Root Causes

How We Got Here:
The Root Causes of Female Incarceration


“You know, for a long time, women did not think that they had the right to own their bodies or to fight back or to make a fuss about something that's going on with them. And now women are fighting back from domestic violence or sexual assault or whatever it may be. And women are being criminalized because of that. I went to clemency hearings last week. And ten of the eleven women were domestic abuse survivors, and all ten of them were there serving life sentences for … standing up to their abuser.” - Syrita Steib-Martin


A Community on the Rise

Nationwide, women’s state prison populations have grown 834% over the past 40 years — more than double the pace of the growth among men. In 1970, almost three-quarters of national counties did not hold a single woman in jail, now, women are held in jails in nearly every county in the country and the total number of women in jail nationwide has increased 14-fold – from under 8,000 to nearly 110,000.[i] Nationally, one million women are under supervision (probation or parole), almost double the number of women as in 1990.[ii]

One reason for the steep increase is states across the U.S. continue to “widen the net” of what is considered “criminal.” [iii]  Policy changes requiring “dual arrests” for women reporting domestic violence;[iv] “broken windows” policing that excessively focuses on misdemeanors and sex work,[v] and over-intervention by courts and juvenile justice agencies[vi] have all exposed women to increased incarceration.  Women may also be arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned due to their responses to poverty, significant mental and physical health challenges, and prior trauma – challenges that are more prevalent for women than men.  At the time of their encounter with the justice system, both men and women have significantly lower incomes on average ($13,890 for women, $19,650 for men in 2014 dollars).[vii]  Similarly, approximately two-thirds of women in jail and prisons report ever having a chronic medical condition, significantly more than incarcerated men (~50%) and non-incarcerated men and women (27%).[viii]  Incarcerated women are also overwhelmingly survivors of previous partner trauma (77%), sexual violence (86%), and physical abuse by caregivers (60%).[ix]

In Louisiana, incarcerated women are overwhelmingly imprisoned for non-violent first offenses, with almost 64% sentenced to prison for 0-10 years.[x]  Three out of 64 parishes (Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Tammany) account for almost 30% of convictions of women.[xi]  Other more generally punitive policies have also contributed to the increased incarceration of women.  Until recently, Louisiana imprisoned people for non-violent crimes at 1.5 to 3 times the rates as other Southern states with similar crime rates.[xii]  Harsh supervision policies, including re-incarceration even without new criminal activity, have fostered high recidivism rates with 10% of Louisiana women likely to return within 1 year and 30% within five years.[xiii]   


In the summer of 2016,

the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW) was flooded and the women residents were evacuated to facilities all over the state. At the same time, The Graduates, a performance ensemble of formerly incarcerated women that had grown out of the LCIW Drama Club, received a fellowship from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation to support a state tour of their new performance, “Won’t Bow Down!”, and to create a large visual gesture that would bring attention to the issues surrounding the mass incarceration of women in Louisiana. Drama Club and Graduates Directors Ausettua AmorAmenkum and Kathy Randels were unable to see the women (whom they had taught once a week since 1996) because of the displacement.

Finally in September 2017, AmorAmenkum and Randels were able to enter Hunt Correctional Facility, next door to LCIW, where approximately one fourth of the population had landed. The Graduates had begun to envision The Life Quilt, an honoring of all the women serving life sentences by hand sewing their names into a quilt. The women on the inside loved the idea, and Drama Club Inside-Director, Selina Anderson, gathered the names of each woman, as well as asking them to answer this question: “What do you want the world to know about your freedom?”

Each woman’s name was hand-sewn with love and a prayer for her release by Golden Feather Hunters, Creole Osceola, Washitaw Nation, Wild Magnolias, Cheyenne Hunters, Young Masai Hunters and Kathy Randels. Some of these women have already been released including Ivy Matthis and Bobbie Jean Johnson.

The Life Quilt represents women who were put together not by their own choice, but by circumstance. In spite of this, they have developed their own sense of community and family on the inside. The quilt invites you to celebrate this family.

– The Graduates

Prisons: A Timeline

  • 1829 –  Eastern State Penitentiary, the first modern prison in the U.S., opens in Philadelphia. The prison introduced solitary confinement to American prisons. 

  • 1835 – Construction of Louisiana state penitentiary, called “The Walls,” opens in downtown Baton Rouge.  

  • 1833 – Debtors’ prisons, where people could be incarcerated for failing to pay their debts,   banned under federal law. Bankruptcy law subsequently replaces debtors’ prisons.

  • 1844 – Louisiana leases the state penitentiary (including the labor of the people incarcerated) to McHatton, Pratt & Co. Louisiana continued to lease incarcerated people to private companies for the next  56 years.  

  • 1848 – Louisiana passes law that makes all children the legal property of the state if born to enslaved African-American women incarcerated for life.  Eleven of these children were later sold at auctions for anywhere from $226 to $1010 per child.

  •  1860 – Louisiana incarcerated women before and during the Civil War. The majority of incarcerated women had been enslaved. 

  • 1865 – Civil War ends.  The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.

  • 1870 – Louisiana law allows judges to impose longer sentences on people with prior convictions, including “perpetual imprisonment” for fourth offenses. 

  •  1871 -    In Ruffins v. Commonwealth, Virginia Supreme Court declares that a person sentenced to incarceration becomes a “slave of the State.”

  • 1880 – Samuel L. James purchases 8,000-acre Angola plantation to operate the state penitentiary. 

  • 1898 – Louisiana’s Constitutional Convention.  The convention amends the state constitution to prohibit private leasing of incarcerated people and to allow criminal convictions by split juries if 9 out of 12 jurors vote guilty.   

  • 1900 – Louisiana state purchases Angola and assumes operational control of the state penitentiary.  

  • 1910 – Women were 5.5% of the incarcerated population in the U.S. 

  • 1922 – Louisiana state purchases additional 10,000 acres to expand Angola penitentiary. 

  • 1927 – The first federal women’s prison opens in Alderson, WV. 

  • 1928 – Louisiana passes Act No.15, requiring judges to impose longer prison sentences for people with prior convictions.

  • 1955 – Deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill begins; closing of mental hospitals and reduction in overall state care for people with serious mental illness. Jails and prisons eventually take up the slack.

  • 1960 - The U.S. has 45 federal prisons, 1,027 state prisons, and 2,969 local jails and workhouses to hold people captive. 

  • 1961 – Incarcerated women moved from Angola to the new Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women at St. Gabriel.

  • 1964 – Goldwater campaign uses explicitly racial language to discuss crime. Conservatives conflate riots, street crime, and political activism.

  • 1965 – President Johnson creates Office of Law Enforcement Assistance to provide funding and programs to expand state and local criminal justice systems.  

  • 1970s – Rebellions and strikes in prisons and jails nationwide bring renewed attention to living conditions for incarcerated people.

  • 1971 – President Nixon declares War on Drugs.

  • 1973 – New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller enacts toughest drug laws in the nation, punishing possession of even small amounts of drugs with 15 years to life.

  • 1974 – Louisiana constitution amended to require 10 out of 12 jurors for conviction.

  • 1976 – U.S. Supreme Court decides in Estelle v. Gamble that deliberate indifference to medical needs in prison violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” 

  • 1978 – Congress passes law to limit and regulate medical and research experimentation on incarcerated people.

  • 1983 – Supreme Court affirms that people cannot be incarcerated for failing to pay debts in Bearden v. Georgia.

  • 1983 – Corrections Corporation of America, the first and largest of contemporary private prison corporations, founded.

  • 1984 – Sentencing Reform Act prescribes mandatory minimums and eliminates judicial discretion for federal crimes. 

  • 1986 – Federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act institutes 100:1 disparity—a minimum sentence of five years without parole for possessing five grams of crack cocaine (mostly used by black people), and the same punishment for 500 grams of powder cocaine (used mainly by white people). 

  • 1993 – States increasing use of mandatory “three-strikes” laws for sentencing.  Washington State requires life in prison for third offenses.  California follows in 1994 with the nation’s toughest and most-used “three strikes” law.

  • 1994 – The U.S. Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act declares incarcerated people ineligible for college Pell grants. Once released, formerly incarcerated people re-gain eligibility for Pell Grants and federal financial aid if they have not been convicted of a drug-related offense.

  • 1995 – The term “prison-industrial complex” is coined by urban theorist Mike Davis to denote economic, social, and political interests (public and private) that expand imprisonment, regardless of need.

  • 1996 – The U.S. Welfare Reform Act imposed unduly harsh punishments on people convicted of felony drug crimes by permanently denying them welfare benefits and food stamps.

  • 1996 – The Housing Opportunity Program Extension Act is passed, under which Public Housing Authorities may request criminal conviction information from law enforcement to screen applicants for housing or tenants for eviction.

  •  1996 – Congress also passes the Prison Litigation Reform Act to limit civil rights litigation challenging prison and jail conditions.

  • 1997 – President Clinton signed the Adoption and Safe Families Act.  The Act requires states to start termination proceedings for children in foster care for 15 out of 21 months. 

  • 2003 – Congress passes the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, which includes zero tolerance towards sexual assault and harassment in any detention or correctional facility. 

  • 2003 – U.S. Supreme Court upholds prison restrictions on visitation for people imprisoned in Overton v. Bazzetta and restrictions do not violate the Constitution or constitute a “cruel and usual punishment.”

  • 2010 – U.S. Fair Sentencing Act reduced the disparity between penalties for possession of crack v. powder cocaine and eliminated the mandatory five-year minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.

  • 2010 – Michelle Alexander publishes The New Jim Crow.

  • 2012 – U.S. Supreme Court rules in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children 17 and under are unconstitutional.

  • 2012 – Louisiana enacts the Safe Pregnancy for Incarcerated Women Act, prohibiting the shackling of pregnant women in most circumstances. 

  • 2013 – Attorney General Eric Holder launches the Smart on Crime initiative encouraging prosecutors to ensure just punishment for nonviolent offences and to direct finite resources towards the “most important law enforcement priorities” 

  • 2016 – The U.S. has 102 federal prisons, 1,719 state prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails.

  • 2016 – The Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, the state’s only prison for women, is heavily flooded and all of the women are evacuated to other prisons and jails.

  • 2017 – Governor John Bel-Edwards signs bipartisan legislation to significantly reform Louisiana’s criminal laws and lower the state’s high incarceration rate.  Seventy percent of savings from these reforms must be spent on programs to reduce recidivism and support victims of crime. 

  • 2018 – Women are 9.5% of the incarcerated population in the U.S. 

  • 2018 – Louisiana passes the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which ensures that incarcerated women have access to women's healthcare products and upholds women’s privacy from male correctional officers.

  • 2018 – Louisiana, after a 2/3 vote in the legislature and a broad majority of statewide voters, amends the state Constitution to require unanimous juries for all felony convictions. 

  • 2018 – Louisiana restores the right to vote to people who have been convicted of a felony, but have not been incarcerated for that felony for the previous five years.

  • 2018 – Congress passes the First Step Act, which aims to reduce the number of people held in federal prisons by providing credit for re-entry programming, ease mandatory mininums, and make the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactive.