Primetime Special on Women in Prison Airs Friday, February 27 at 10 p.m., ET on “20/20”


ABC News Anchor Diane Sawyer takes you on a journey into the world of women living behind bars in America’s prison system today. “A Nation of Women Behind Bars,” a Diane Sawyer “Hidden America” special is a one-hour primetime event airing Friday, February 27 on “20/20” at 10 p.m., ET on the ABC Television Network.


On both political sides, there is an agreement that the American prison system needs to be reexamined. The United States has larger populations and longer sentences than much of the world. Women are the fastest growing group of prisoners in the country compared to men. Diane Sawyer and team went into four prisons across the country for eight months to see what’s wrong and what’s next.


Diane Sawyer spent 8 months investigating 4 prisons – and the results are surprising.


  • US has larger populations and longer sentences than much of the world (1/3 of all female prisoners in the world are in the US – over 200K)
  • Women are the fasting growing group of prisoners in the country compared to men
  • On average, US sends 174 females to prison every day
  • 5,361 women are serving life sentences  in US – up 14% since 2008
  • 73% of women in state prison suffer from mental illness ranging from PTSD to schizophrenia to depression
  • 57% of women state prisoners suffered physical or sexual abuse prior to incarceration
  • 25% of women on death row committed crimes with men who got lesser sentences
  • 1 in 25 women is pregnant when she goes into prison
  • 68% of female prisoners are rearrested within 5 years of release

The women and their crimes and sentences pose the tough questions. Eraina Pretty, serving life in prison for first-degree murder – does anyone sentenced to life because of a violent crime deserve a second chance? Emilia Carr, the youngest woman on death row in the country – what would you do after hearing her story? The confounding question – how do you measure a life?


Sawyer gives us an inside look at the issues of mental health in women’s state prisons where 73% of the inmates have mental illnesses. She also explores the daily duel of wits between inmates and guards and the intricacies of contraband, currency and conspiracy. Inside these walls, the women still find ingenious ways to get the food they crave, the makeup they miss, and sometimes even sex.


Sawyer and her team traveled to Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville, Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor and the Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, Florida.


This is Sawyer’s third special on women in prison. She has been committed to reporting this issue over nearly two decades. In 1996, she reported from the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women about life inside a maximum-security prison and how inmates prepare for life on the outside.  In 2004, Sawyer spent two days and two nights at the Metro State Prison for Women in Atlanta dressed in a prison uniform to experience the underground culture of an inmate.


“Hidden America” is a division-wide series committed to shining a light on the stories of those living in the shadows. The reports also spotlight the creative and innovative solutions by people who make a difference. Previous programs include award-winning documentaries on children in Camden, New Jersey, one of America’s poorest cities; families living in Appalachia; and a recent documentary on a remarkable principal trying to turn around one of America’s most dangerous schools in Philadelphia.


David Sloan is the senior executive producer and Claire Weinraub is the senior producer on this special.

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