Women Prisoners Are the Unspoken Casualties of the War on Drugs

By Paul Gaita 10/27/14

The United States has a third of the world's incarcerated women behind bars.

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The latest set of disturbing statistics regarding the fallout from the war on drugs shows that the United States has the largest population of women behind bars in the world, and at least a third of those prisoners have been incarcerated for drug offenses.

A report from the International Center on Women Detainees showed that of the 625,000 women currently behind bars across the globe, a third of that number, which accounts for more than 200,000 women, are currently in U.S. prisons. They make up nearly 9% of the country’s entire prison population.

The country with the second highest number of women in prison is China, which despite a history of human rights abuse, holds only 84,600 women in detention. Furthermore, while the worldwide female prison population has been on the rise since 2006, North and South America have experienced the largest increase at 23%.

Another study by The Sentencing Project found that a third of female prisoners in the United States are serving time on drug-related charges. That number is also on the rise, and at a rate of nearly twice the number of men incarcerated for similar offenses. For many female prisoners, the punishment continues even after they complete their sentences.

A 2013 report by The Sentencing Project found that 12 states continue to impose a lifetime ban on benefits, work requirements and food stamps allotted by the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) programs to women with felony drug convictions on their record.

The ban, instituted as part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, has been lifted or modified by 28 states. But Arkansas, Alabama, Delaware, Missouri, and Texas are among the eight that continue to impose the full ban, while 24 more, including California, continue to impose a partial ban on either TANF or SNAP benefits.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.