Female inmate population skyrockets in the US

The Takeaway
An inmate is checked into the Orange County jail in Santa Ana, California, on May 24, 2011.

An inmate is checked into the Orange County jail in Santa Ana, California, on May 24, 2011.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Women represent a small portion of the overall population of incarcerated Americans, but they also have become the fastest growing segment of inmates in a system that often fails to meet their needs.

A new report released by The Vera Institute of Justice and The Safety and Justice Challenge found the number of incarcerated women has increased 14-fold in about four decades. In 1970, there were fewer than 8,000 women in American jails and prisons, but by 2014, that number had skyrocketed to more than 110,000.

These women tend to be predominately African American or Hispanic — and poor. Nearly 80 percent are mothers, and most are incarcerated for low-level, nonviolent crimes that are often committed to support a drug addiction.

The study found that despite the growing female population, many jails and prisons are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges women face in the criminal justice system.

That's something Renia "Angel" Farmer has witnessed firsthand. Farmer is a speaker and facilitator at "Let's Start," a program that helps women transition from prison life back into society in St. Louis, Missouri. She's also a former inmate. And in her experience, the prison system has done a poor job of handling the influx of female inmates.

“[The prison system] falls short, number one, definitely in the medical field,” Farmer says. “They hire doctors who have been fired from their practices on the outside, and they come in and continue to work as a fired doctor to try and help inmates. I’ve seen a lot of women die, literally at my feet, due to a lack of knowledge and just not caring. You’ve literally got to be half dead just to get a ride to the hospital — they try to do everything right in the little vicinity that they have.”

Farmer says that she’s also seen the prison system neglect inmates that struggle with mental health issues. According to The Vera Institute of Justice and The Safety and Justice Challenge, 32 percent of female inmates have serious mental illness — a number that's double the rate of incarcerated men.

“The women that I’ve seen, they’re more medicated than dealt with,” Farmer says. “Out of 10 you may have one, maybe two people that were qualified to help you, and all they can do is talk, but mostly they would rather medicate them than keep from pretty much dealing with them. I’ve watched a lot of women walk around not even knowing that there’s an existence because they’re so medicated. That’s not a healthy help.”

When it comes to lowering recidivism rates among former female inmates, Farmer says that women need more encouragement.

“Some do go in and come out without having to go back down that road, but for some it takes five, six, seven or eight times going back and forth,” she says. “But most of it is definitely a mindset. You say, ‘Hey, I’m going to come and be the best person I can be, I’m not going to live up to the standards [set for me].’ If you’re told you’ll never be nothing, you’ll never amount to anything, you’ll start to believe that, but until you change how you think, that’s part of keeping you one step out of the penitentiary.”

Read more: The Department of Justice will stop contracting with private prison companies, but immigration officials won't follow suit