The Biggest Driver of Mass Incarceration? Maybe Mass Incarceration

Three months ago during a PACS summit panel on “Women, Girls, and Mass Incarceration” that I co-led with Lateefah Simon, I was asked to enumerate the drivers of our country’s explosive 700% rise in female incarceration between 1979 and 2019 – a rate of growth twice as high as that of men, although men still comprise the majority of the two million people incarcerated in this country. 

I ran down the list: the War on Drugs which has disproportionately affected women and girls; exorbitant bail, fines, and fees that women, who tend to be poorer than men, often can’t pay; a rise in longer sentences for low-level crimes, the continued criminalization of sex work in most of the country; unaddressed trauma, including from sexual abuse and violence that the majority of incarcerated women and girls have experienced; punitive practices involving probation, parole, restitution, and other justice system policies that hit women and girls especially hard; and finally straight up poverty and systemic racism, particularly involving Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ, people.

Then I spontaneously added – but didn’t have time to explain – that one of the biggest drivers of mass incarceration, for all genders, is mass incarceration itself. 

So what did I mean? It’s both a reflection and a result of all the above. 

Consider what happens when a woman in jail can’t afford to pay bail. As she is likely to be one of the roughly 80% of jailed women who are mothers, she’ll be especially incentivized to plead guilty, regardless of her guilt or innocence, so she can get out and care for her children. But then she has a criminal record (which creates challenges around finding employment and housing), may be charged those unaffordable fines and fees, and put on probation – all of which can drive her further into debt, desperation, and employment in underground economies. 

This cycle has generational consequences, not only for women, girls, and their families – further traumatized, impoverished, and denied opportunity by the incarceration of breadwinners and loved ones, but for entire communities hollowed out and destabilized by this same cycle magnified and multiplied many times over. This in turn may lead to more arrests and incarceration on a large scale, especially in poor, over-policed and over-surveilled places where people of color are more likely to be targeted. 

And then there are the vested interests and economic incentives that over the years have metastasized and formed a protective shell around the business model of mass incarceration.  The amount spent by all levels of government on corrections has more than quadrupled since 1980, and $80 billion, often cited as the annual cost of keeping two million people behind bars is, in fact, “a gross underestimate because it leaves out myriad hidden costs that are often borne by prisoners and their loved ones, with women overwhelmingly shouldering the financial burden,” according to a piece in The Marshall Project

The vast mix of government and private interests that profit from the expansion and maintenance of the carceral system include, but are not limited to: private prison companies, public prisons, jails, youth prisons, juvenile halls and “ranches,” prison services and supplies, security and surveillance companies, the Bail Bonds industry, insurance companies, transportation companies, construction companies, equipment and technology providers, telecommunications companies, correctional health care providers, law firms, police departments, sheriff’s departments, jail guards, prison guards, probation and parole departments, and the powerful unions and public relations personnel that represent them. 

These translate into millions of jobs that people depend on and fight for to maintain the high rates of incarceration that undergird their livelihoods. And we see this playing out in justice policies that are – or are not-passed, in much of the popular narrative about crime, and in a fierce resistance to oversight and accountability on the part of law enforcement authorities. 

And the longer it goes on, the more everyday it seems, simultaneously rampant and casual even though we remain an outlier, the country with the distinction of jailing, surveilling, fining, and imprisoning far more people than any other in the world. Mostly poor people, mostly Black and Brown people, and increasingly women and girls.

But I want to return to all the people who have jobs that rely on our thriving carceral system. They too deserve to live whole and dignified lives, but, according to the Vera Institute for Justice, many corrections officers “have been found to suffer severe physiological, psychological, and behavioral effects from job stress … so pronounced that a specific diagnostic category—‘corrections fatigue’—has been proposed to account for them.” An article published recently in the Colorado Sun focused on the ethical dilemmas and self-reported “moral injuries” clinicians feel when compelled to decide if they should send someone to solitary confinement. 

No surprise that throughout the country we see an exodus of prison and jail staff. 

Maybe, instead of trying to woo them back, we should let them go. 

And simultaneously let go some of those two million, some of whom I’ve talked to– like the 16-year-old girl in juvenile hall who told me through tears how she had shoplifted to buy food for her baby, like the 80-year-old woman in Chowchilla Prison whose wrinkled face lit up when she talked about the grandchildren she had never met, like the mentally disabled 21-year-old who spoke to me from inside a cage in Pelican Bay Prison, not understanding how he had come to be there. As a society we need to understand how we have come to be here. And start shutting down our carceral facilities that have caused so much suffering. And use the returns to do what countries that prioritize people’s needs are doing: investing in mental and physical health care, access to healthy food, affordable housing, education, childcare, clean water, and green spaces where children can play.


Liz Simons is Chair of the Board of the Heising-Simons Foundation, Chair of the Board of the Marshall Project, an Advisory Board member of Smart Justice California, a founding pledger of One for Justice, a volunteer with the Beat Within, and Presidential appointee/practitioner member of the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. However, the views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the organizations with which she is affiliated.

Photo courtesy of the Young Women’s Freedom Center.