In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gender and Incarceration

  • Introduction
  • Historical Understandings of Women’s Prisons
  • Jail and Prison Population Trends in Women’s Incarceration Rates
  • The Structure and Organization of Women’s Prisons
  • Risk and Needs Assessment for Women
  • Gender-Responsive Programming for Women in Prison
  • Race and Ethnicity in Women’s Prisons
  • Sexuality in Women’s Prisons
  • Health Care in Women’s Prisons
  • Reproductive Health and Childbirth
  • Victimization in Prison
  • Women’s Social Relationships in Prison
  • Parenting in Prison
  • Intergenerational Effects of Maternal Incarceration
  • Prison Visitation
  • Consequences of Imprisonment for Female Offenders’ Bonds and Identities
  • Girls’ Institutions

Sociology Gender and Incarceration
Brae Campion Young, Miriam Northcutt Bohmert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0222


Women make up only a small portion of the prison population; however, the number of women in prison has increased exponentially as a result of the War on Drugs. The growth of women in prison in the 2010s has outpaced the growth of male prisoners. Not only are women a growing prison population, they are also a unique prison population. Women prisoners, compared to their male counterparts, are more likely to have histories of abuse and neglect and have greater incidents of substance abuse and mental health concerns. Women prisoners are also more likely to be the primary caretakers of children under the age of eighteen. The incarceration of women, then, has a substantial impact not only on the women who experience it, but on their families. Women prisoners also pose a unique challenge for correctional officials. The US correctional system was developed for males and is staffed and run largely by men. As such, risk assessment tools and in-prison programming do not consider the special needs of women prisoners. However, when programming takes into consideration women’s unique pathways into crime, they are much more effective. This article considers, in turn, each of these issues, beginning with a historical understanding of women’s prisons. Next, we consider the role of gender in risk assessment tools and prison programming, and the special issues surrounding women in prison, including female sexuality and parenting in prison. Finally, we conclude with a brief look into girls’ prisons.

Historical Understandings of Women’s Prisons

Women prisoners, the prisons in which they are held, and their treatment within these facilities have changed over time. Several articles and book chapters highlight the changes in women’s imprisonment over time, to provide a more nuanced understanding. Freedman 1981 is a historical account of early incarceration of women who were placed in facilities with men. Sokoloff 2005 offers a more recent historical account that highlights the role of race and class in determining which women are incarcerated, for what length, and in what types of facilities. Rafter 2017 provides a state-level historical account for five states from 1800 through 1988 and shows how some regions, and some time periods, were worse for women than others. Belknap 2007 reviews the then-current state of prison programming and efforts to reform prisons as part of the author’s comprehensive book on women in the criminal justice system. Kruttschnitt and Gartner 2003 provides a comprehensive review of then-recent research and trends in women’s incarceration in the United States, in comparison to other countries.

  • Belknap, J. 2007. The invisible woman: Gender, crime and justice. 3d ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

    This book provides a history of institutionalizing female offenders, including the prison reform efforts (chapter 5), sex and race segregation, and treatment both in girls’ and women’s institutions. Also highlights main issues with women’s incarceration: psychological aspects of women’s imprisonment; parenthood; programming in education, vocation, and recreation; health-care services; mental health problems and care; disabilities; prison subculture; sexual abuse of women prisoners; and women and the death penalty.

  • Freedman, E. 1981. Their sisters’ keepers: Women’s prison reform in America, 1830–1930. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.12633

    Before women had their own institutions, they were housed with men. In these facilities, sexual and physical assault were common by male inmates and guards. Women received few services and were often subject to harsh punishment such as solitary confinement. This book describes women’s early prisons—custodial institutions and reformatories—and characteristics of those facilities, such as racial segregation.

  • Kruttschnitt, C., and R. Gartner. 2003. Women’s imprisonment. Crime and Justice 30:1–81.

    DOI: 10.1086/652228

    This article provides a concise overview of why women’s incarceration rates have increased, comparing US trends and legislation to other countries, most often the United Kingdom and Canada. The article also discusses characteristics of incarcerated women. It summarizes research on women’s social relationships in prison, prisonization, how women cope with incarceration, and other topics. It is a wonderfully concise overview of the state of research in 2003.

  • Rafter, N. H. 2017. Partial Justice: Women, Prisons, and Social Control. New York and London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315126036

    Traces the history of women’s reformatories from 1900 through 1988. The author conducted a survey of five state prisons to discover why prisons were founded, how female prisoners were handled across time, and how the treatment of women improved or worsened over time, and by region of the United States. Originally published in 1990.

  • Sokoloff, N. 2005. Women prisoners at the dawn of the 21st century. Women & Criminal Justice 16.1–2: 127–137.

    DOI: 10.1300/J012v16n01_06

    Examines women prisoners in a historical context, including the role of race and class in explaining the racialized differences in prison as of the first few years of the 21st century. The types of crimes that women are incarcerated for are also examined over time.

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