The women’s prison — used also as a jail and a detox — at Framingham, Mass. Photo: Milford Daily News.

A conversation with Erika Kates: Why are more American women going to prison?

By Pat Tomaino

Erika Kates, a social scientist at Wellesley College, says Americans are getting used to the idea that they live in “a society of mass incarceration.” Between 1973 and 2013, the number of people in prisons and jails grew from 200,000 to more than 2.2 million. One in 35 American adults now lives behind bars, on parole, or on probation.

Those figures — once jarring — are now familiar. But Kates is sounding a new alarm on female incarceration. The news since 1980: America is locking up women faster than ever. In this clip, Kates describes a state of emergency:

Erika Kates at the Massachusetts State House in June. Photo: Meredith Berg.

Astonishingly, the portion of women behind bars is growing much more quickly than the male incarceration rate is growing. Twice as fast in recent years, according to the Brennan Center for Justice:

The female incarceration rate is growing fast.

We learned about the emergency while recording our podcast conversation with three formerly incarcerated women this week. One of them, Andrea James, testified that America is imprisoning more and more women in a sudden, alarming fit. And it’s destabilizing families and communities.

But just why is this happening? Perhaps women — still jailed at a much lower rate than men — are simply catching up. If that’s so, why is it happening so quickly? In our bonus conversation, Kates gave four reasons:

1. ‘Mandatory minimum’ policies

Laws passed in the 1980s prescribing tough sentences for drug crimes led to “a cumulative effect whereby we look up one day and we see that we have thousands and thousands of people locked up for drug offenses.” According to Kates, the laws were hard on black women: sentences for crack were ten times harsher than those for powdered cocaine, and the policies — besides targeting drug dealers — dragged in many people who happened to live with dealers. That contributed to a “800 percent increase in black women’s incarceration.”

2. “Women are more susceptible to drugs”

Although women and men have similar rates of drug use and addiction, a greater portion of incarcerated women are locked up for drug crimes. In our conversation, Kates said that’s partly due to biology: women “get addicted more quickly and they find it harder to give it up.” Women also face more “physical, sexual and emotional abuse,” leading to trauma, self-medication, addiction and, finally, jail.

3. The probation problem: relapsing to jail

There are two very different paths when a woman in recovery relapses. (And she will relapse — on average 11 times, Kates told me.) If a woman is in treatment, she gets another chance: a different recovery home, inpatient care, a different kind of outpatient care, or medication. But if that woman is already on probation, “those options diminish and you end up with many, many more women in prison.”

4. Women aren’t making bail

Kates said that the steep rise in female incarceration is largely due to a spike in the number of women “languishing in jail because they couldn’t make bail.” These women haven’t been convicted; bail is technically an option. But they stay locked up before trial because of poverty and poor family support. Distance is another important factor for women. States have fewer jails for them, so women await trial in higher-security facilities, far away from the relatives who might post bail.


Kates cautioned me: a phenomenon as complex as incarceration comes from a range of economic, social, and racial factors interacting in ways a social scientist can’t fully recite.

But, Kates wants us to know, specific, powerful forces like these are sending American women to jail. The emergency is real, and it needs more attention. Despite coverage from VICE, The Marshall Project and Orange Is The New Black, there is a disturbing shortage of resources devoted to understanding and preventing female incarceration.

Kates knows what is happening, and she has hunches about why. But how to solve the problem of female incarceration? There she needs some help.


For more information, follow Erika Kates, blogging at the Wellesley Centers for Women and listen to our podcast Women After Prison — the second in Open Source’s incarceration series.