Brace yourself, because these statistics are upsetting.
1. Women stand a greater chance of illness and injury in prison than men.
It turns out that incarcerated women have higher rates of illness than their male counterparts.
Women in prison are more likely than men to have severe health problems, including such horrors as hepatitis C, HIV, tuberculosis, and sexually transmitted infections.
Even eye health tends to get neglected behind bars, at least for women and girls. According to the Girl’s Health & Justice Institute, a California nonprofit that works to increase care for girls forced into the juvenile justice system, 40 percent of detained girls need glasses to see properly. Only 5 percent ever enter the system with their glasses.
The most disturbing statistic of all also comes from the Girl’s Health & Justice Institute. More than 40 percent of the girls they’ve investigated had “abnormal vaginal examinations”—conditions overwhelmingly consistent with sexual assault.
2. Prison administrators use menstrual periods as a means of control and humiliation.
Depriving women of tampons or sanitary pads is an assault on their dignity. That’s no problem for the administrators of the U.S. prison systems.
Chandra Bozelko, who was incarcerated in Connecticut, reported in The Guardian that women in her institution were given a grand total of 10 pads every month. That’s enough for about two pads a day for the average period, which, as any woman can tell you, is rarely enough.
This deprivation is intentional, suggests Bozelko.
“Prisons control their wards by keeping sanitation just out of reach,” she wrote. “Stains on clothes seep into self-esteem and serve as an indelible reminder of one’s powerlessness in prison.”
Bozelko condemns these tactics, which she has had to live through personally, in no uncertain terms: “Using periods to punish women simply has no place in any American prison,” she wrote.
3. Pregnant women don’t get the care they need.
About one in 25 women are pregnant when they end up behind bars, reports The Atlantic. Still, there aren’t adequate health care resources for pregnant women in most prisons.
The National Women’s Law Center found that 38 states failed to even come close to providing decent prenatal care. Many have no policies on pregnant prisoners at all.
Only two states offer HIV screenings to pregnant women. Only nine require counseling on prenatal nutrition or efforts to make sure pregnant moms get the nutrients they need to give birth to a healthy baby. Forty-three states don’t offer regular medical examinations to pregnant women at all.
Add to this shocking information the fact that women in prison are more likely to have high-risk pregnancies, and the full weight of the problem becomes unendurable. Even the wholly punitive model of criminal justice can’t justify punishing unborn children, and yet that’s exactly what it does.
4. If you do manage to carry a child to term in prison, the actual delivery can be a nightmare.
Giving birth is never easy. It is never painless. And there’s nothing like being behind bars to make it even worse.
At least 22 states don’t have any rules against shackling women as they give birth. A few even require the use of restraints. That’s right: Prison guards in nearly half the states of America may well put a mother in chains while she delivers her baby.
Not only is the psychological impact of such depravity devastating, but restraints can make it harder for health care providers to actually do their jobs.
Restraints make it difficult for doctors to adequately assess the condition of the mother and the fetus, and to provide prompt medical intervention when necessary, reports the National Women’s Law Center.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons did away with shackling women while they deliver in 2008. The states have yet to follow suit.
5. If you’re a woman who lands in prison, odds are you’re already a victim.
A mind-boggling majority of incarcerated women have been victims of every type of abuse long before the judge slams down that gavel. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 79 percent of women in state and federal prisons reported being victims of physical abuse prior to their arrest and subsequent sentencing.
Don’t trust self-reporting? Then turn to a horrific 1999 study of the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York.
Researchers there discovered that 90 percent of the women in that institution had been victims of physical and/or sexual assault out in the real world. More than 80 percent experienced those assaults when they were children.
6. Women’s prisons don’t even provide enough toilet paper.
In 2015, the Correctional Association of New York commissioned a study called Reproductive Injustice: The State of Reproductive Health Care for Women in New York State Prisons.
The far-reaching report uncovered a fact that, while it’s not directly connected to reproductive health, is just as intimate and sensitive for vulnerable women. Prisons, the study confirmed, do not provide women with enough toilet paper.
Researchers conducted a poll with a simple question: “Do you get enough toilet paper each month?” Nearly 70 percent of the respondents answered, “No.” One woman even said to researchers, “We need more toilet paper. We do not have enough to wrap our pads in.”
Another said that she resorted to using “magazines, newspaper, lined paper, and washcloths” by the end of each month. Women with money could buy their own toilet paper, of course. But women with money are rarely the ones who end up behind bars.
7. Poverty is a greater indicator of whether a woman will go to prison than her behavior.
Many people believe that the criminal justice system exploits poverty to justify its existence, and even to raise fortunes for owners of private prisons, if not for state actors. Lots of people are right, and women—particularly women of color—are the leading casualties of the real “war on poverty.”
Poverty is one of the most significant factors in women’s involvement in the criminal justice system, the ACLU has written.
They point out that 80 percent of the incarcerated women involved in a 1994 study made less than $2,000 the year before they ended up in jail. More than 90 percent reported an annual income of less than $10,000.
Forty percent of those women didn’t have a job before they were incarcerated. Thirty percent were receiving state and/or federal aid for basic necessities of life. As a point of comparison, only 8 percent of imprisoned men were on public assistance.
8. More women are going to jail than ever before.
If you’re disturbed by all these facts, this last one should only amplify your disgust. “Women are the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population,” reports the ACLU.
Since 1980, the number of women behind bars has increased by a factor of eight. Whether you look at local jails, state penitentiaries, or federal prisons, there are more women locked up there than ever before. But it’s not because women are all of a sudden committing more crimes.
One of the forces behind this epidemic has been the enforcement of draconian prison sentences. Judges want to appear “tough on crime,” so they issue longer punishments. Politicians want the same thing, so they pass harsh minimum sentencing laws.
As a result, “the number of women serving sentences of more than a year grew by 757 percent between 1977 and 2004—nearly twice the 388 percent increase in the male prison population,” according to the ACLU.
If the information on this list upsets you, please consider donating to one of the justice-reform organizations listed here. They come from the real Piper Kerman, whose story led to the vastly entertaining Netflix original show Orange is the New Black.
The next time you kick back to watch an episode, though, you might pause to consider the plight of real women in real prisons. Netflix is not the primary feature of their lived experience.