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Study shows incarcerated women experience different conditions than men

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here's a key difference between how men and women experience incarceration. Women are more likely to be held in jail rather than prison. That's according to a study this past spring from the Prison Policy Initiative. And as NPR's Meg Anderson reports, where you end up can determine the resources you get.

MEG ANDERSON, BYLINE: In the winter of 2019, Kali Lamb says she hit a new low.

KALI LAMB: I ended up living on the streets for the first time in my life.

ANDERSON: She was in Philadelphia and struggled with drug addiction.

LAMB: When you're on the streets, there are three ways to survive financially. You can sell your body. You can sell drugs. Or you can steal and sell those items.

ANDERSON: She stole and was arrested multiple times. Usually, she was released. But eventually...

LAMB: I was arrested for a retail theft, and I didn't get released this time. I got - actually, it was a hundred-dollar bail. And at the time, I wasn't in touch with my family.

ANDERSON: She couldn't pay and ended up staying in jail for more than four months. Her experience is not unusual. Women before and after conviction are disproportionately held in jail. One in three convicted women serve time in jail rather than prison - a much higher proportion than convicted people overall. That's because women tend to commit less violent crimes than men, which means shorter sentences.

Nationwide, the average time spent in jail is about a month. But some people, like Kali Lamb, are there much longer. Aleks Kajstura of the Prison Policy Initiative says that's a problem.

ALEKS KAJSTURA: Prisons are made to be a longer-term incarceration. In jails, a lot of the population churns through. So there just aren't any systems in place for holding somebody for a few months.

ANDERSON: Prisons have their problems, too. But she says jails are often worse. Studies show jails have fewer education and job training programs than prisons and less medical care, including for pregnant women. Most incarcerated women are mothers.

KAJSTURA: We're talking about health care, education, programming, any sort of support systems. The assumption is that the jail doesn't need to provide any support because somebody's going to leave.

LAMB: Women also come into jail with more mental health and substance abuse issues than men. And once they're there, they die of overdoses at twice the rate of men. DeAnna Hoskins of the advocacy group JustLeadershipUSA says those are key disparities. And because women tend to commit low-level offenses, judges should be asking...

DEANNA HOSKINS: Was incarceration necessary?

ANDERSON: She says people should be held accountable, but even a short stint behind bars can be the difference between keeping or losing a place to live, a job, even custody of their children.

HOSKINS: If we're really trying to say jail and prison is a deterrent or a rehabilitation mechanism, why are we contributing to the harm?

ANDERSON: After Kali Lamb was released, she went into a recovery house and says that made the difference. She's a paralegal now. She hasn't gone back to living on the street, and she has not committed another crime.

Meg Anderson, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX VAUGHN SONG, "SO BE IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Meg Anderson is an editor on NPR's Investigations team, where she shapes the team's groundbreaking work for radio, digital and social platforms. She served as a producer on the Peabody Award-winning series Lost Mothers, which investigated the high rate of maternal mortality in the United States. She also does her own original reporting for the team, including the series Heat and Health in American Cities, which won multiple awards, and the story of a COVID-19 outbreak in a Black community and the systemic factors at play. She also completed a fellowship as a local reporter for WAMU, the public radio station for Washington, D.C. Before joining the Investigations team, she worked on NPR's politics desk, education desk and on Morning Edition. Her roots are in the Midwest, where she graduated with a Master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.