Despite the U.S. incarceration rate having been in decline for nearly a decade, a surge in the number of white female inmates has managed to keep the number of women in prison nearly identical over that same span.
While incarceration rates soared for both black women and white women between 1985 and 2000, the burden for black women was particularly intense – the number of black women in prison per 100,000 people increased from 68 women in 1985 to 205 women in 2000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. From 2000 to 2015, however, the black female imprisonment rate declined by half – whereas the white female incarceration rate has only continued to rise. The current rate of white female imprisonment, 52 women per 100,000 people, is likely the highest in U.S. history.
As a result, the female inmate population has undergone a dramatic change in its racial makeup. Black women continue to be imprisoned at about double the rate of white women, but the larger population of the white demographic in the U.S. meant that the number of white women in prison at the end of 2015 outnumbered the number of black women by about 2.5 to 1. According to experts, these changes might be partially driven, or explained, by a decline in life expectancy among white women without a college education and increases in the number of white women arrested in relation to alcohol, methamphetamine, and prescription opioids.
While the increase in incarceration rates for white women is a cause of alarm for many, the dramatic decline in black women’s rates remains a remarkable achievement. Should current trends continue, however, the number of women in prison will soar dramatically — even as the racial gap lessens.