Why Women Snap

by Silja J.A. Talvi
Oxygen, a women-oriented cable channel, hypes its popular "Snapped" series this way: "From millionaire brides with everything to lose, to small-town sweethearts who should simply know better, these shocking but true stories turn common assumptions about crime and criminals upside down."

Nationally, some 200,000 women are now sitting in jails or prisons -- more than eight times as many incarcerated women as in 1980. At least 75 percent of these women are mothers. Out of the 7 million Americans under some form of correctional supervision, 1 million are women.

Two eye-opening new books, Nell Bernstein's All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated and Renny Golden's War on the Family: Mothers in Prison and the Families They Leave Behind, highlight another byproduct of women's mass incarceration that has, thus far, been overlooked. As Bernstein and Golden discuss, one in 10 American children have a parent ensnared in the criminal justice system, while one in 33 will go to sleep tonight without being able to see a parent because she or he is behind bars.

Not only do the vast majority of these women in jail or prison leave at least one child behind when they get locked up, they also are more likely than male prisoners to arrive there with serious histories of emotional, sexual and physical abuse at the hands of family members, partners or strangers. Many are already mentally ill, sick, or both, with chronic diseases, including cancer, hepatitis C and HIV, diseases that end up costing taxpayers millions of dollars, and which often result in the end of a prisoner's life while still incarcerated.