Most female prisoners are Black

March 23, 2005

By: Monica M. Lewis,, March 23, 2005

From 1980 to 2000, the number of women in prison increased nearly twice as fast as the number of men.

Black women are three-fourths of the record-setting number of females in state and local prisons, according to a criminal justice expert.

"The penetration of the prison system into the Black family is extraordinary," Vincent Schiraldi, of the Justice Policy Center, told

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 101,179 women were in state or federal prisons by the end of 2003, the first time the number of females behind bars exceeded 100,000. In 1990, there were just 44,000 women in state or federal prisons.

Black women are being imprisoned at rates far outweighing women of other races, said Paige M. Harrison, a Bureau of Justice statistician who co-authored the report. With an incarceration rate of 185 per 100,000 women, Black women were more than twice as likely as Hispanic women and nearly five times more likely than white women to be in prison in 2003.

Ironically, the largest share of these Black women are imprisoned in "red states" those states in which a majority of voters backed George W. Bush in November¹s presidential election. According to exit polls, Bush¹s pledge to defend their values and traditional family structure resonated with many people in these "red states," which include the South and many Western states.

Three of these states Mississippi, Oklahoma and Louisiana imprisoned more than 100 of every 100,000 female residents, Harrison said. Rhode Island, considered a traditionally liberal Northern state, had the lowest female incarceration rate, with 10 per 100,000.

"The Southern region has had higher rates of arrests, convictions and incarcerations," Harrison said. "This isn¹t anything new. Tougher sentencing ultimately affects who and how many people go to prison.

Schiraldi, the Justice Policy Center¹s executive director, said the high number of Black women in state and federal prisons is "having a profound impact throughout the Black community in a way that¹s just not so within the white community."

The Bureau of Justice Statistics said that while the incarceration rate of men has grown at a slower rate in recent years, the growth of women inmates has increased over the last decade. From 1990 to 2000, the average annual growth rate for women was 7.6 percent and just 5.9 percent for men, said Harrison.

A majority of women of all races, Harrison said, were imprisoned for illegal drug offenses, with smaller percentages having been convicted of violent offenses, such as murder, manslaughter and assault or fraud.

Harrison believes the growing number of female inmates has more to do with tougher sentencing than individual behavior. That could be a leading reason why the states with the highest rate of female inmates are in the South, which has a reputation for being tough on crime.

"Democrats, in some respect, have punted on this issue, while it¹s been the Republicans who¹ve been tough on crime and more willing to experiment with solutions," Schiraldi said.

"Part of it is just being tough on crime," he continued. "But in some respect, it¹s part of the legacy of Jim Crow laws. African-Americans have gone from being enslaved to being imprisoned."