The number of women held in U.S. jails has risen more than 20 percent over a decade, to 115,000. More are arriving in need of medical attention or with debilitating health conditions that strain the capacity of lockups typically designed for men, Reuters reports. Thousands arrive pregnant each year. Most suffer from mental illness, at far higher rates than their male counterparts, Reuters, analyzing data from 500 U.S. jails, documented 914 deaths of female inmates from 2008 to 2019. In a three-year stretch from 2008 to 2010, 171 women died. From 2017 to 2019, the number rose to 287, amid a spike in drug and alcohol deaths. The casualties disproportionately affect Black women. Blacks comprise less than 14 percent of the U.S. population, but 24 percent of the 914 female victims identified by Reuters were Black. Seventy percent of the women who died over the 12-year period were awaiting trial, presumed innocent of the charges they faced.
The female inmate population has risen as the male population declined. Many women struggle to afford bail, which can lead to longer jail stays. “These women are showing up with needs, imminent needs, usually during a period of crisis and with trauma,” said Jessica Stroop of The Moss Group, a former U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics researcher . “It puts a massive strain on the jails.” Jails “need to have gender-responsive programs and staff and training and facilities,” Stroop said. Instead, “women often get treated as a bolt-on” in jails “designed for men.” Jailers have been slow to adapt medical programs, staffing models and housing strategies to accommodate the demographic shifts. The influx of female inmates “poses significant challenges, because there are limited resources,” said David Mahoney, Dane County, Wi., sheriff and president of the National Sheriffs’ Association. The prevalence of addictions, mental illness and pregnancy “is a strain” requiring more personnel, housing and medications, he said.