Newer policies and programs that are gender-responsive and trauma-informed, now in use in some prison systems, have shown positive results. A gender-responsive, trauma-informed approach includes a multi-dimensional focus that considers social and cultural factors, and does not “coddle” the inmate, but provides the prisoner an opportunity to heal from prior trauma, learn necessary skills, and become better prepared for reentry into society. For example, the Women’s Risk Needs Assessment (WRNA), in use in about a dozen states, provides a method to “case-plan specific areas of risk and need that justice-involved women have.” Two years after the WRNA was started in Alabama, for example, the women prisoners had gone from 30% of the women classified as moderate to high risk and 47% as low-risk, to 20% classified as moderate to high-risk and 70% as low-risk. A Massachusetts women’s prison adopted a gender-responsive, trauma-informed practice and subsequently saw a 62% decrease in assaults against staff, a 54% decrease in inmate-on-inmate assaults, a 46% decrease in inmate fights, a 23% decline in segregation placements, and a 6% decline in disciplinary reports. Additionally, there were 60% fewer suicide attempts and a 13% decline in reported self-injury incidents. 

Among the recommendations of the report are: a) the restoration by Congress of assistance eligibility for former prisoners; b) amendment of the Prison Litigation Reform Act to eliminate unnecessary barriers to legal representation in raising claims of constitutional violations; c) continued development and implementation by the National Institute of Corrections of evidence-based, gender-informed policies and trainings; d) modification of inmate-classification systems to reflect gender-specific characteristics of women entering prison, so that inaccurate and unnecessary classification is avoided; e) transgender prisoners should be placed in appropriate facilities without unnecessary segregation or other such restrictions on freedom; f) prisons should be provided with adequate staffing to ensure “meaningful hours” for family visiting; g) all prisons should prohibit the shackling of pregnant women prisoners; h) women’s hygiene products should be provided to the inmates free of charge; i) prison healthcare should be standardized, with adequate provision for mental health care need and programs; j) prison discipline policies should be evidence-based and trauma-informed; k) restrictive housing should not be the only remedy for LGBT prisoners reporting sexual assault; and l) vocational programs and opportunities should not be limited by, or based upon, gender stereotypes. 

Sources:  TCR Staff, “Women in Prisons Suffer Higher Rates of Trauma Than Men: Report,”, February 26, 2020: 
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “Women in Prison: Seeking Justice Behind Bars,” February, 2020:

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor