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More Women Behind Bars

The U.S. has the world’s highest female incarceration rate by far. Once released, these women face multiple potential barriers for a successful transition back into society.

First of two parts.

More American women are incarcerated — and being released from correctional facilities — than ever before, providing an unprecedented opportunity for churchgoers to help break a pattern of repeated imprisonment.

Nationwide, more than one million adult women are locked up, on parole, or on probation.

Overall, women represent only 7.2 percent of the total prison population, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. However, in the past three decades, the rate of women in prison has risen 8.6 percent, compared to 4.6 percent for men.

According to the London-based International Centre for Prison Studies, the U.S. has 206,000 female prisoners, more than double the number of runner-up China. 

In fact, a recent Prison Policy Initiative report revealed that 25 separate U.S. states have a higher incarceration rate than any other nation. While the U.S. has just 5 percent of the global female population, nearly 30 percent of the world’s locked-up women are in the U.S.

“Nationally, property crimes are the number-one reason women are going to prison,” says Liz Stanosheck, who worked in the Nebraska correctional system for 20 years before becoming Prison Fellowship area director in Beatrice, Nebraska. “The reasons may be the economy, insufficient education for job skills, mental health not being addressed due to lack of health insurance, trauma, prevalence of drug use, or a lack of alternatives to incarceration.”

Stricter drug laws show no leniency toward women. And these days, more women are hardened repeat offenders, convicted of felonies and not merely misdemeanors.

“The gender equality trends in society today have also come to the criminal justice system,” says Manuel A. Cordero, senior director of AG Chaplaincy Ministries. “In the past, a man would be convicted for a crime while a woman would not even be charged for the same crime. But not anymore.”

“What drives many women to crime in the first place is they will do anything to receive love from men,” says Gina Hanna, founder of the Platte City, Missouri-based ministry Beauty for Ashes. “So many are serving time because they took the rap in an effort to save their man from getting into trouble.”

Hanna, 41, spent four months incarcerated on a drug charge in 1998. Beauty for Ashes is designed to reduce recidivism by providing Bible-centered studies that prepare offenders for release. The voluntary 18-month program ministers to women who live in a separate pod at the Women’s Correctional Center in Vandalia, Missouri.


Compared to incarcerated men, women who are locked up are more likely to have mental health issues, been a high school dropout, experienced sexual or physical abuse, never held a job, and been a substance abuser. Experts estimate that 85 percent of incarcerated women have a history of neglect, violence, or abuse in their lives.

Women also have difficulty maintaining family contact when imprisoned because women’s correctional facilities tend to be located in remote areas that financially strapped relatives have difficulty reaching. Thus, they lose contact with the children for whom they had been primary providers, if those kids haven’t already been placed in the foster care system. According to The Sentencing Project, 62 percent of imprisoned women are mothers of minor children.

Pamela E. Moore, a retired ordained Assemblies of God prison chaplain, believes it’s unrealistic to expect women to have the internal strength not to return to their accustomed lifestyle if no alternative is available.

“The most important thing they, and all of us, need is someone to love them and to believe in them,” says Moore, 68. “Most of these women have never had this in their lives. The communities they came from are toxic.”

Hanna agrees.

“Adult women who have experienced childhood victimization resort to drugs to cope with the pain of abuse, as well as other stressors in their lives such as adult intimate partner violence, sexual assault, or grief over the loss of custody of children,” Hanna says.

Assemblies of God U.S. Missions Chaplain Susan M. Neumann has been involved in prison ministry since 1991. For more than a decade, she worked with fellow AG chaplain Bridget Sheehan, who died last year.

“When women come out, it’s because they’ve finished their sentence,” says Neumann, 59. “But just doing the time doesn’t solve the problem.”

Single moms love their kids and regret not being able to care for them because of their detention, Neumann says. Yet that doesn’t translate into becoming a good parent.

“They don’t really have a clue how to live a normal life because they have never lived a normal life,” Neumann says.

Tomorrow: What Christians can do to try to break the cycle.


Image used in accordance with CC BY-NC 2.0 license. Photo credit: WIFU Public Radio, Flickr

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.