The Guardian March 8, 2000


Number of women in US prisons doubles

The nation's female inmate population in US state and federal prisons in 
the 1990s doubled, growing far faster than the male population, according 
to a federal study released by the General Accounting Office.

The study, commissioned by Democrat Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, found that 
the majority of women in prison are incarcerated for non-violent crimes, 
are mothers and are incarcerated at great distances from their children, 
and that women in prison are more likely to suffer from HIV infection and 
mental illness than men are.

Female incarceration for violent crimes in state prisons has decreased from 
49 per cent in 1979 to 28 per cent in 1997, and for property crimes from 37 
per cent to 27 per cent in that period.

That means that women are being incarcerated for drug crimes committed 
often to feed drug habits and for less serious property crimes than men, 
Norton said.

"... prison systems have failed to respond effectively to rates of HIV 
infection and mental illness among female inmates that are greater than 
among males and have actually reduced drug treatment  even though non-
violent drug crimes are the major cause for female incarceration", said 
Norton.

"Society has paid no attention to the overcrowding of the female prison 
populations", Norton said.

"Mandatory minimum and repeat offender provisions have had the unintended 
effect of sharply increasing female incarceration in male-pattern 
institutions even though, unlike the males, the female inmates have been 
convicted for overwhelmingly non-violent crimes."

Because females are a small percentage of the nation's prison population, 
fewer prisons are required for them, meaning imprisoned mothers are often 
at great distances from their children, Norton said.

The study reported that 84 per cent of federal and 64 per cent of states' 
female inmates are mothers.

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Acknowledgements: Arthur Santana, Washington Post Staff Writer.

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