Women make up growing share of prison inmates

Clair McFarland, Riverton Ranger via Wyoming News Exchange
Posted 2/24/21

Compared with 14 years ago, a lot more women are in prison.

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Women make up growing share of prison inmates


RIVERTON — Compared with 14 years ago, a lot more women are in prison.

That’s the case in the Wyoming Department of Corrections, which saw a roughly 36 percent hike in female incarcerations in the past decade-and-a-half. It’s also the trend nationwide.

“Nationally female crime incarceration has grown faster than any population,” said WDOC director Daniel Shannon in an interview with The Ranger. “It’s about 8 percent per year.” 

In Wyoming that number has grown about 3 percent from year to year, with a total of a 35.6 percent gain from the 2006 figure to 2020.

The growth is disproportionate to the men’s plight: during that span, the state prison population for men dropped overall, from 507 to 431, with a spike at 572 in 2013.

There’s no lone reason why more women have been going to prison. But there are contributing factors. 

One of those, said Shannon, is the national trend of equal treatment reaching the court system. In years past, he said, judges appeared more inclined to sentence leniently toward women and mothers.

“Crimes are less tolerable as a community whole, with equality,” said Shannon, adding that in his experience, “20 years ago, a mother with a child would be less likely to be incarcerated than today, depending on the offense of course.”

Shannon has been observing the system a while: WDOC’s new director has worked in corrections for 35 years, starting in Pennsylvania and transferring to Wyoming in 2007. From 2007-2010 he was the warden of the Wyoming Women’s Center, in Lusk, after which he served as prison division administrator for nine years. Shannon became WDOC deputy director in January of 2020, then became director in July. 

Shannon noted that generally and through the years, women are less often than men the chief actor in a crime. They tend to conspire.

“Many of the women (incarcerated in WDOC) are committed with a partner of offenses – a lot of times (with) the males that our sent to our penitentiary.” 

When asked what sort of men are convicted with female accomplices, Shannon said it tends to be “the father of their children and things of that nature.”

“(The women) can be drawn into drug, alcohol and property crimes… A lot of times they’re encouraged to commit crimes by their partners.”

Fremont Counseling executive director and licensed clinical social worker Scott Hayes seconded that theory, saying that family instability – and partner influence – is a large factor in female imprisonment.

“It’s kind of a combination of drug and alcohol problems and domestic violence – and problems in general, with financial issues in there as well,” said Hayes. 

He said women living with criminally-behaving partners bear not only the pressure and influence of their partner’s actions, but the financial fall-out, the isolation from extended family, and – often – the onus of raising the children. 

The equality growing in the courts doesn’t always find its way into the home, or the daily grind:

“Ladies tend not to have as many economic amenities in terms of well-paying jobs, and childcare gets put on them a lot – maybe more than the guys,” Hayes said. “On top of that, the ladies tend to experience more trauma” from family upheaval. 

Another inequity still lingering is the way men and women weather prison. 

Shannon said while he was warden of the Women’s Center he realized that “when women are incarcerated, they’re often forgotten.” 

The visitations to female inmates are fewer.

“Unlike male inmates, or residents: the wife and children will often follow up and keep contact. But that’s rare in a female institution.” 

Notwithstanding, said Shannon, in his experience, the female inmates show signs of being “more supportive of changing their behaviors, and their criminogenic ways than male inmates, and overall.” 

Fremont County Sheriff Ryan Lee, who oversees pre-adjudicated and misdemeanor inmates in the Fremont County Detention Center, said women’s intake in his arena hasn’t grown noticeably – but the severity of offense has. 

“Women are being booked on more serious charges, which in turn leads to extended stays in the facility while their criminal cases are adjudicated,” said Lee. 

Keeping women longer at the jail correlates with the increase in the prisons, said Lee: generally, felony-level cases take longer to prosecute. 

“We are also holding female inmates on misdemeanor charges for longer periods of time,” said the Sheriff, “especially repeat shoplifters.” 

Male booking, he noted, has gone down slightly since 2006 – from 2977 to 2476. 

Of prison-level crime types, no women’s prison category spiked as high as drugs. 

From 2006 to 2020, drug crime incarcerations in WDOC rose 147 percent – from 53 to 131. 

As with many crimes, 2019 saw the highest number, at 166. 

Drug incarcerations dropped to 131 in 2020. In fact, every type of incarceration dropped in 2020.

“Incarcerations have dropped nationally as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Shannon, who said a full analysis would take time. “It may take two years to have a final determination of the effects of 2020.” 

Though incarceration went down for both sexes in 2020, mental health crises went up: Hayes reported “high crisis call” months from September through November of 2020, with still-alarming rates continuing today. 

The second-highest prison population for women are violent offenders. 

Violent crimes went up, with 29 female inmates in 2006 and 50 in 2020 – a 72 percent climb. 

Shannon said drug and violence escalation are simply “indicative of the change of our society over the past decade.” 

Property crimes have fluctuated, dropping by 55 percent over the 14-year span. Monetary crimes stayed steady at between one and four, other than a climb to 11 in 2012. 

Several women were convicted of sex crimes from 2013-2017, when the average rose from six inmates to 12. By 2020, there were eight women incarcerated for sex crimes. 

Escapists flatlined at about six inmates per year – except for 2019, when 12 women were incarcerated for escape crimes.