Eighty percent are also mothers, with some being the primary caretaker for their children, Vera reported. "In many instances," Cynthia Berry of the Council for Court Excellence said, "children aren't even told their mother is incarcerated."
If their mother is their primary caretaker, children may end up in the foster care system as a result, and mothers may not eventually be reunited with their children after they are released from prison.
Most are in prison for low-level or non-violent offenses. "According to the latest available national data, which are now more than a decade old," Vera reported, "32 percent of women in jail are there for property offenses, 29 percent for drug offenses, and nearly 21 percent for public order offenses."
For the violent offenders, some are serving sentences for violence committed against people who were violent with them, like women retaliating against abusive husbands or boyfriends.
Why has there been such a sharp increase in the number of women behind bars?
There is "very little out there explaining why," Swavola said, but from Vera's findings, "at the very front end, policing practices have come to increasingly focus on low-level, non-violent offenses" like low-level drug possession and disorderly conduct. This would be the result of "broken window" type policing, based on the belief that if smaller infractions are punished, there will be fewer greater infractions.
Because of a "punitive" approach to drug enforcement, she said, there are more women in the prison system.
Yet once they land in prison, they face a system that is hard enough for men to cope with, but one that at least is designed for men. For the women, they face greater threats of abuse and a more severe lack of privacy.
"Women are different from men," Harris told CNA/EWTN News. "Their needs would be different. So unfortunately right now, women are entering prisons that are programmed for men."
The result is that, although time in prison may help men become more hardened criminals, women may exit feeling far more degraded and dejected.
"All of these women have completely physically changed," Harris said. They are visibly lacking self-confidence and staring at the floor. "It's just clear that they are emotionally and mentally devastated."
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They are more likely to be victimized in prison. For instance, while women accounted for only 13 percent of the local jail population between 2009 and 2011, 67 percent of victims of staff-on-inmate sexual victimization were women, as well as 27 percent of inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization, Vera reported.
They may have to endure indignities like male prison officers walking in to their room while they are undressed, Sen. Booker said. Practices common in prison like shackling and searching inmates "can really re-trigger a lot of that trauma," Swavola said.
Also, women prisoners tend to be poorer, which means that they may have less of a chance of having their bail paid or may not be able to afford expenses in prison like basic health necessities, laundry expenses, or phone calls home.
"Some jails charge inmates a per diem fee during their incarceration," Vera reported, "which can leave an individual with thousands of dollars of criminal justice debt upon release."
Prison can be "incredibly destabilizing and disruptive" to a woman's life, Swavola said, especially in the case of a severely mentally ill woman.
Cash bail and "excessive fines and fees" can "trap women in the system," she said.