The number of women held in America’s jails has risen more than 20% over the past decade, to an average of more than 115,000 inmates a day, according to Reuters. And more and more are arriving in need of medical attention or with debilitating health conditions that strain the capacity of lockups typically designed for men. Thousands arrive pregnant each year. Most suffer from mental illness – at far higher rates than their male counterparts – and they’re more likely to experience drug and alcohol addiction.
As more women land in America’s local jails, more are dying there, too.
Reuters, analyzing data it obtained from more than 500 U.S. jails, documented 914 deaths of female inmates in those facilities from 2008 to 2019. In a three-year stretch from 2008 to 2010, 171 women died in the jails surveyed. From 2017 to 2019, the number rose to 287 dead, amid a spike in drug and alcohol deaths across U.S. society.
The casualties disproportionately affect Black women. Blacks comprise less than 14% of the U.S. population, but at least 24% of the 914 female victims identified by Reuters were Black. Information on race was unavailable for about 5% of female victims.
Seventy percent of the women who died over the 12-year period – at least 639 inmates – were awaiting trial, unconvicted and presumed innocent of the charges they faced. The death toll doesn’t include a category of collateral fatalities: their infant children.
The female inmate population has risen even as the male population declined, Reuters found, and many women struggle to afford bail, which can lead to longer jail stays.
“These women are showing up with needs, imminent needs, usually during a period of crisis and with trauma,” said Jessica Stroop, a correctional consultant with The Moss Group and former researcher specializing in female inmates at the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. “It puts a massive strain on the jails.”
Jails “need to have gender-responsive programs and staff and training and facilities,” Stroop said. Instead, “women often get treated as a bolt-on” in jails “designed for men.”
Jailers have been slow to adapt their medical programs, staffing models and housing strategies to accommodate the demographic shift, say experts. The Milwaukee jail, which had few cells set aside for women in need, has been under court supervision since 2001 due to repeated findings of inadequate healthcare; the sheriff’s office did not reply to five interview requests and a lawyer representing the county declined comment.
The influx of women in jails “poses significant challenges, because there are limited resources,” said David Mahoney, the sheriff in Dane County, Wisconsin, who is also president of the National Sheriffs’ Association. The prevalence of addictions, mental illness and pregnancy “is a strain” requiring more personnel, housing and medications, he said.
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