Over the last 40 years, the number of women incarcerated in the United States has skyrocketed from roughly 26,000 in 1980 to more than 230,000 in 2019. Just four percent of the world’s women live in the U.S., but more than thirty percent of all incarcerated women are held in this country.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the dangers that these women face behind bars — from sexual abuse and psychological trauma to pregnancy and navigating motherhood while in prison — have been exacerbated. By and large, the carceral system has failed to adopt a gender-responsive approach to managing the pandemic — one that acknowledges that the majority of incarcerated women are mothers, that many are survivors of abuse and trauma, and that women have distinct mental and reproductive healthcare needs. As a result, in addition to the devastating toll the virus itself has taken on incarcerated women, the restrictions that cisgender and transgender women have been subjected to behind bars during the pandemic have compounded the routine harms of incarceration.
In this report, we highlight trends from inside women’s prisons during the pandemic and draw attention to the lack of transparency from carceral agencies regarding COVID-19 in their women’s facilities. By sharing personal accounts drawn from the first-person oral history archive created by UCI PrisonPandemic, we also seek to elevate the voices and experiences of some of the women behind the data we present.