Twenty-five U.S. states have higher incarceration rates for women than any country in the world, according to a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative.
Researchers compared incarceration rates for women in each U.S. state with the equivalent rates for women around the world, and ranked women’s incarceration globally, treating each U.S. state as if it were an independent country.
The results are striking. West Virginia incarcerates women at a higher rate than any other jurisdiction on Earth, confining 273 women out of every 100,000. New Hampshire’s incarceration rate for women is on par with Russia’s, and New York’s is on par with Rwanda’s. Illinois’ level of incarceration is equivalent to that of El Salvador, a country where, as the authors point out, women are jailed for having miscarriages and abortion is a crime.
Even Rhode Island, which has the lowest incarceration rate for women in the United States, would have the 15th highest incarceration rate in the world if it were its own country.
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It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the United States has an incarceration problem, Aleks Kajstura, legal director at the Prison Policy Initiative and co-author of the report told Rewire in an email.
“But within the U.S., some states have a better reputation than others. There’s often a sense of ‘well, at least we’re not Louisiana or Texas.’ But this report shows that once you look at the world outside our borders, even the states that claim low incarceration rates within the U.S. have some of the highest incarceration rates on earth,” Kajstura wrote.
While only 5 percent of the world’s female population lives in the United States, the country accounts for nearly 30 percent of the world’s incarcerated women, with approximately 206,000 women confined in the states today.
The number of women in state and federal prisons jumped by 646 percent between 1980 and 2010, one-and-a-half times the speed at which the incarceration for men increased during the same period, according to the Sentencing Project.
As Rewire reported in the “Women, Incarcerated,” series, because women make up a small proportion of the national incarcerated population, their needs are often neglected in a system designed for men. This has resulted in substandard medical care for pregnant prisoners, and the failure to provide drug treatment and mental health counseling for women struggling with addiction and trauma behind bars.
By placing rates of women’s incarceration into a global context, the authors of the report aim to bring women’s imprisonment in the United States out from the shadows.
As Kajstura wrote, “Our data shows that states cannot remain complacent about how many women they incarcerate.”