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What Is Prison Like for Women and Girls?

The Marshall Project teams up with Teen Vogue to listen.

For the past few years, America has started to take a closer look at our soaring prison population. Decades of tough-on-crime policies mean we now incarcerate 2.3 million people — the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. And who are the fastest-growing group of prisoners in the U.S.? Women and girls.

This story was published in partnership with Teen Vogue.

The U.S. makes up just 5 percent of the global population, yet nearly one-third of all the female prisoners in the entire world are here in America.

There are more than 200,000 women and girls incarcerated nationwide, a number that has increased by more than 700 percent since 1980. Men still make up the vast majority of inmates, but women in prison face unique challenges. Most are mothers. Prisons limit or charge money for basics like tampons and pads. Women are also more likely to be sexually assaulted, particularly by guards.

To hear these stories, Teen Vogue and The Marshall Project sat down with Ayana Thomas and Sarah Zarba, who were both formerly incarcerated; Kyndia Riley, a student whose parents have been in prison since she was a toddler; and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey who introduced legislation this summer to ease some of the burdens for women in federal prisons.

Life Inside

Essays by people in prison and others who have experience with the criminal justice system
Parenting from Prison

In this first video, women talk about struggling to stay in contact with their families while behind bars.

Many studies have shown that prisoners who maintain close contact with family do better once they are released and have lower rates of returning to prison. Kyndia Riley, whose parents both went to distant federal prisons when she was 2 years old, never got to have a real relationship with her parents. Phone calls were expensive, and money was tight, so Riley’s visits became increasingly rare. As a young girl growing up, she would purposefully get herself in trouble, thinking it would get her arrested so she could finally reunite with her parents.

About 60 percent of women in state prisons have children under 18. Ayana Thomas missed out on mothering her children over the two and a half years she spent locked up. She was living in Virginia, but served her time at a facility in Connecticut. She says that even when her children could visit, they weren’t allowed to embrace or hold hands for long before a guard would break them apart. (For security reasons, many prisons limit physical contact during visits.)

The Needs of the Incarcerated

In this video, the women explain how prison fails to meet both basic and complex needs.

When women spend money on basic necessities like tampons and pads, it takes away from savings that could be spent on in-person visits. And because incarcerated people make very little hourly at their prison jobs, they depend on their family and friends for the money to buy what they need. Kyndia Riley sent her mother money to help her buy supplies — but that meant there wasn’t money to travel to see her mom.

Sarah Zarba was addicted to heroin when she was sent to jail, which did not help her with withdrawal symptoms. Getting off heroin can be dangerous. The number of people who have died from this is not tracked, but media reports show there have been at least 20 lawsuits filed between 2014 and 2016 that claim a prisoner died due to complications from opioid withdrawal.

Zarba was also surprised by how few female officers worked in the jail, and says that male staff looked at her when she was changing or using the bathroom. Often referred to as “cross-gender supervision,” men guarding women, as well as women guarding men, is supposed to be limited under existing laws, and yet it continues. About half of women coming into prison or jail have already been the victims of sexual abuse, and too often that abuse continues. Females are the victims of one-third of all sexual abuse cases committed by prison staff, despite making up just 7 percent of the prison population.

Returning to Society (or Picking up the Pieces)

In this video, the women speak about the obstacles people getting out of prison must surmount.

When Ayana Thomas was released, her house had been foreclosed on, so she went to a shelter with her two kids. There are about 65 million Americans with a criminal record, which often carries with it restrictions on employment, education, and housing. According to the American Bar Association, there are about 40,000 such barriers across the country for people with previous convictions.

But even when people are upfront about their past, the stigma of a conviction is difficult to overcome. For Sarah Zarba, it meant getting turned down again and again for jobs, including by one employer who Googled her name after she applied for a job in medical billing, a skill in which she had received training. She was asked to leave to protect the patients.