Understanding the high rate of female incarceration in the U.S.

Wmc Fbomb Jail Robert Hickerson Unsplash 92018

The United States incarcerates more women than any other nation: Only 5 percent of the world’s female population lives in the United States, but the U.S. accounts for nearly 30 percent of the world’s incarcerated people. Though this number represents a mere 7 percent of the total U.S. prison population — men, and especially men of color, make up the bulk of this nation’s prison population — this number is still unnecessarily high, especially when you take a closer look at why many of these women are incarcerated. Namely, the majority of incarcerated women have been detained for nonviolent crimes, including prostitution, deemed a public-order offense.  

To understand this rate of female incarceration, however, it’s necessary to do some unpacking. Women constitute the fastest-growing group of incarcerated people in the U.S., and this rate is especially prevalent among women held in jails — meaning women who have not been convicted of a crime. Nearly one-third of incarcerated women have been detained for reasons related to sex work or sex work itself. The issue of sex work is complicated, as it is in many cases inextricable from factors such as mental health, unemployment, and drug abuse. Many incarcerated women are actually convicted on charges related to illicit drug abuse; research has shown that up to 85 percent of “streetwalkers,” or sex workers who seek customers in the street, are heroin or crack users. Many sex workers are drug addicts who are seeking a means to fund their illness. The criminalization of hard-core narcotics ultimately exacerbates the complex underlying issues addicts, especially female addicts, face.

It’s then crucial to understand the complex underlying issues that led many women to turn to drug use in the first place. It’s well documented that many people suffering from mental illness turn to narcotics for self treatment. Women in this nation experience mental illness at higher rates than men — 21.7 percent of women compared to 14.5 percent of men — and mental health care in this nation is humiliatingly inaccessible. Mental illness as an underlying factor of incarceration is clear when you consider that 67.9 percent of incarcerated women have a diagnosed history of mental illness as opposed to 25.5 percent of their male counterparts. Sex work can also seem the only financial option for women who dropped out of their education because of pre-existing mental health issues, or students who simply couldn’t afford their exorbitant college tuition.

Yet this catch-22 many women find themselves in is hardly as present in the media as is the stigmatized stereotype of the drug-addicted sex worker as a dehumanized, objectified “junkie whore.” As sex worker Caty Simon wrote in a 2016 article for Alternet, the “Junkie Whore” is “pitiable at best, inhuman at worst.” This dehumanization, she argues, stems from the “criminalization of both drugs and sex work. The viewpoint that sex work and opioid use is inherently degrading, turning their practitioners into amoral community members, is contextless,” according to Simon. “Countless women — your sister on Paxil, your mother on Xanax — are physically dependent on a substance, but most of them don’t in consequence have to raise hundreds of dollars a week … [or] have to worry about arrest and violence.”  Sex workers’ cost of living, Simon concludes, is “higher than anyone else’s” and “every moment of our daily business, from earning that living to getting well, is fraught with fear and danger.”

So why is sex work criminalized in the United States? According to the U.S. Department of State website, sex work “directly contributes to the modern-day slave trade and is inherently demeaning.” First, this rationale fails to distinguish between consensual sex work and nonconsensual sex trafficking. In fact, according to a 2018 Guardian/Observer investigation, jails and prisons across the U.S. are actually routinely used as recruiting grounds for trafficking women into sex work, as pimps will visit incarcerated women, desperate for resources after their time is served, and lure them into dangerous situations.

Second, this argument also hides a sexist, moralistic judgment behind the guise of “protection.” If our country was actually concerned with protecting women, then it wouldn’t respond to sex work by entering these workers into a prison system that perpetuates a cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement. And if the U.S. was actually interested in curbing sex work, it would treat the underlying damaging reasons many women turn to it instead of punishing them after the fact. 40 percent of streetwalkers suffer from PTSD, 47 percent suffer from depression, and 73 percent suffer from anxiety. As Eric Balaban, senior staff counsel of the ACLU National Prison Project, has stated, “Prisons and jails are not hospitals.” They are in fact the antithesis of treatment centers; the current prison structure stands as a revolving door, filtering sex workers in, having them serve time, but ultimately denying them the economic guidance and social and mental support that would make it plausible for these women to find other work that isn’t deemed an American crime.

So instead of dehumanizing and criminalizing sex workers, perhaps the U.S. should consider following Sweden’s model: It is legal to sell sex, but illegal to buy it. This model treats buying sex as a social vice — a notion the U.S. federal government clearly agrees with — but does not treat the women who sell it as criminals. At the end of the day, sex work is often an option pursued by women who lack other options. Incarcerating women for entering this industry and doing what they have to to live, for whatever reason, is reductive as it punishes those who are already being punished.

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