This story is part of Prism’s series on incarceration as gendered violence. Read the rest of the series here

Public discourse and news reporting on criminal justice often paint a picture that renders invisible the experiences of women, girls, transgender, and gender-nonconforming individuals confined in U.S. federal and state prisons and local jails. The prevailing narrative, which is almost completely male, overlooks that not only do women in the U.S. comprise a disproportionate amount of incarcerated women globally, but they are also one of the fastest-growing incarcerated demographics.  

While the U.S. is home to just 4% of the world’s female population, it accounted for 30% of the world’s incarcerated women in 2017. Black women are grossly overrepresented in that group, making up 29% of the country’s incarcerated women despite comprising only 13% of the nation’s female population.

Over the past 4 decades, the population of incarcerated women has grown by over 800%. While this rise is jarring, research shows it has little to do with any change in women’s behavior. Rather, it is a result of new policies that have widened the net for what activities can be prosecuted– policies that tend to disproportionately target women.

For example, over 80% of women in jail are survivors of abuse and many incarcerated women were criminalized as a result of defending themselves against those abusers. While every so often, stories like that of Cyntoia Brown or Marissa Alexander break through and enter into the national discourse, their experiences are far more common that many may realize.

While women, girls, and gender-nonconforming people may comprise a smaller portion of the overall incarcerated population, their experiences of deserve sustained attention because of the unique ways they experience correctional confinement and the specific harms they are subjected to by virtue of their gender and sexuality.  

In the current public debate over the criminal legal system and its abolition, a question that often comes up is how violence will be addressed in its absence. What this question fails to acknowledge, however, is how prisons, jails, and systems of policing actually perpetuate harm and serve as sites for gendered violence.

Once inside, young girls, women, and gender-nonconforming people are subjected to different forms of violence that compromise their bodily autonomy, their sexual agency, and their physical safety.

Between 2009 and 2011, women comprised only 13% of people in jails but accounted for 67% of victims of staff-on-inmate sexual abuse. A 2011-2012 federal study found that 40% of transgender people in state and federal prisons reported a sexual assault within the previous year. In addition to this sexual abuse, violence is also waged on the bodies of incarcerated people in a myriad of other ways, from being shackled during childbirth to being overmedicated on psychiatric drugs without their consent.

This series, “Incarceration as Gendered Violence,” will explore how prisons and jails function as sites of violence for women, girls, gender-nonconforming, and queer folks, examining the ways police, prison, and jail staff, and political decision-makers enact that violence. The series will also highlight the organizers and thinkers bringing these issues to the fore and creating avenues for much-needed change.

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.