By Lily Walter
In a series of four podcasts, NPR and the Northwestern University School of Journalism found that female inmates are disciplined disproportionately in prisons. Women get disciplined at higher rates than men, especially with smaller infractions. They get written up at two to three times the rate that men do for minor violations.
Women were five times more likely to get in trouble for a lesser offense than a man. Tickets for rule violations add up, causing both punishment and the loss of good conduct credits. This results in time added to sentences, time spent in solitary, or the loss of phone and visitation privileges.
Many of these tickets are given as a result of emotion, and not out of legitimate safety concerns. Women get twice the disciplinary tickets for disobeying an order, for “disrespect”, or derogatory comments than men do. In Rhode Island, women were more than twice as likely to get sent to solitary confinement than men were. Women are two to three times more likely to get in trouble for insolence or talking back to a corrections office, and are three times more likely to get punished for the violation of being disruptive. Because women in our society are expected to be compliant, when they push back against an officer verbally, extreme action is often taken.
According to some wardens of female correctional facilities, prisons were and are set up for men, and therefore can’t be applied to women. Female inmates tend to want to mediate in situations where they see an injustice has occurred. Male guards dislike this, because they think the women are difficult and disruptive, and will write inmates up for minor offenses, like reckless eyeballing. Black, trans, mentally disabled, and lesbian inmates tend to get written up more often than other inmates, especially for minor offenses.
Correctional officers (COs) overuse solitary or extreme segregation. While anyone under the purview of corrections suffers emotional distress, studies find that women may be hit the hardest. Many female inmates have PTSD. In fact, female inmates have higher rates of PTSD than any other studied demographic, including combat veterans. This is connected to the high levels of trauma experienced by women in prison. According to studies conducted among female inmates, 75-90% of women in prisons today are victims of sexual or physical violence. So, for many women, if people bark orders them, they may have an emotional response.
Some states, like Illinois, are trying to move towards gender-responsive corrections practices. Women and men are different, and respond differently, so prisons must respond differently and be less punitive in the way they respond to women. For example, because more than half the women in prisons are mothers of children under the age of 18, COs need to be attuned to the specific issues in women’s lives.
There is a new wave of prison reform created by women, for women. Prisons are a world dominated by men, even for COs. Gender responsive corrections trains officers to deal with female prisoners in particular. 15 states have adopted these practices and are building new systems around the assumption that female offenders are different from male offenders. In reality, men and women take very different paths to prison. Women are less likely than men to commit violent offenses and less likely to behave violently once in prison.
In Iowa, their women’s prison is significantly different. It is landscaped more like a college campus, and inmates are encouraged to spend time outside, doing normal activities. COs are trained to let some small situations go; if it isn’t a safety issue they are encouraged to try to de-escalate that situation instead. One inmate said the new officers interact with them more, and realize they are people now.
Despite positive forward motion, some COs aren’t on board. And since training, many of the COs have not changed their practices.
However, one inmate shared her story about the rules being much stricter 20 years ago, and how much has changed. She says the changes in the way women are treated helped her grow. She feels she has been helped with her own shame and regret.
Are there lessons in how to make prisons better for men as well? Men make up 93% of people in prison, and have also experienced trauma in their lives outside of prison, and within the walls of correctional facilities. Those involved in corrections reform are looking to train COs in the practice of seeking to de-escalate conflict, instead of simply handing down punitive measures, in the hopes of creating new, more humane policies.
But, according to those involved, it’s hard to make these issues a priority.