The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
March 30, 2018

Three ways mass incarceration affects women of color

March 30, 2018

In March, Urban Institute researchers writing on Urban Wire will discuss the achievements of and challenges faced by women in the United States.


Conversations about incarceration often center around men, and logically so. Of the 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in US prisons and jails, the majority are men.

But women bear many of the burdens of mass incarceration. Because incarceration rates and overpolicing are geographically concentrated in communities that are disproportionately people of color and disadvantaged, burdens fall heaviest on women of color. Here’s how.

1. Women suffer economically when men are incarcerated.

The Urban Institute recently hosted a screening of Milwaukee 53206, a documentary on what filmmakers say is the zip code with the highest rate of incarceration per capita, where 91 percent of residents identify as black or African American.

According to the most recent Census Bureau estimates, 53206 has more female-headed households than any other zip code in Milwaukee: 43 percent of households are female headed, compared with 18 percent of all Milwaukee zip codes. Nationwide, female-headed households are twice as likely to live in poverty, with a median income of $36,151 ($53,657 is the median income of the general population).

In 2007, 54 percent of incarcerated fathers were their family’s primary financial support at the time of incarceration. In 2012, zip code 53206 reported the lowest gross family income ($20,260) of single-state filers in Milwaukee.

2. Women shoulder the fines, fees, and other costs when a loved one is incarcerated.

According to a 2014 state-by-state survey conducted by NPR and the Brennan Center for Justice, most states charge system-involved people for a range of criminal proceedings and oversight, including public defender services, jail or prison stays, and probation or parole supervision.

Most people have no source of income while they’re incarcerated, and those who can get a job earn, on average, between 14 cents and $1.41 per hour. This is before mandatory state deductions, which often leave incarcerated laborers with half or less of their gross earnings.

Loved ones in the community are left to absorb those fines and fees. In one study of families of incarcerated people, in which 76 percent of respondents identified as black or African American and 15 percent identified as Latinx or Hispanic, 63 percent of family members reported paying their loved ones’ court fees. Of these 63 percent, 83 percent were women.

The average debt for court-related fines and fees for these families was $13,607, or 52 percent of the median income of African American female-headed households and 45 percent of Latinx female-headed households. More than one in three families incur large amounts of debt to cover these costs.

These fines and fees are a particularly heavy burden to bear for women of color due to the way race exacerbates the gender pay gap and gender segregation of work.

3. Women act as sole caretakers when a loved one is incarcerated.

Most men in state and federal prisons (51 and 56 percent, respectively) are fathers of minor children. When a father is incarcerated, a mother suddenly becomes the primary caretaker for shared children and other relatives the couple may support.

In addition to caring for their children, these women take on the added responsibility of facilitating phone calls, letter writing, and in-person visits to maintain the father-child relationship.

One report found that 87 percent of family members responsible for prison phone calls and visiting costs are women, 91 percent of whom are black or African American or Latinx or Hispanic.

Those costs also come with immense emotional and caretaking labor, such as comforting and explaining to children where their parent is, taking long bus rides to and from the facility, and spending money and time assembling care packages.

Urban research suggests that investing in communities and supporting families can ease the burden on women still in the community when their loved one is incarcerated or coming home from prison or jail. However, the most effective solutions would be to reduce the number of people incarcerated and the amount of time people serve.

Kyera Johnson poses for a portrait with her daughter, Zara Smallwood, 2, at their apartment on Sunday December 11, 2016 in Washington, DC. Kyera's boyfriend and Zara's father, William Smallwood is in prison. Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

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