USA: "Not part of my sentence": Violations of the human rights of women in custody

February 28, 1999

USA: "Not part of my sentence": Violations of the human rights of women in custody

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  • Ratify without reservations the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
  • Withdraw its reservations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture
  • Give people in the USA the right to request the international human rights protection mechanisms established under the ICCPR (the Human Rights Committee) and the Convention against Torture (the Committee against Torture) to consider complaints brought by individuals that the government has violated its obligations under the treaties.


There are around 138,000 women in jails and prisons in the USA, more than three times the number of women who were incarcerated in 1985.(4) Much of the increase is due to the so-called "war on drugs" conducted by federal and state government criminal justice authorities since the 1980s. About 40 percent of women in prison have been imprisoned for violating drug laws; only about 25 percent are in prison because they have committed a violent crime.

One of the most striking characteristics of incarcerated women is that the proportion who are of racial and ethnic minority background greatly exceeds their representation in the general population. The rate of imprisonment of black women is more than eight times the rate of imprisonment of white women; the rate of imprisonment of Hispanic women is nearly four times the rate of imprisonment of white women. The "war on drugs" has had a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minority women. For example, in New York, 77 percent of Hispanic female prisoners and, 59 percent of black female prisoners are incarcerated for drug offences, compared with 34 percent of white female prisoners.

For more than a decade, the number of women in prison and jails has increased at a faster rate than the increase in the rate at which men are being incarcerated but women still form only a small proportion - about eight percent - of the incarcerated population in the USA. Because women are such a minority, many authorities have not adapted their facilities and services to meet the particular needs of female inmates and have often treated them more poorly than male inmates.

It is important to note that women's right to equality does not necessarily mean that they should receive the same treatment as men. For example, the right to adequate health services requires that services are tailored to take account of the different health care needs of women (such as pregnancy), and men.

Prison authorities around the USA differ considerably in their responsiveness to developing programs specifically for women, as evidenced in the findings of a 1997 survey of 52 departments of corrections. Only 19 departments provided domestic violence programs developed specifically for women and only 9 departments offered programs for victims of sexual assault.(5)

A significantly under-served area of provision is facilities to enable incarcerated mothers of young children to maintain contact with them. There are estimated to be more than 80,000 mothers among the women in US prisons and jails. They have approximately 200,000 children aged under 18. All states have laws permitting the termination of parental rights of parents who are incarcerated.

In 1997-98, more than 2,200 pregnant women were imprisoned and more than 1300 babies were born to women in prison. In at least 40 states, babies are taken from their imprisoned mothers almost immediately after birth or at the time the mother is discharged from the hospital.

Women's prisons are often located in rural areas far from the cities in which the majority of inmates lived, making it difficult to maintain contact with their children and jeopardising the prospects of successful reunification. Fewer than half of the states offer community based facilities that allow mothers to live with their children while serving all or a portion of their sentence or part of their parole immediately after release.