Women, Incarceration and COVID-19

Women, Incarceration and COVID-19
Women are the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population. How do they fit into the criminal justice movement? And how dire is COVID-19? (Raffaella / Creative Commons)

Since the 1980s, the number of women incarcerated has increased by more than 750 percent—more than any other group. Yet, women are often overlooked in discussions of justice reform: The face of crime is overarchingly male, leaving women to face their unique imprisonment challenges alone. 

On Thursday, Politico’s Women Rule editorial director Anna Palmer hosted a digital interview—along with with April Grayson, campaign surrogate and statement coordinator for The Young Women’s Freedom Center; Scott Budnick, founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC); and Emily Ratajowski, model, actress and activist—to discuss the frightening rise of female incarceration throughout the United States. 

(Rewatch the 28-minute conversation here.)

“Men have more funding than women do,” explained Grayson, who spent seventeen years in a women’s prison.

She described the struggles she faced upon leaving prison, specifically around finding housing. Grayson also stated that “90% of women [in prison] have been sexually abused”—yet too often, prisons fail to address this trauma.

“There is no gender-specific reentry; there is just reentry,” Grayson said—meaning women sent back into society are lacking the particular tools they need to recover. 

The gender discrimination women routinely face is exacerbated in the prison system, leaving the most vulnerable women in even more danger. Women are often singled out for largely gender-specific crimes, like prostitution. Grayson noted the irony of prostitutes being arrested for selling sex, while male purchasers are often not reprimanded. 

Despite the wide reach of these issues, Ratajowski pointed out they are seldom discussed, especially in significant political events like the upcoming presidential election.

“People in prison are invisible,” Budnick said, but “when you have someone like Emily [Ratajkowski] who can use a platform to elevate people who have no voice,” positive change is possible. 

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The Politico discussion largely centered around the perils of COVID-19 behind bars. Grayson vividly explained the impossibility of social distancing in prison due to inherent close quarters.

Rampant overcrowding throughout prisons created dangerous situations for both inmates and prison staff before COVID-19. Now, the situation is dire: COVID-19 is spreading at alarming rates. While many prisons have released some inmates to quell infections, many are calling for more measures to be taken, noting that leaving people in prison during this pandemic is like subjecting them to the death sentence without due process. 

Discussions like Politico’s  help transform the image of prison to include women, a first step in addressing gender-specific issues in justice reform. 

Show solidarity with incarcerated women by giving the gift of Ms. to women in prison and domestic violence shelters.


Audrey Andrews is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is an archaeologist, runner and feminist. Audrey graduated from Columbia University.