"Treating women
[in prison] in the same way as men will not achieve gender equality. The circumstances in which women commit criminal offences are different from men.”
The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women
Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders

  • Women are the fastest rising population of any demographic in the prison system.
  • The number of women in prison increased between 2000 and the beginning of 2013 by over 40 percent.
  • According to the UN Division for the Advancement of Women, in many countries, “racialized women, including indigenous women,” are in particular the fastest growing segment of the prison population.
  • The 2016 Australian Bureau of Statistics showed a 42 percent increase of imprisonment rates over the last 10 years for women, compared to a 24 percent increase for men. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women make up 34 percent of women incarcerated, despite comprising only two percent of the adult female population.
  • Prisons are overwhelmingly filled with low-income women: During 2013-14 Penal Reform International surveyed women in prison in six countries (Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Jordan and Tunisia); most were of very poor to average income. Theft and fraud were the most common offences women were charged with or convicted of, and the main reasons given for the offence were financial, to support family.
  • Women continue to be imprisoned disproportionately for minor drug-related offences, particularly in the Americas and Asia. In 2016, over 90 percent of women in prison in Indonesia and the Philippines were charged with or convicted of drug-related offences; in Thailand drug offences accounted for 83 percent of sentenced female prisoners in 2013; in Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica and Peru, over 60 percent of the female prison population.
  • A 2016 study in Kenya found that of 97 percent of incarcerated women interviewed who were serving non-custodial sanctions, 36 percent had been convicted of illegally brewing and selling alcohol.
  • In Ireland, 80 percent of women sent to prison in 2014 were for non-payment of fines; in England and Wales failure to pay a mandatory “television licence,” which can lead to prison if they continue to default on payments, accounted for 36 percent of all prosecutions of women.
  • A 2017 US Bureau of Justice Statistics study showed that 66 percent of women in prison reported a history of a mental disorder, almost twice the percentage of men. One in five women in prison had recently experienced serious psychological distress, while one in seven men had. In a 2014 Penal Reform International survey of six countries (Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Jordan and Tunisia), incarcerated women had extremely high rates of depression and insomnia.
  • According to Penal Reform International, a disproportionate number of incarcerated women have experienced violence in their lives, including sexual abuse; this cycle of violence
 often continues in prison and after release. Linked to this violence are high rates of mental health illness, substance dependencies and susceptibility to self-harm and suicide.