Imprisoning women: The Unintended Victims of Mass Imprisonment

Meda Chesney-Lind, University of Hawaii at Manoa

When the United States embarked on a policy that might well be described as mass incarceration, few considered the impact that this correctional course change would have on women. In the early seventies, about half the states and territories did not even have separate institutions for women inmates, and there were so few women in prison that the system was for all intents and purposes male (97% male in 1970). The long standing correctional pattern of ignoring women laid the foundation for a policy and programmatic crisis, as the number of women sentenced to jail and prison increased six-fold in the last two decades of the twentieth century. While male systems also grew, in the case of women's incarceration dramatic and gendered consequences also began to emerge. How do you handle women in a world built to house presumably violent men? Often a response emerged that "fairness" meant treating women as if they were men; this problematic accommodation emerged along side other unanticipated problems clearly related to undeniable gender difference (including sexual abuse scandals and severe problems with women's health service delivery). Almost overnight, the US confronted an emerging and continuing gender crisis in corrections. .

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Updated 05/20/2006