July 15th, 2021 – Experts told The 19th that the numbers underscore the need to not only assist women’s needs inside the jails, but to also implement systemic reforms, services and programs that can reduce their arrests.

“I think as long as we refuse to put money into those places that we know can help people, there will continue to be people with some really acute needs. We’re going to keep wanting to put them somewhere, and the place that we put them will be jail, and some of them will die there,” said Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank.  The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) currently offers the most comprehensive national data on jail mortality, but provides a limited picture of the challenges facing women and no information on the death rates among nonbinary people. This spring, BJS released its most recent data from 2018, showing that women had a higher jail mortality rate than men for just the second time since the bureau began issuing these reports in 2000.

The rate in jails is a stark contrast to that of state prisons, where men were more likely to die in 2018, at a rate of 356 per 100,000 state prisoners, compared with 203 out of every 100,000 for women. One factor is that prisons, which hold incarcerated people for longer terms, can have resources that jails may not offer since they are considered a more temporary setting.

While women comprised 16.1 percent of all jail deaths in 2018, that has increased from 10 percent in 2000. As with Sandra Bland, the majority of jail deaths occurred among people who had not been convicted of a crime, and about 40 percent in 2018 happened within the first seven days of admission, though the BJS report does not break out this information specifically for women. The report also does not give data for specific groups such as Black women.

Illnesses, including heart disease, cancer and respiratory infections, collectively killed women at the highest rate, followed by suicide and problems related to drugs and alcohol. The concentration of deaths in these areas reflects the needs women have both in and out of incarceration.