The Truth About Women of Color Behind Bars

The Truth About Women of Color Behind Bars

Women on Lockdown

Five years ago, Netflix debuted the hit television series, “Orange Is the New Black,” bringing the story of women serving time in federal prison to the forefront of popular culture. Now in its sixth season, the show remains a hit.

Although the show is largely fictional, it confronts very real issues around race and justice—and has nourished an ongoing discussion about mass incarceration in the United States. Incarcerated women, and especially women of color, are often ignored in this conversation, but a quick look at statistics indicates this should not be the case.

Although men outnumber women behind bars, U.S. prisons and jails now house the largest female prisoner population on earth. Over 219,000 women are currently serving sentences, and this number continues to grow every year. Between 1980 and 2014, the number of women in prison or jail in the U.S. increased more than 700 percent—almost twice the rate (416 percent) men experienced.

Shows like "Orange is the New Black" give viewers a glimpse into prison life for women in general, but they also call needed attention to the overrepresentation of women of color (WOC) in the criminal justice system. Only 36 percent of women in the U.S. identify as women of color (which includes many racial groups not categorized as white), yet WOC make up nearly 50 percent of the female prison population (and 2/3rds of local jail populations). African American women are three times more likely to be in prison than white women, and Latina women are 69 percent more likely to be imprisoned.

At Logikcull, we are committed to the idea that technology can help make justice more affordable, accessible, and expedient. We're proud of our work with the Legal Advocacy Project and Uncommon Law, and as part of this mission, we've produced the following infographic about women and behind bars. Read on for more powerful statistics, facts, and figures about women of color and sexual minority women in U.S. prisons and jails.

Women-of-Color-Behind-Bars_Intro and Juvenile Sentencing

Disparities in Juvenile Sentencing

The demographics of America’s women prisoner population are extreme, but not surprising, considering the discrimination that occurs at each level of the justice system. This kind of racial disparity doesn't happen overnight.

New data gathered by the Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C.-based research center, indicates that discrimination starts early. Racial disparities in female sentencing are present even in juvenile courts. Like their older counterparts, girls (aged 12-17) of color are more likely to be incarcerated than white girls. African American girls are 3.5 times more likely to end up in a juvenile justice facility than white girls, while Native American girls are 4 times more likely to be imprisoned. Roughly 134 out of 100,000 Native American girls will be incarcerated at some point, compared to 110 out of 100,000 African American girls and 32 out of 100,000 white girls.

But the imbalance doesn't end there. In prison, girls of color who have been abused are more likely to be labeled as "offenders" and punished, rather than referred to mental health services— a phenomenon that often results in longer sentences, increasing their exposure to the criminal justice system and directly contributing to adult disparities.

Women-of-Color-Behind-Bars_Profiling and Sexual Harrassment

Racial Profiling in the Criminal Justice System

For women of color, unequal treatment begins before anyone is even charged with a crime. In San Francisco, for example, black women get pulled over for traffic offenses 17 times more often than white women, and they are arrested at a rate 13 times higher than women of all other races combined. This skewed enforcement gets WOC into the justice system, putting them at increased risk of imprisonment before a judge or jury even sees their case.

And once they are charged, the disparity only gets worse. Not only is a black woman more likely than a white woman to be arrested at routine traffic stop, she is also more likely to be convicted than a white woman (or man) for the same crime. Women of all races use drugs at approximately the same rate, but women of color are imprisoned at much higher rates for drug-related offenses. Women in state prisons are more likely than men to be incarcerated for a drug or property offense, and 54 percent of women convicted of a drug crime in California are WOC.


Sexual Harassment and Transgender Women Behind Bars

Male and female inmates experience similar rates of racial discrimination, but some realities of prison life disproportionately impact women and sexual minorities. In 2004, allegations of staff sexual misconduct were made in all but one state prison in the U.S., and the number of allegations per year has tripled in the past decade, despite new national standards on rape prevention. In 2018, for example, seven corrections officers from the same New Jersey prison were charged with sexual abuse—enough to ignite a federal civil rights investigation.

Sexual misconduct is now a national problem. A 2014 Justice Department study found that allegations of sexual abuse in prisons are on the rise, and women of color, low income women, and LGBTQI women are most vulnerable to abuse. Between 2009 and 2011, females represented only seven percent of all state and federal prison inmates, but they accounted for 33 percent of staff-on-inmate victims. Twenty percent of those incidents involved physical force or abuse of power on the part of male staff, and women of color were three times more likely to be assaulted by staff than white women.

In the general prison population, one in 25 inmates report experiencing sexual assault while incarcerated, but that number increases dramatically for transgender and sexual minority inmates. Currently, the Bureau of Prisons instructs officers to use “biological sex,” rather than gender identity, to place inmates, and this policy puts transgender inmates, especially those who have already physically transitioned, at increased risk for harassment and assault. A U.C. Irvine study of California prisons found that transgender women in men’s prisons are 13 times more likely to be sexually abused than other inmates, and a 2012 survey of more than 600 correctional facilities found that more than one in three transgender inmates had been sexually assaulted in the past year.

Add race and sexual orientation, and the numbers only get worse. Nine out of 10 trans women of color report facing extortion by law enforcement agents, and gay, lesbian, and bisexual inmates are five times more likely to experience sexual victimization than their straight peers.


Justice starts with a clear understanding of the problem, and the numbers don’t lie: women of color disproportionately make up the rising number of women behind bars, and they are often the victims of unfair sentencing and sexual abuse once incarcerated.

But there are still areas of hope. Technology is making it easier for advocates to fight discrimination (and harness new techniques like DNA testing to increase accuracy in the justice system), while organizations like Uncommon Law provide a pathway out of incarceration.

In today's uncertain political climate, more and more people are advocating for common-sense reforms.The challenge is to expand the conversation and work toward solutions for racial profiling, ineffective sentencing laws, and sexual assault in prison.

This post was originally published in October 2015. It has been updated with more information and up-to-date statistics.

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