The women's prison population increased in Alabama by 66 percent between 2002 and 2013, driven almost entirely by a surge in the number of white women behind bars, reported The Birmingham News. About 50 percent of women in prison have been convicted of non-violent offenses, according to data provided by the Alabama Sentencing Commission, compared to 25 percent for the entire prison population, which is more than 90 percent male.
The reasons for the influx of white women into prison aren't entirely clear. Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, has documented dramatic changes in the racial makeup of female prisoners across the country. He said tough sentencing for drug crimes accounts for much of the growth in the number of incarcerated women, driven by the decline of crack - which was more prevalent in inner cities - and the rise of meth and opioids in rural areas.
Incarceration is just one symptom of deeper problems affecting white women, especially those with little education who live in rural areas, Mauer said. Demographers last year noted a rare decline in life expectancy for this group, driven by a surge in deaths from alcohol, drugs and suicide. Deaths among middle-aged women in small cities, towns and rural communities have risen the most, according to economists Ann Case and Angus Deaton.
Many of the same things that are killing rural American women - including mental illness and substance abuse - are also sending them to prison, Mauer said. The loss of factory and agriculture jobs have jolted Alabama communities once anchored by coal mines, lumber mills and textile plants. Jobless residents increasingly turn to drugs and crime. Rural communities are now struggling with the same problems that used to be linked to inner cities, Mauer said.
"Black communities have been hit with economic problems for the last hundred years," he said. "There may be more support from churches and within the community for people who are struggling in black communities. Some of these white communities are dealing with these problems for the first time."
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