Is mass incarceration the largest barrier to gender justice today? In the current age of mass incarceration, at least 1 in 4 women has an incarcerated loved one. Women are being incarcerated more frequently today than ever before. Women’s lives are defined and confined by criminal justice control. Given that incarceration’s harm radiates from inside prison walls to well beyond them, a large number of women are directly suffering the consequences. This report asks and answers the question, what is mass incarceration doing to millions of women who have loved ones behind bars? Our research concludes that mass incarceration is (1) a direct cause of significant to extreme psychological distress and trauma, and (2) a serious obstacle to the financial health and economic agency of women with incarcerated loved ones. This report concludes by positing a new analysis: that the sum total effect of the social condition of women with incarcerated loved ones is most accurately described by what we call “political isolation.”
Despite these startling impacts, few critical analyses of either the incarceration system or gendered oppression in the United States are informed by the experiences of women with incarcerated loved ones. The insufficiency of data and analysis on women and incarceration has left a significant gap in our understanding of obstacles to gender equity facing women today. Moreover, without a complete view of the direct harm incarceration causes to large groups of historically marginalized people—be they women or communities Black and Brown—our analysis of mass incarceration’s root causes and ability to identify solutions remains incomplete.
In order to better understand the impact of incarceration on gender equity, the authors of this report, a research team of 25 members of Essie Justice Group, and Essie Justice Group staff endeavored to explore the effects of the system of mass incarceration on women with incarcerated loved ones. Fourteen organizations joined our effort. Together we surveyed 2,281 women who answered 41 questions that focused on the experience of having an incarcerated loved one. Women in 46 states and Puerto Rico completed online or paper surveys, or attended a focus group session led by one of 12 national partners.
Incarceration of a loved one negatively impacts the emotional wellbeing and physical health of women in various ways. Women reported that the incarceration of their loved one caused them to experience stress, anxiety, anger, depression, loneliness, migraines, insomnia, and fatigue. Eighty-six percent of women characterized the impact of a loved one’s incarceration on their own emotional and mental health as ‘significant’ or ‘extreme’. A majority (63%) of all women reported that their physical health has been significantly or extremely affected by a loved one’s incarceration. These findings suggest that the impact of incarceration on women is psychologically and physiologically damaging. Incarceration may be an undetected or ignored driver of emotional, mental, and physical health crises among women.
The incarceration of a loved one is financially destabilizing. Women absorb the immediate financial costs of incarceration, such as attorney’s fees, court fees, and bail, all at the same time that they may be losing the financial support of their incarcerated loved one. A third of women (32%) who responded to our survey lost their household’s primary source of income when a loved one was incarcerated. Nearly 70% of women with incarcerated loved ones shared that they are their family’s only wage earner.
During the period of a loved one’s incarceration, many women are forced to deviate from personal plans that might have led to longer term stability in order to address the immediate needs of their loved one’s incarceration and the needs of other family members. Women bear the costs of phone calls, prison visits, and commissary bills. Most commonly, women with incarcerated loved ones work more hours, change jobs, miss out on job opportunities, and cannot pursue their own education.
These impacts and their consequences can be longstanding: financial penalties in the form of restitution, fines, fees, and debt live on far beyond a loved one’s incarceration. We found that the cumulative effect of financial challenges can lead to housing insecurity. A little over a third of women (35%) experienced homelessness or other housing insecurity because of a loved one’s incarceration. This number increased to more than half (56%) for women whose loved one was the primary income earner.
Extreme isolation is one of the central findings of our research. Using a scale constructed from answers to six questions that measured social and emotional loneliness, we found that the most typical score among women taking our survey was the highest score possible—meaning that women with incarcerated loved ones are extremely isolated. The physical presence of loved ones is instrumental to people’s sense of connection, identity, and overall emotional wellbeing. The severity of the threat of isolation led former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to declare that the United States is facing “an epidemic of loneliness” correlated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that associated with smoking.
The level of isolation experienced by women with incarcerated loved ones has social and political implications. Social isolation, when resulting from a system of laws and policies that render people less able to build political power based on their race, gender, or class, leads to political isolation, a new concept we are introducing in this report. Women with incarcerated loved ones are politically isolated, implicating the health of our social movements and the wellbeing of society at large.
Perhaps most importantly, the women whose expertise and strategies for survival inform this report affirm that women with incarcerated loved ones are distinctly powerful social and political leaders. Women have organized and led movements to break isolation and nurture healing and resilience, replenish the resources of their families and communities, and challenge the laws and policies that control them and their loved ones. Our report ends with a vision written by the member-leaders of Essie Justice Group.
There are a number of misconceptions about the community that we seek to uplift in this report. Let us dispel some of them: women with incarcerated loved ones include formerly incarcerated women. Women with incarcerated loved ones include currently incarcerated women. Women with incarcerated loved ones love and support people of all genders behind bars. Women with incarcerated loved ones are cisgender, transgender, and gender non-conforming. Given the prevalence and influence of racialized and gendered stereotypes in our society, it is easy to embrace the tropes depicting women’s experiences as mere accidental collateral consequences of the mass incarceration of men or assume that this community is homogeneously comprised of women “on the outside” who love men “on the inside.” These and similarly simplistic characterizations are harmful and generally reinforce narratives that place men at the center and women as ancillary or subordinate.
In the midst of historic movements that are pushing for a radical re-envisioning of the foundational roles women play in our society, there is no more important goal for progressive critics of incarceration and gender equity advocates than apprehending the scope of incarceration’s harm to women with incarcerated loved ones and listening to the strategies that women put forward to end this harm. This report aims to add to and enrich strategies for liberation, recognizing that when we focus on the liberation of women—especially Black and Brown women—we may all become more free.
Our research exists amidst the reality that women have remained the fastest growing prison and jail population over the past four decades. Despite the fact that 90% of incarcerated people are men,6 current levels of women’s incarceration in the United States are at a historic high. In many states, rates of women’s incarceration continue to grow even as male prison populations decrease in response to criminal justice reforms. One in 18 Black women will be incarcerated in her lifetime, and Black women continue to be incarcerated at twice the rate of white women. A staggering 47% of all Black transgender women will be incarcerated. Women experience gender-specific forms of violence and trauma during incarceration, including denial of necessary medical care, shackling while giving birth, and sexual violence.
Currently and formerly incarcerated women leaders have long advocated that mass incarceration is, in fact, a gender justice issue. Too often these expert voices have been ignored on this point. Notably, these advocates find themselves similarly situated to race justice champions who a decade ago were continuously silenced by progressive arguments that high rates of incarceration were a function of poverty and not of racial bias.
There are manifold forces that make the crisis of incarcerated women in this country invisible. This report seeks to avoid contributing to that erasure. Our hope is that through the uplifting of harm and power of women with incarcerated loved ones in the context of mass incarceration we may bring millions of women with incarcerated loved ones into full solidarity with the perspectives and demands of the movement led by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women.