Academia has an obligation to highlight the voices and experiences of cis and trans women—especially Black women, Indigenous women, and women of color. But as research around mass incarceration shifts to acknowledge the gendered and racialized realities of incarceration, I've seen my fellow academics continually ignore the ways in which women—especially Black, Indigenous, and women of color—are affected by the carceral system. From an abolitionist perspective, research and policy that aims to reduce, and ultimately demolish, the effects of the carceral system on our society cannot afford to render this growing population invisible. We are facing a glaring lack of research, one that puts us at risk of bolstering policies that expand the carceral system, rather than shrinking it. 

While academia has discussed racial inequality for well over a century,1 critical conversations around race, racialized spaces, and institutionalized racism are still just beginning.2 In academic spaces, intersectional approaches to research about racialized inequality have become more prevalent3 as scholars increasingly use their research to highlight how having more than one marginalized identity compounds various societal disparities. Still, few scholars are willing discuss the compounded inequalities facing incarcerated women, especially incarcerated Black women.4 

The distinct ways in which men and women interact with the criminal legal system are likely to mirror other institutions.

From arrest, to sentencing, to consequences following incarceration, academic research has already shown the disproportionate and unequal nature of the U.S. criminal legal system.5-9 However, discussions of racism and inequality seem to focus on the experiences of men. While men make up the vast majority of those tethered to the criminal legal system, women face gendered and racialized inequalities that only compound disparity across generations. The intersectionality of race and gender needs to be more present in these conversations of discrimination and inequality.10

So, where are all the women? 

Nationally representative data sets often survey very few people tethered to the carceral system, especially women. Because of this, it is difficult to obtain data on incarcerated women, and it could be argued that data on incarcerated men is more accessible. However, today, the incarceration rate for women is skyrocketing—so much so that the rate of incarceration for women is increasing much faster than that of men. 

Since 1978, the number of women in state prisons nationwide has grown at over twice the pace of men, to over 9 times the size of the 1978 population. Data and visualization by the Prison Policy Initiative.

Especially as the demographics of the incarcerated population shift, the need for data on incarcerated women increases. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, as of 2019, there were more than 200,000 incarcerated girls and women, a 700 percent increase over the last four decades.11 This figure is staggering— the rate has increased so fast that the proportion of women in the total incarcerated population has fundamentally changed this country's incarceration demographics on the whole. Additionally, this number does not even include the number of women who have records but have not been sentenced to incarceration. 

Women are much more likely than men to be sentenced to probation, which has its own highly punitive surveillance system. Millions of women are incarcerated or tethered to the criminal legal system through legal financial obligations, probation, or parole. We need better data, though, to better understand the unique impact that the carceral system has on women's lives.

Though fewer women are incarcerated than men, that does not make their smaller share of the carceral burden insignificant, nor does it mean that it doesn't have an impact. Families and communities, especially in the South, are held on the backs of women, especially Black women. When we start to incarcerate Black, Indigenous, and women of color at an astronomical rate, we incite generational trauma, disadvantage, and community erosion.

See also:

Because men and women are affected by the carceral system differently, academics have an obligation to understand how incarceration exacerbates inequalities uniquely for women. One might argue that female incarceration speaks less to our understanding of the mechanisms through which the carceral system exacerbates inequality: If fewer women are caught up in the system, the overall population is less generalizable to the general public. That is, because women make up a smaller portion of the incarcerated population, it can be argued that the experiences of incarcerated women tell us less about the experiences of the incarcerated population overall. However, generalizability, a term used to describe one's ability to compare a specific population to the general population, or other subpopulations, is lacking in this case for two reasons. 

First, women are selected into the carceral system in the same way that men are: through mechanisms of power, control, and inequality. Through factors related to race, socioeconomic status, and neighborhood, even men are at risk of incarceration at unequal rates; wealthy white men are always going to be more protected than poor Black, Indigenous, and men of color. The same goes for women. The distinct ways in which men and women interact with the criminal legal system are likely to mirror other institutions. For example, inequality in the healthcare system, housing, or even employment might mirror how the carceral system unequally punishes poor and marginalized men and women. Because men and women enter the carceral system in the same way, as the rate of incarceration for women increases, their stories become more generalizable. This shift matters because women's incarceration is now more important than ever for our collective understanding of structural inequality and the criminal legal system.

Data on the male incarcerated population fails to answer questions on the unique experiences of motherhood and the precarity of access to women's health behind bars.

Second, the argument that generalizability is more applicable to the male incarcerated population fails to consider the unique consequences of confinement that women face related to motherhood and reproductive health. That is, it does not matter if the number of incarcerated women is smallthe magnitude of barriers to accessing reproductive health care cannot be understood without amplifying the voices and experiences of women and gender minorities. Incarcerated women, and individuals who experience menstruation, face severe difficulties accessing contraception, consistent gynecological care, and technologies like sonograms while pregnant. Additionally, the generational effects of incarceration are exacerbated when mothers are separated from their children. Scholarship has shown significant decreases in behavioral and academic performance for children when parents, but especially when mothers, are incarcerated.12 Data on the male incarcerated population fails to answer questions on the unique experiences of motherhood and the precarity of access to women's health behind bars. 

I urge scholars, policymakers, and those who engage in related discourse to think critically about incarceration and gender in the context of abolition—without doing so we risk expanding the carceral system rather than dismantling and protecting those who are affected by it. Some states have proposed, or already built, new spaces for mothers to be with their children in the first year of life. Although this speaks to the additional precarity that children face when their mothers are incarcerated, we should be wary about any policies that expand the carceral system—especially when those programs include imprisoning babies instead of freeing their mothers. Additionally, criminal legal scholarship needs to problematize gender in future work: although surveys have just begun to ask incarcerated individuals about their gender identities, future work should continue to amplify the voices and experiences of gender minorities under carceral confinement. We need to include system-impacted individuals, women, mothers, and parents generally into the conversations around carceral (in)justice and inequality, especially in academic spaces; otherwise, I fear we will face a new era of mass incarceration for women and mothers. 


  1. Bois, W. E. B. Du. The Souls of Black Folk. The Souls of Black Folk. Yale University Press, 2015. 10.12987/9780300213720.
  2. Morris, Aldon. The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology. The Scholar Denied. University of California Press, 2015.
  3. Crenshaw, Kimberlé. "On Intersectionality: Essential Writings." Faculty Books, March 1, 2017. https://
  4. Willingham, Breea C. "Black Women's Prison Narratives and the Intersection of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in US Prisons." Critical Survey 23, no. 3 (2011): 55–66.
  5. Lantz, Brendan, Marin R Wenger, and Chloe J Craig. "What If They Were White? The Differential Arrest Consequences of Victim Characteristics for Black and White Co-Offenders." Social Problems, September 8, 2021, spab043.
  6. Kohler-Hausmann, Issa. Misdemeanorland: Criminal Courts and Social Control in an Age of Broken Windows Policing. Misdemeanorland. Princeton University Press, 2018.
  7. Papachristos, Andrew V., David M. Hureau, and Anthony A. Braga. "The Corner and the Crew: The Influence of Geography and Social Networks on Gang Violence." American Sociological Review 78, no. 3 (June 1, 2013): 417–47.
  8. Peterson, Ruth D., and Lauren J. Krivo. Divergent Social Worlds: Neighborhood Crime and the Racial-Spatial Divide. Russell Sage Foundation, 2010.
  9. Quillian, Lincoln, and Devah Pager. "Black Neighbors, Higher Crime? The Role of Racial Stereotypes in Evaluations of Neighborhood Crime." American Journal of Sociology 107, no. 3 (November 2001): 717– 67.
  10. Dholakia, Nazish. "Women's Incarceration Rates Are Skyrocketing." Vera Institute of Justice, May 17, 2021.
  11. Dholakia, Nazish. "Women's Incarceration Rates Are Skyrocketing." Vera Institute of Justice, May 17, 2021.
  12. Dallaire, Danielle H., Janice L. Zeman, and Todd M. Thrash. "Children's Experiences of Maternal Incarceration- Specific Risks: Predictions to Psychological Maladaptation." Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology 44, no. 1 (January 2, 2015): 109–22.

More in Incarceration & prisons:

Chloe Craig is a Ph.D. student of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on reproductive justice and inequality within the carceral system. She is a policy associate for the Texas Center for Justice and Equity and worked on the most recent women’s report. She also is a part of the Texas Prison Education Initiative, an organization that provides credit-bearing courses to correctional facilities across Texas.