The tragedy of being a woman in jail

A female inmate sits in a single cell in an acute unit of the mental heath unit at the Harris County Jail. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay
A female inmate sits in a single cell in an acute unit of the mental heath unit at the Harris County Jail. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay

Theresa Martinez knows all about how jail makes trauma worse.

The 52-year-old Los Angeles native was first locked up at the Sybil Brand Institute for possession and sale of PCP in 1986. Since then, she has been system-involved for more than 20 years, and done eight or nine stints at another county jail in Lynwood, California. Every time she has been thrown in jail, she has gone through severe heroin withdrawal that has left her vomiting, nauseous, and unable to walk to the bathroom in time to relieve herself.

“It’s horrible,” she said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “[The guards] have absolutely no understanding to it. They do not care. You might soil your uniform that you have on and need another one, and they just take their time to do it.”

At no point during those periods of withdrawal did she receive help. And as far as her overall jail experiences have gone, that was just the tip of the iceberg.


Martinez is no longer locked up, but roughly 110,000 women are currently doing in time in jails across the country — the fastest growing correctional population. Thousands of those women have experienced similar types of trauma as Martinez.

“You go into states of anger and states of depression.”

According to a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice and the Safety and Justice Challenge, there are now 14 times more women in jail — most of whom are nonviolent offenders — than there were in 1970, when fewer than 8,000 were in jail on a given day. Back then, roughly 75 percent of all the county jails had no women in custody. Flash forward to today and women are being held in almost all of them. The population of female detainees in small county facilities is now 31 times larger than what it was in 1970, accounting for approximately half of all women in jail today.

Yet the jail system is ill-equipped to accommodate the particular needs of women in custody, and research about how they navigate the system is scarce and decades-old. So despite entering jail in record numbers, women remain an invisible population.

Unique experiences

Unlike prisons, which are designed to hold people convicted of crimes and sentenced to time behind bars, jails are designed to hold pre-trial detainees who have been charged but cannot afford bail. Jails are supposed to be a temporary place for people to stay in custody, but inmates who cannot pay to get out can languish in jail for weeks, months, and sometimes years awaiting trial.


In the new report, Vera and the Safety and Justice Challenge concluded that, at its core, the jail system is not built for women in particular, because they arrive with more social, economic, medical, and mental health challenges than their male counterparts.

“There’s nothing you can do. You can’t fight them.”

For instance, while 35 percent of men in jail report having a medical condition, more than 50 percent of women have one. Thirty-two percent of women in jail have serious mental illness — two times more than the population of men dealing with comparable mental health problems.

The vast majority of women have also experienced at least one form of trauma. More than 75 percent are domestic violence victims, and 86 percent are survivors of sexual violence.

Statistics show that most of the women are low-level, nonviolent offenders charged with drug, property, and public order offenses. Even though they do not pose a danger to society, they are locked away in jails that are likely to exacerbate their trauma and make their medical and mental health conditions worse.

“When women are incarcerated, many of the systems that they’re encountering are designed for men,” Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of the report and senior program associate for Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections, told ThinkProgress. “So anything from being shackled to being kept in solitary confinement to being observed by male officers while in private moments — that can really trigger the trauma that women have already experienced, and can diminish their prospects for mental and behavioral health recovery.”


Indeed, recovery has been a near-impossible feat for Martinez, who, in addition to going through heroin withdrawals in jail, said she has encountered various types of abuse there.

She has been slammed against walls by guards, had her visits canceled for not getting to a visitor room in time, and subjected to degrading comments from staff. She also suffers from severe manic depression with psychotic tendencies and has had her medications changed or taken away.

“Say you’re on medication that the county jail doesn’t approve. You have to just go by what their protocol is for mental health,” she said. “There’s nothing you can do. You can’t fight them. It’s really dangerous and unhealthy to take us off our meds, when we’ve been on a combination like that for so many years.”

Making matters worse, women at the Lynwood facility are locked up 23 hours a day and have one hour to shower or use the telephone, she added. Going outside means going to a concrete-walled recreation area with a grated roof. When women need assistance, she said, staff members rarely respond to them, opting to play on their computers instead.

“You go into states of anger and states of depression even more so, because you have to deal with what’s happening around you,” Martinez said. “You can’t get the attention needed.”

Martinez’ story is a common one.

When women get to jail, there are few risk assessment tools to find out more about their past experiences, assess what their needs are, and devise a plan that minimizes harm to them. Without those tools, women are frequently thrown into situations that can trigger and re-traumatize them. For instance, sexual and other forms of physical violence run rampant, but facilities are understaffed and lack resources to help detainees even if they wanted to.

When jails do have the means to provide adequate medical and mental health care, women usually have to pay for the services out-of-pocket. But people in jail are there precisely because they are low-income and cannot dish out the money to get themselves out.

“[Jail is] not equipped to handle a person that long,” said Martinez. “You’re not learning anything. You’re not being rehabilitated. You’re not able to gain any type of training to get yourself ready to go out in the free world. None of that.”

Decades-old information

Although the number of women in jail is ballooning, the latest report provides one of the most comprehensive pictures of their situation in years.

“One of the most shocking parts in doing this research was seeing how little research exactly exists to explain why women are caught up in the system,” Swavola said. “At the national level, much of the data is more than a decade old — almost two decades old.”

The last time the Bureau of Justice Statistics, housed in the Department of Justice, recorded the breakdown of women in jail by race was in 1998.

Swavola attributes the dearth of data to the fact that criminal justice advocates and lawmakers tend to emphasize prisons, as opposed to jails, when talking about the current correctional landscape. When they do include jails in the conversation, the focus is usually on men, because they make up a larger percentage of the jail population.

“When women are incarcerated, many of the systems that they’re encountering are designed for men.”

“Policymakers need to realize that women are different and do experience jail differently — and the criminal justice system more broadly,” she added. “Although we’re in this moment of reform, the population of women just continues to grow.”

Until those connections are made, women will continue to be invisible when cycling through the system. Martinez is a testament to that.

Throughout the duration of her system involvement, she has been traumatized over and over, which makes re-entry into society all the more difficult. With few resources to help her make a smooth transition to the outside world, she keeps struggling and winding up behind bars.

In the past she was homeless, denied Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for her debilitating mental illness, and had trouble scraping together enough money for bus tokens to get to the parole office.

“Every transition is the same. It’s extremely hard and difficult, and I feel like the government sets us up for recidivism — to just return back,” she said.