10 Facts About Women in Jails


Although men comprise the majority (93%) of State and local corrections populations, currently more than 1 million adult women are involved in or under the custody and control of the criminal justice system. As of 2012, the number of women in local jails was 90,100 (Minton, 2013). Over the past 30 years, research in the fields of health, mental health, substance abuse, and violence against women coupled with research and practice in criminal justice has revealed that women offenders face challenges that are not only different from their male counterparts, but that also greatly influence their involvement in criminal justice, including jails. This article describes “10 facts” that corrections professionals should know about working with women in jails.

1. Women pose a lower public safety risk than men. Women typically enter the criminal justice system for nonviolent crimes that are often drug and/or property-related. Within correctional facility settings, incidents of violence and aggression committed by incarcerated women are extremely low. Women released from incarceration have lower recidivism rates than their male counterparts; this holds true for rearrests, reconvictions, and returns to correctional facilities with or without new sentences.

2. Women’s pathways to criminal justice are different than men’s. Women entering jails are much more likely to have experienced poverty, intimate partner violence, sexual abuse, and/or other forms of victimization often linked to their offending behavior. Justice-involved women are also much more likely to have co-occurring disorders—in particular, substance abuse problems interlinked with trauma and/or mental illness.

3. Women’s engagement in criminal behavior is often related to their connections with others. Relationships with children, family, and others are often paramount for women. Their exposure to dysfunctional and abusive relationships throughout their lives can elevate their risk for future victimization and the perpetration of violence—and their often unhealthy relationships (with men or others) can lead to their own involvement in crime and criminal justice.

4. Women entering jails and prisons often report histories of victimization and trauma, and continue to be vulnerable to victimization within correctional settings. Trauma such as sexual victimization is often linked to mental health, substance abuse, and relationship difficulties and contributes to criminal pathways for women. Research indicates that traumatic experiences cause chemical and structural changes in the brain, which affect an individual’s future reactions and ability to respond to interventions. In addition, incarcerated women with a history of trauma and accompanying mental health concerns are more likely to have difficulties with jail and prison adjustment and misconduct.

5. Corrections policies and practices have largely been developed through the lens of managing men, not women. Generally, policies and practices in jails (and prisons) do not reflect an understanding of the risk and needs of female offenders because much of the empirical research originally focused on male offenders. In fact, one research study revealed that gender differences were often ignored in assessment and classification procedures for women (Van Voorhis & Presser, 2001). Another more recent survey of State prisons revealed that 30 percent did not have policies unique to women (King & Foley, forthcoming). Another more comprehensive national survey of women’s programs in the criminal justice system indicated that classification, screening, and assessment were not adapted to women.

6. Jail and prison classification systems can result in unreliable custody designations and over-classification of female inmates. Most jail classification systems have not been normed and validated specifically for women; yet they are often used to guide key housing and security decisions. For example, studies on prison classification systems indicate that women re-offend, commit serious misconduct, and return to prison at lower rates than men (Hardyman & Van Voorhis, 2004; Wright, Van Voorhis, Salisbury, & Bauman, 2009). That is, high-risk women look more like medium-risk men, and medium-risk women look more like low-risk men. Emerging research in this area has also highlighted that institutional misconduct, adjustment, and ultimately recidivism among women are more closely linked to specific intervention needs—and to the lack of services and supports to address these needs—than to the current offense severity and criminal history factors typically captured in assessment and classification tools.

7. Gender-informed risk assessment tools can more accurately identify women’s risk and needs. Emerging research suggests that women have different risk factors from men. In addition, these risk factors are not typically included in “gender-neutral” assessments, including depression, psychotic symptoms, housing safety, and parental stress—all related to their criminal offending behaviors.

8. Women are more likely to respond favorably when jail staff members adhere to evidence-based, gender-responsive principles. Emerging research in the area of assessment and classification, case management, and programming is consistently showing more successful outcomes for women when corrections staff use gender-responsive approaches. Understanding trauma and its effects on women, using trauma-informed strategies when interacting with female inmates, and engaging in cognitive problem-solving with female inmates have also been shown to enhance facility safety and security for staff and inmates by reducing inmate–staff and inmate–inmate assaults, misconduct, mental health referrals, and the like.

9. Transition and reentry from jail to the community can be challenging for women. Because of their overwhelming needs, transition and reentry can be especially challenging for women. In addition, consider that more than 66,000 women incarcerated in jails and prisons nationwide are mothers of minor children. They are more likely than men to have primary child-rearing responsibilities and are often single parents. Women report greater levels of poverty than men and less employment history immediately preceding incarceration. Finding “safe” housing where women can live and support their children is very challenging.

10. The cost of overly involving women in criminal justice is high. Given what we now know about women—their low risk, parental responsibilities, and significant needs (mental and physical health, histories of trauma, substance abuse, financial, etc.)—and some of the strategies we can employ to improve their outcomes, it is difficult to reconcile that 60 percent of women released from incarceration are re-arrested and nearly a third are returned to confinement. Most instances of these are for technical violations rather than new crimes, and they often stem from unmet “survival needs,” such as difficulty meeting financial obligations, lower employment skills, or the inability to secure safe housing. The negative impact that involvement with the criminal justice system has—besides the direct cost of incarceration—is generational in that the children of female offenders are also five times more likely to become involved in the criminal justice system (Petersilia, 2003). In addition to cost savings to State and local jurisdictions, implementing gender-responsive practices also helps reduce women’s involvement in the criminal justice system, which benefits women and their families, their communities, and society in the long term.

Evolving research on justice-involved women indicates that focusing on the differences in male and female pathways to criminality, their responses to custody and supervision, and applying gender-informed interventions and treatments yields better results and contributes to more successful outcomes for women offenders. In addition, the safety and security of jails and prisons are enhanced.


Bloom, B., Owen, B., & Covington, S. (2003). Gender-responsive strategies: Research, practice, and guiding principles for women offenders. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections.

Carson, E. & Sabol, W. (2012). Prisoners in 2011. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p11.pdf

Hardyman, P., &Van Voorhis, P. (2004). Developing gender-specific classification systems for women offenders. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections.

King, E., & Foley, J. E. (forthcoming). The state of gender-responsive policy development in corrections: What do we know? Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections.

Maruschak, L. & Parks, E. (2012). Probation and parole in the United States, 2011. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from http://bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ppus11.pdf

Minton, T. (2013). Jail inmates at midyear 2012—Statistical tables. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from http://bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/jim12st.pdf

Ney, B., Ramirez, R. & Van Dieten, M. (2012). Ten truths that matter when working with justice involved women. Silver Spring, MD: National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women. Retrieved from http://cjinvolved women.org/sites/all/documents/Ten_Truths.pdf

Petersilia, J. (2003). When prisoners come home: Parole and prisoner reentry. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. (September 2011). Crime in the United States, 2011. Retrieved from www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2011/crime-in-the-u.s.-2011/tables/table-33

Van Voorhis, P., & Presser, L. (2001). Classification of women offenders: A national assessment of current practice. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections.

Wright, E., Van Voorhis, P., Salisbury, E., & Bauman, A. (2009). Gender-responsive prisons: Lessons from the NIC/UC Gender-Responsive Classification Project. Women, Girls, and Criminal Justice, 10, 85–87, 95–96.


Becki Ney is a Principal with the Center for Effective Public Policy (CEPP) and Project Director of the National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women (NRCJIW). Since founding CEPP in 1981, Ms. Ney has directed numerous national efforts focused on the provision of training and technical assistance to State and local criminal justice agencies in areas such as gender-responsive approaches to women offenders, transition and reentry, jail and prison overcrowding, probation and parole violations and revocations, and local system assessments. She can be contacted at bney@cepp.com or 301–589–9383.