Invisible Women: Mass Incarceration's Forgotten Casualties

35 Pages Posted: 10 Jun 2015 Last revised: 5 Aug 2017

See all articles by Michele Goodwin

Michele Goodwin

University of California, Irvine School of Law

Date Written: June 10, 2015


This Essay fills an important gap in social and legal policy literature, addressing the intersection of sex and mass incarceration as a serious blind spot in legal analysis. It highlights the fact that between the years 1977-2007, the population of women in prison grew by 832% — nearly twice the rate as men during that same period. This staggering increase now results in more than one million women incarcerated in prison, jail, or tethered to the criminal justice system as a parolee or probationer in the U.S. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) underscores the problem, explaining in a “Special Report” that “[s]ince 1991, the number of children with a mother in prison has more than doubled, up 131%,” while “[t]he number of children with a father in prison has grown [only] by 77%.” In fact, the U.S. now incarcerates more women than anywhere else in the world: more than Russia, China, India, and Brazil combined, resulting in numerous unchecked collateral harms. These realities are overlooked in legal scholarship, but address in this Essay. The Essay considers two works, James B. Jacobs’ The Eternal Criminal Record, and Alice Goffman’s On The Run to make important contributions to the literature that extend beyond these works. Among its claims, it argues that women’s incarceration hovers invisibly, overshadowed by a male dominant criminal justice lens. In Part I, it critiques Goffman’s book as fitting within a paradigm that pays too little attention to ethical standards and moral considerations involving Black human research subjects. This is particularly relevant in light of Goffman’s hunger for one of her primary research subject’s “killer to die.” It argues that cognitive bias — perceiving poor, African American human subjects as already marginal, blinds researchers to appreciating the harms in which they may expose their subjects. Part II turns to the missing narrative of women and mass incarceration in the U.S. It sheds light on and analyzes the complex patterns that frame women’s subjugation to law enforcement — issues absent in On The Run. Part III analyzes the extra-legal and collateral consequences of policing women, including felony disenfranchisement, loss of housing, and the chilling impacts on their children. It unpacks, what Professor James Jacobs terms, the eternal criminal record, and teases out findings in his compelling new book of the same title.

Keywords: drug war, mass incarceration, women, sexism, government surveillance, criminal record, probation, parole, children, prison nurseries, collateral damage, human research, human research ethics, ethnography, Alice Goffman, James Jacobs, On The Run, The Eternal Criminal Record

Suggested Citation

Goodwin, Michele, Invisible Women: Mass Incarceration's Forgotten Casualties (June 10, 2015). Texas Law Review, Vol. 94, No.2, 2015-2016, pp.353-396, UC Irvine School of Law Research Paper No. 2015-66, Available at SSRN:

Michele Goodwin (Contact Author)

University of California, Irvine School of Law ( email )

401 E. Peltason Dr.
Ste. 1000
Irvine, CA 92697-1000
United States

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