New Report: Colorado Imprisons Women at a Higher Rate Than Russia

It's long been established that the United States incarcerates its citizens at a higher rate than any other country; roughly 716 people out of every 100,000 residents are behind bars in this country. But a new report from the Prison Policy Initiative highlights some less well-known but possibly more startling numbers — the rapid rise of the female prison population in the U.S., at a clip that far exceeds that of the most repressive regimes in the world.

America still imprisons far more men than women, of course. But the upward creep in the incarceration rate of women, even in a middle-of-the-pack state such as Colorado, probably merits more discussion among policy makers than it has received. 

According to the PPI report, only 5 percent of the world's female population resides in the U.S. But the country can boast of a nearly 30 percent share of the women imprisoned around the globe. With an incarceration rate of 273 for every 100,000 women, West Virginia leads all states in this distinction; Colorado, with 147 women imprisoned per 100,000, comes in at twentieth place — but still well ahead of the national average (127) as well as the women's incarceration rates in Russia, Rwanda, Thailand or El Salvador.

The PPI report doesn't provide much insight into the reasons for America's lock-em-up frenzy. It's clearly not the historical norm, but rather what the report obliquely refers to as "the outcomes of a series of now regrettable policy choices by federal, state and local officials in the last three decades." Meaning, apparently, the War on Drugs, mandatory minimum and three-strikes sentencing laws, as well as other draconian criminal justice trends that began under Ronald Reagan, expanded during the administration of Bill "I Feel Your Pain" Clinton, and have only gradually seen some modification in recent years. Such trends had a sizable impact on the soaring prison population of the 1990s and early 2000s as a whole. And, as the historic chart below illustrates, imprisonment rates for women over that period spiked even more dramatically: 

Has the surge in America's female prison population peaked, or will some states one day be incarcerating women at roughly the same rate they do men? It's unlikely, perhaps, but that's one gender gap that seems to be closing fast.  
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast