Women in Prison

Bureau of Justice Statistics

Bureau of Justice Statistics. (Spring 1994). "Women in Prison (A BJS Report)." Alaska Justice Forum 11(1): 2–4. The number of women in state prisons grew 75 percent from yearend 1986 to yearend 1991, reaching almost 39,000 by June 1991. At that time women were 5.2 percent of all prisoners, up from 4.7 percent in 1986. Relying on responses to interviews with a nationally representative sample of state inmates, this report describes those women. It provides details on offenses, criminal histories, and the women's personal characteristics and backgrounds. Based on the BJS report "Women in Prison," NCJ-145321.

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The number of women in state prisons grew 75 per cent from yearend 1986 to yearend 1991, reaching almost 39,000 by June 1991. At that time women were 5.2 per cent of all prisoners, up from 4.7 per cent in 1986.

Relying on responses to questions in interviews with a nationally representative sample of state inmates, this report describes those women. It provides details on offenses and criminal histories, and it also depicts the women’s personal characteristics and backgrounds.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted the 1991 Survey of Inmates of State Correctional Facilities in 277 prisons nationwide. At each facility, inmates were chosen systematically from the day’s roster. Through personal interviews with 13,966 inmates, about 94 per cent of those selected, data were collected on individual characteristics of state prison inmates, current offenses and sentences, characteristics of victims of violent inmates, criminal histories, prior drug and alcohol use and treatment, and health care services provided in prison. Similar surveys occurred in 1974, 1979, and 1986.

Table 1. Characteristics of State Prison Inmates, by Sex, 1991 and 1986

Most of the female state prison inmates were over age 30, at least high school graduates or holders of a GED, and members of a racial or ethnic minority. Large majorities were unmarried, mothers of children under age 18, and daughters who had grown up in homes without both parents present. Before entering prison a large percentage of the women had experienced physical or sexual abuse.

In addition, data from the survey reveal the following points.

Current Offenses

• The expanding population of women who served a sentence for a drug offense accounted for more than half of the total growth; violent offenders, a fifth.

• In 1991, ten per cent of female inmates were in prison for fraud (which includes forgery and embezzlement), down from 17 per cent in 1986.

Table 2. Most Serious Offense of State Prison Inmates, by Sex, 1991 and 1986

Criminal Histories

• Nearly half of all women in prison were currently serving a sentence for a nonviolent offense and had been convicted in the past for only nonviolent offenses. Nearly two-thirds of all female inmates had two or fewer prior convictions.

• About 71 per cent of all state female prisoners had served a prior sentence to probation or incarceration, including 20 per cent who had served a sentence as a juvenile.

Victims of Violent Inmates

• Nearly two-thirds of the women serving a sentence for a violent crime had victimized a relative, intimate, or someone else they knew.

Family Characteristics

• Two-thirds of the women had at least one child younger than 18; altogether, they were mothers to more than 56,000 minor children.

• An estimated 46 per cent of women with minor children said they talked with those children on the phone at least once a week; 45 per cent had contact by mail at least once a week; and nine per cent were visited by their children.

• More than half reported their minor children were living with grandparents; a quarter, with the father.

• About 47 per cent of the women reported having an immediate family member who had been in jail or prison. About 35 per cent had brothers and ten per cent had sisters who had been incarcerated.

Table 3. Family Structure, Incarceration of Family Members, and Parental Abuse of Alcohol or Drugs Reported by State Prison Inmates, 1991

Drugs and Alcohol Use

• Almost half of the women in prison reported committing their offense under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

• More than half of women in prison in 1991 had used drugs in the month before the current offense. About two-fifths had used drugs daily.

• The percentage of women who used cocaine or crack in the month before their offense increased from 23 per cent in 1986 to 36 per cent in 1991.

This article is based on the Bureau of Justice Statistics report “Women in Prison,” NCJ-145321. Copies of the entire report are available through the Alaska Justice Statistical Analysis Unit, Justice Center.