The Bright Side of Prison

Read Time:
1m 31sec

“Women in Prison: A Comparative Assessment” by Heather Heitfield and Rita J. Simon, in Gender Issues (Winter 2002), Transaction Periodicals Consortium, Rutgers University, 35 Berrue Circle, Piscataway, N.J. 08854–8042.

Globalization has been a good thing for most women around the world, and one piece of evidence for that proposition, oddly enough, is that more of them are in jail than ever before.

It makes sense, say Heitfield and Simon, a graduate student and professor, respectively, at American University. Globalization produces economic and social progress, which allows more women to “assume the positions of authority and power that have traditionally been held by men.” That also means “increased exposure to opportunities to commit workplace and property crimes such as larceny, fraud, embezzlement and forgery.” Apparently, women have been seizing those opportunities.

In their survey of 26 countries, Heitfield and Simon find that Thailand tops the list of dubious honor. Women make up 18 percent of the prison population there. Next come Argentina, the Netherlands, and the United States, all at levels slightly above eight percent. (There were about 160,000 women behind bars in the United States in 1998.) At the bottom of the scale are Israel, Pakistan, and Nigeria, where women constitute two percent or less of the prison population.

Feeding these and other data into a computer, the authors looked for correlations. They found that incarceration rates were pretty closely linked with levels of female education and literacy. More education generally means more women in prison. So does a higher rate of economic growth. Yet, surprisingly, the authors uncovered no meaningful connection between jail time and women’s participation in the work force or other labor-related indicators. They say their findings point to a need for new prisons and for new policies for dealing with inmates who, among other things, bear and raise children.

More From This Issue