The Truth Behind the Growing Number of Women Ending up in Prison

With the number of women in prison skyrocketing in the past 40 years, it’s important to examine the circumstances and injustices facing incarcerated women.

The Truth Behind the Growing Number of Women Ending up in Prison
Donna Hylton, women’s rights activist and criminal justice reform advocate. (Courtesy)

At age 19, I found myself standing in front of New York Supreme Court Judge Edwin Torres. He sentenced me to the maximum amount of time I could serve for my part in a crime: 25 years to life. I remember feeling I was a bad person who deserved everything happening to me, including the years of sexual, physical and emotional abuse I endured that led to a loss of confidence and a propensity for making bad decisions. I also remember feeling my life was over. The irony is that it was in prison where I learned that I was not alone.

For 27 years, the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility was my home. It is a maximum-security prison for women and known at Rikers Island for its brutality.

When I was taken to the reception building to be admitted, I was instructed to shower with lye, a soap that one guard joked is so strong it not only kills lice but also takes aways scars if you use it long enough. I wanted to tell her she didn’t know my scars, and if I was certain of anything it was that no soap would wash them away. Over time, I learned that the scars ran very deep for most of the women imprisoned at Bedford and we were similar in more ways than I could have imagined.  

More than one million women are currently behind bars or controlled by the criminal justice system. The amount of incarcerated women has increased at practically double the rate of men since 1985, and the number of incarcerated women has increased by more than 700 percent since 1980.

We need to ask ourselves why.

At Bedford, no matter what each of us had done or experienced, our stories revealed a pattern. Most imprisoned women, like me, have suffered from trauma and abuse. Others are struggling with poverty. Some struggle with both.

Being at Bedford also meant not being with my very young daughter. It was the same for so many of the women who surrounded me, creating a cycle of shattered families near impossible to break. The truth is that when you send a woman to prison, you send her family, too. For every woman behind bars, there is often a child outside who will share the same future unless someone takes action to help her. 

In prison, I disappeared further and became more of what I thought was—a nobody. But it was also within those walls that I eventually discovered real love, purpose and strength for the first time in my life. 

It began with Helen, an incarcerated woman dying from AIDS and neglect by the system. She was serving time for attempted murder and prostitution. I learned that these two crimes often go hand in hand. From her account and others I met at Bedford, I realized by the time a woman is in prison for sex work, she’s so vulnerable to abuse that she could easily end up dead. Often, to make it out of a situation alive, she has to kill the man who’s paid for her services or the one who’s selling her body. 

Because I know sexual trauma personally, I sensed this experience in Helen. As her condition and the neglect worsened, I became a friend, wiping her brow with a cool cloth and offering small sips of juice. When no one would help her, I found the strength to stand up for the first time and declare it was wrong and got her to the hospital. Helen’s death had a transformative effect on me—while there are women suffering, the rest of us need to do something about it.  When Helen died, I said farewell not only to her but also to who I was before I knew her. I no longer needed to stand by, to stay silent when something bad happened to me or to another woman. 

Through my involvement with the Family Violence program at Bedford, I began to understand how abuse shapes our choices, as well as our perceptions of what it is to love and to be loved. During one meeting a reality was revealed: Every single woman among us had experienced abuse at some point in her life. For the first time, I stopped asking “Why am I the only one?” and instead asked “Why am I not the only one?

It is undeniable: There is a link between rates of brutal domestic violence and a prison full of wounded, broken, silenced, crying, desperate women. It’s infuriating that not a single one of us was allowed to share our personal histories in court to reveal how the series of brutal events in our lives led to our crimes. 

We need to ask ourselves: How can we change this trend?

I often imagine how the lives of the incarcerated women who served time with me would have been different if we had stood in front of judges who cared about our lives. Maybe we would have been directed to trauma-responsive care or community-based programs. Maybe my friend Helen would not have been left to die of AIDS. Maybe I would have been released from prison 10 years earlier and would have had the opportunity to rebuild my life with my daughter when she was still a teenager.

A stark statistic was released in a recent report: Between 2008 and 2020, the number of women serving life without parole increased 43 percent, compared to a 29 percent increase among men. Further detail shows one in every 15 women is serving life, and among Black women in prison, one in nine is serving life.

What will bring about change? Addressing root causes of sexism, racism, violence and poverty. Appointing judges who have experience representing, advocating for or showing empathy for women like me. Recognizing and supporting the efforts of women re-entering society after prison instead of penalizing them for small missteps as they navigate childcare, job interviews, opening a bank account, public transportation and finding housing.  

There is a common denominator in all of this. It begins with a simple truth: recognizing and treating every single one of these women as human beings with potential. How else can they change?

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Donna Hylton is a women’s rights activist, criminal justice reform advocate, author and accomplished public speaker. After her release from prison, she founded A Little Piece of Light, an organization named after her memoir that advocates for the rights of system-impacted women and helps them re-enter society after incarceration. She is a founding member of The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls and an alumna of the first cohort of Leading with Conviction Fellows of JustLeadershipUSA. Donna was incarcerated for over 25 years. She is on Twitter @DonnaHylton.