Around the world, the number of women behind bars continues to grow. The just-released fifth edition of the World Female Imprisonment List shows that the number of women and girls in detention world-wide increased by 60 percent since 2000, while that of men has risen by around 22 percent. The World Female Imprisonment List is part of the World Prison Brief, produced by the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research.
The United States leads the world with more than 210,000 women in prison today, a steep increase from the 159,000 held behind bars in 2000. It also has the unfortunate distinction of having the world’s highest female prison population rate of about 64 women in prison per 100,000 in the national population. In contrast, Europe (excluding Russia) is the one area of the world where female imprisonment has decreased, falling about 13 percent during this time period and with a female prison population rate of just 6.9.
Latin America also fares poorly, with egregious statistics for some countries. Excluding the United States, an estimated 95,000 women are behind bars in the Americas today, compared to 37,671 in the year 2000, an increase of more than 150 percent in little over two decades. Brazil has among the highest numbers of incarcerated women in the world, coming in third after the U.S. and China, while Mexico is in tenth place. El Salvador has the world’s third highest female prison population rate, 42 out of 100,000 people; its female prison population has increased more than sevenfold over the past two decades. Guatemala’s has increased sixfold, and it is one of 17 jurisdictions around the world where women and girls account for more than 10 percent of the total prison population.
While the factors leading to women’s incarceration vary by country, in Latin America the continued rise in women’s incarceration is driven in large part by punitive drug laws and “mano dura” policies that disproportionately impact women. In most Latin American countries, drug-related offenses are the main cause of female incarceration and the percentage of women incarcerated for such offenses is almost always higher than that of men. Moreover, the profiles of women behind bars are remarkably similar: most are mothers, often single heads of household, who come from situations of vulnerability. In short, they are seeking to put food on the table for their families.