When you talk about mass incarceration, don't overlook the women

The story of women’s prison growth has been obscured by overly broad discussions of the “total” prison population for too long.

In the last decade the female prison population has risen 700%, but we still remain an overlooked population. I recently had a conversation with a man whom was just released from prison. He mentioned how after serving decades in prison he never really thought about women being locked up. He then went on to say that he was sure that women’s time in prison was easier than a man’s time and that we probably got a lot less time than the men. 

His response did not surprise me. After serving a little over eight years in the system, housed in five different prisons and six different county jails, not only did the system design things more for the male population, it seemed like the majority of the resources and conversation were also geared towards the men. Like the jobs available in prison, for example. As a woman, if you were not interested in learning a trade like construction, plumbing, or welding on the inside, your options became very few. By no means am I saying that women cannot show up and show out in these trades. What I’m saying is that there should be more standard options for those of us who don’t want to work in the blue collar field.  When you come home, blue collar jobs seems to be one of the main job resources that your case worker offers you. I’ve watched how the women who’ve completed their apprenticeship on the inside for these jobs often lose out to men when applying for these jobs on the outside.

Looking at this brother who had just spent decades in prison, my heart went out to him. To just cast away a human-being like that behind those dark walls… the mere thought turned my stomach. I’ve always acknowledged that those cages are full of our black and brown men. Many of the women that I did time with acknowledge it as well. We often spoke and prayed for those who had loved ones — boyfriend, husband, father, son, uncle, cousin, friend — in there… even those that we did not know. 

But the thing is, those cages were full of women as well. The story of women’s prison growth has been obscured by overly broad discussions of the “total” prison population for too long. Often times when prison discussion is brought up, men are at the forefront of the conversation. The system is disgusting, unjust, racist, inhumane and lots of other things and we know that those walls are full of men. Unfortunately, I met a lot of women who, by the time I was introduced to them, had already spent years in prison, sentenced to decades or a natural life sentence. I wasn’t and I’m still not sure why some assume that women don’t get lengthy sentences.

Women have specific needs. Studies show that 80% of women in prison are mothers and that most of them are the primary caregiver of a child. Around 2.7 million children have parents in prison. I’ve watched over the years how mothers desperately tried to parent from prison with little or no help. It is known that the majority of women get little support in the system — emotional, financial and visitation.

It is time for us to acknowledge that women are behind bars as well. We should be equally involved in the conversation.


London Croudy is a fellow at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children in Oakland, California.