Hard Hit: The Growth in the Imprisonment of Women, 1977-2004

Hard Hit

Women's prison population up 757 percent since 1977; women particularly sensitive to overall prison population growth trends.

Women are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population, surpassing male prison population growth in all 50 states and climbing 757 percent between 1977 and 2004. The majority of women in U.S. prison systems are incarcerated for nonviolent drug and property offenses. Many suffer from chemical dependency, mental illness or both.

These women face the same barriers to success as men when they leave prison that confront men in the criminal justice system: lack of decent housing, limited employment opportunities, denial of public benefits, and social stigmatization. Women also find themselves caught in "Catch-22" situations as they try to reunify their families. For example, women may be denied custody of their children because they lack secure housing, and denied housing benefits because their children are not with them.

"The Punitiveness Report-Hard Hit: The Growth in Imprisonment of Women, 1977-2004" takes an in-depth look at female prison population growth patterns and regional trends, and it provides the first state-by-state analysis of female imprisonment from 1977 to 2004, with findings from all 50 states. The report finds that the rise in the female prison population has been punctuated by growth spikes that reached higher, lasted longer and often began earlier than those affecting men.

Median annual change in state prison populations: 1980 to 2004

Median change in state prison populations

The pace of growth has fallen since 2000, but the rate at which women are added to prison each year remains high. Women continue to lead the growth trend in states where prison populations are expanding rapidly. But states that experienced little or no prison population growth since 1999 saw growth rates for female prisoners fall below growth rates for males.

Northeastern states experienced especially rapid female prison population growth during the 1980s but saw growth rates fall during the 1990s. Since 2000, the total number of women housed in northeastern state prisons has fallen by 11 percent. This regional trend was driven by population declines in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Mountain states saw an explosion in female imprisonment over the past 27 years, with the total female population rising over 1,600 percent -- twice the growth recorded elsewhere. The pace of growth has recently picked up in the Mountain states, with 38 percent of all population growth since 1979 taking place in the past five years. Mountain and Southern states imprison women at the highest rates in the nation.

Median female imprisonment rate by region: 1977 to 2004

The report also documents how the use of imprisonment for women varies enormously by state as well as by region. Among the state-specific findings:

  • One out of every 800 women in Oklahoma is serving a prison sentence while Massachusetts imprisons one woman for every 9,000 state residents.
  • Women make up over 12 percent of state prisoners in Montana but just 3.2 percent of prisoners in Rhode Island.
  • Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire and North Dakota have all seen greater than 20-fold increases in their female prison populations since 1977. Michigan and North Carolina experienced four-fold growth over the same period.
  • In North Dakota, West Virginia and Oregon--where total prison population growth rates remain high--female prison populations have grown at twice the rate of male populations since 1999. But in New York and New Jersey, women are leading a downward trend in the states' overall prison populations.

The report was coauthored by Justice Strategies analysts Judy Greene and Kevin Pranis, and Dr. Natasha Frost of Northeastern University, and commissioned by the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice of the Women's Prison Association.

Click here to read the full Women's Prison Association report.