The majority of discourse on American mass incarceration attempts to explain the outsize populations in jails and prisons as the result of a political war against a specific group of people (e.g. against a certain race, against the poor), rather than against crime itself. Less attention has been paid to women, even though they are the fastest-growing population in the carceral state. Since the 1970s, law enforcement has imprisoned women at twice the rate of men, despite relatively static female criminality patterns. Rampant sexual abuse, inadequate female healthcare, and pitiless shackling during labor and childbirth are among the consequences of rapidly locking women into a corrections system established for—and designed by—men. This study provides a glimpse of women’s incarceration since 1960 by analyzing female criminality and the egregious gender discrimination that women face behind bars. After examining two competing gendered theories behind the disproportionate rise in women’s imprisonment, this study takes a third approach, framing the precipitous growth in women’s incarceration as a mechanism to remove “undesirable” women from society. Using this analysis, this study concludes by recharacterizing the larger framework of mass incarceration as a “War on Undesirables,” created from a convergence of neoliberal attitudes, white nationalism, and renewed Victorian patriarchal values in American politics. Rather than view mass incarceration through a narrowed lens, the Undesirables theory expands our view of mass incarceration by accounting for the rising presence and mistreatment of all affected groups in the carceral state, including blacks, the low-income, women, LGBTQ, and immigrants.

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