Prisons: Prisons for Women

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Understanding the contemporary prison for women requires an examination of the historical development of this system of social control and the critical issues relating to the imprisonment of women in the modern era. These issues include the development of distinct subcultures within these institutions, the enormous rise in the numbers of women in prison beginning in the late 1980s, the characteristics of women prisoners, and the gender-specific concerns such as physical and sexual abuse, separation from children, substance abuse, and unmet program needs.


Throughout history, the female criminal has been cast as a "double-deviant"; first, because she violated the criminal or moral law and, second, perhaps more importantly, because she has violated the narrow moral strictures of the female role within society. In almost every Western society, women have been cast as second-class citizens, subservient to the will and wishes of men. Women who violated the law, then, also violated their subservient position and were seen as morally suspect as well as criminal. Prior to the development of prisons in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, punishment for women and men took a variety of forms: Serious offenders were put to death by hanging or burning, or banished from their community or sold as slaves. Belknap notes that in the Middle Ages, for example, women who committed adultery or killed their spouses were commonly burned to death. Less serious offenders were subjected to physical punishments such as whippings, stocks and pillories, or branding; and social punishments including public humiliation and shame. For women, mask-like devices, called the brank or bridle, were used in England up until the 1800s and were designed to punish and control outspoken women who gossiped or disobeyed their husbands.

Although death and physical torture remained in use, Western society began to consider alternatives to them in the nineteenth century. Houses of correction, workhouses, and transportation to colonies were precursors of modern confinement and served to bridge the gap between the death penalty and the contemporary prison. The house of correction and the workhouse were designed to address the moral failings of the underclass. In their various forms, these institutions were used to confine less serious offenders, including penniless women and prostitutes. Women could also be sent to bride-wells, poorhouses, or nunneries by fathers or husbands who wanted to punish the unruly, disobedient, or unchaste woman. These early modes of imprisonment attempted to combine punishment for past wrongdoing with attempts at reforming future behavior. Transportation developed in western Europe, most notably in England, as another alternative to the death penalty. In the 1700s, England transported over 60 percent of the convicted offenders to work as indentured servants in the colonies in America and Australia. Historians estimate that between 12 and 20 percent of those transported were women, who were typically convicted of crimes relating to poverty or sexual behavior. Ironically, women were transported to the colonies were often used as prostitutes or mistresses to meet the demand for sexual partnerswilling or notin these rough new worlds. Those escaping forced prostitution were indentured servants to the managerial class. About 24,000 women were transported to Australia between 1788 and 1852.

The penitentiary was the next step in the evolution of the prison. Dungeons, castles, and the like had been used for centuries to confine wrongdoers until physical punishment could be delivered. The penitentiary, however, was the first attempt to use confinement as the punishment itself. In England, one of the first models for the modern prison was intended to provide a place of penance for prostitutes. This radical experiment was based on principles of separation from the moral contagion of their former lives, religious contemplation, and rigid structure. Up until the late 1800s, women, men, and children were confined together in these attempts at correction, often with no provision for food, clothing, or bedding. Those without families or other means of support lived in brutal and unsanitary conditions. Women often resorted to prostitution with more propertied inmates or officials to survive. However noble in principle, most of these attempts at correction failed. Overcrowding, lack of adequate funding, a corrupt and untrained guard force, and little real commitment to the ideal of reforming the underclass contributed to this failure.

The history of prisons took a new turn in the American colonies. At the end of the American Revolution (1783), incarceration was relatively uncommon. The crimes committed by women wereand continue to befewer and less serious than those committed by men. For the female minor offender, public humiliations, such as the ducking stool, the stocks, and the "Scarlet Letter," were delivered to those behaving outside the authority of men as well as those breaking the law. Corporal and capital punishment continued to be the primary forms of punishment for serious crimes but new ideas about punishment and reform gained a foothold in the American colonies. By the 1820s, the American solution to crime was the American penitentiary. Based on the principles articulated in England, the American penitentiary flowered during the Jacksonian era. Two similar models took root between 1820 and 1840the silent and the congregate systems. Both models used work, discipline, religious contemplation, and separation from the free world to attempt change in the convicted criminal.

Few women were confined in the emerging penitentiary system. While only about 4 percent of the U.S. prison population was female by 1950, most scholars agree that these few imprisoned women did not benefit from this experiment in reform. Robert Johnson states that women and minorities were "barely considered human" (p. 32), and thus not fit candidates for the penitentiary's regime. The few women imprisoned in the early 1880s were confined to traditional prisons that offered no plan for reform. Pollock-Byrne (1986) describes these places of confinement as having little regard for the safety and health of the woman prisoner. Like the first houses of correction, prisons for women in America were dirty, crowded, unsupervised, and without adequate bedding, food, and other provisions. Women were often locked away in rooms above the guardhouse or mess hall of the male prison with little access to workshops and exercise yards. Often left without supervision, women were vulnerable to attacks by one another and the male guards. Male staff and prisoners alike sexually abused women in these early prisons. Freedman argued that women were subjected to the "worst debasement at the hands of prison officials and guards" (p. 60) and that sadistic beatings, rape, and illegitimate births combined to make the prison experience even more terrifying. Dobash, Dobash, and Gutteridge conclude that, "From the very beginning, women in prison were treated very differently from men, considered more morally depraved and in need of special, closer forms of control and confinement" (p. 1).

While Elizabeth Fry began her work to reform the conditions of English women's prisons in 1816, the reformatory movement in the United States developed later in the mid-nineteenth century. Prisons for women then diverged into two directions, custodial institutions and the reformatory (Rafter, 1986). The custodial model was the traditional prison, adopting the retributive purpose, high-security architecture, male-dominated authority and harsh discipline of the male prison (Rafter, 1985, p. 21). Many women remained confined to the male prison, with little regard to their gendered needs. The reformatory, in contrast, was a new form of punishment designed specifically to house women in entirely separate institutions, with female matrons and programs planned to reform women by promoting appropriate gender roles. Training in cooking, sewing, laundry, and other domestic arts were designed to return the woman prisoner to free society as either a well-trained wife or a domestic servant. The unwalled reformatories were built on large parcels of land, usually in rural areas with small cottages instead of cellblock structures. Rafter (1985) offers evidence that minority women were more likely to be sent to the more brutal custodial prison, whereas white women, particularly young, white women who had committed minor offenses, were more likely to be seen as ideal candidates for redemption in the reformatory. Alderson Federal Prison inWest Virginia and the California Institute for Women represent the reformatory model and were still in use at the end of the 1990s.

Ending in the 1930s, the reformatory movement established separate women's facilities with some recognition of the gendered needs of women. After the 1930s, the custodial and reform models merged, combining elements of their two styles with differing results throughout the United States. The legacy of these movements continues to shape prisons for women. First, with the exception of a relatively few "cocorrections" experiments that housed women and men together with common programming, most prisons in the 1990s were single sex. Second, vocational programming tends to reinforce gender stereotypes, although some innovative programs that offer training in welding, woodworking, and other male-identified trades are found in the contemporary prison. Third, women in prison continue to be subjected to the neglect that characterizes their history from the early houses of correction to the modern prison.

By the 1940s and 1950s, the medical model of corrections emerged as a new philosophy of punishment. Called "correctional institutions," these prisons moved away from the harsh discipline and work orientation of the custodial prison and instead attempted to introduce treatment to a newly defined inmaterather than convictpopulation. "Correctional officers" replaced prison guards, and the inmates were introduced to a treatment regime that attempted to diagnose, classify, and treat the inmate prior to release. An indeterminate sentencing system rewarded those who appeared to conform to this treatment by release on parole. There is little evidence that this approach had any more success in rehabilitating womenor menthan other prior forms of punishment.

During this time, the social sciences "discovered" the prison and began investigating the way prisoners adjusted to and lived their lives in prison. While most of these studies of the prison focused on men, some of the classic work on the subcultures of women's prisons was conducted in the 1960s and early 1970s (Owen; Ward and Kassebaum; Giallombardo; and Heffernan).

The contemporary prison

Beginning in the 1970s, prison systems began to return to a custodial or "warehouse" model, with few prisons offering rehabilitative programs. This trend continued into the 1980s and 1990s. In this period, the numbers of women in prison began to skyrocket, due primarily to enhanced and punitive sanctions against drug offenders. Prisons for women then became increasingly crowded as women were hard hit by this national trend. The female prison population increased disproportionately to the increase in women's involvement in serious crime (Immarigeon and Chesney-Lind). Some states began to build new prisons for women, again using designs based on male prisons. Many of the reformatory prisons remain in use, but the majority of modern prisons for women are now run as custodial rather than as rehabilitative institutions.

Most states have a relatively small number of prisons for women and thus house women prisoners at one or two geographically isolated locations. California, with the largest prison population in the United States (at almost 12,000 in 1999), is the exception with five prisons for women. Women are often housed far from home, friends, and their families and are distant from services more available in urban communities. While male prisoners are assigned to the more numerous facilities with a wider range of security levels, the majority of women in the United States are confined to prisons that encompass all classification and security levels in one facility. In the contemporary prison, security procedures often interfere with privacy. While privacy is eroded by crowded conditions, shared housing units, and the need for surveillance, the presence of male staff undermines a woman's ability to attend to personal hygiene and grooming without the scrutiny of men. In most prisons, between 50 and 80 percent of the custody staff is male. Male staff supervise housing units, monitoring women in showers, toilets, and in the rooms or cells where they dress. Most prison systems prohibit male staff from performing strip searches.

With the exception of newly arrived prisoners and the small number held in the more restrictive special housing units (such as administrative segregation or security housing units), most women prisoners remain in the general population. Most women prisoners work, attend school, and participate in other programs with all prisoners, whose classification may range from minimum to maximum custody. A very small number of women are housed in administrative segregation or security housing units. Movement within the institution, program participation, and other privileges are severely restricted in these housing units. Women in these units are confined to their cells an average of 23 hours a day, eat their meals in their cells, and are allowed very limited recreation and visiting privileges (Owens, 1998). Only a small percentage of all the women in prison are confined to special housing units but these conditions are often severe.


Although most states began to build separate institutions for women during the reformatory era, some proportion of women remain confined to prisons with men. By the late 1980s, about 25 percent of the female prison population were held in "co-correctional" facilities. The Federal Bureau of Prisons pioneered the use of cocorrectional facilities, but nationwide the number of co-correctional facilities dwindled in the 1990s. Most scholars agree that placing women in an environment with male prisoners creates a distinct disadvantage. While a sexually integrated prison appears to approximate "real world" social conditions and may offer more programs than found in female-only institutions, the research shows that women are more often subjected to more restrictive security and are less likely to take advantage of the increased program opportunities. In light of the move toward "gender-responsive" programming, the use of cocorrectional facilities seems to have run its course.

Prison subcultures

The study of prison subcultures investigates the way prisoners adjust to prison, the way they learn to "do their time," and the resulting prison social structure. By the 1960s and 1970s, scholars began to study the subculture of women's prisons and found that it was much different than life in male prisons. The first two of theses important works (Ward and Kassebaum; Giallombardo) discussed a prison social structure based on family, traditional sex-roles, and same-sex relations. In Women's Prison: Sex and Social Structure, Ward and Kassebaum found the women in prison felt a loss of control over their lives and anxiety over the course of their prison term. In order to alleviate these feelings, women participated in a prisoner social system to regain a sense of control and belonging while in prison. Included in these feelings of loss were "affectional starvation" resulting from their loss of family and male partners. Ward and Kassebaum suggested women prisoners developed the "pseudo family" and relationships with other prisoners to make up for this loss. Giallombardo's Society of Women also described the world of imprisoned women based on sex-role adaptation and family or kinship structures. She stated that the social order of women's prison is based on an adaptation of traditional feminine roles, such as mother, daughter, and wife. Masculine sex roles find expression in the prison social roles of the "stud." Giallombardo argued that the family or kinship structure of the women's prison is also based on this sex-role framework.

In a third classic study, Making It in Prison: The Square, the Cool, and the Life, Heffernan described how women prisoners organize their prison identities around two things: their preprison identities and their differential adaptation to the prison subculture. Women who did not define themselves as serious criminals prior to prison adopted "the Square" orientation to prison life, and continued to hold conventional behaviors and attitudes during their imprisonment. In contrast, women who adapted to prison life as "the Cool" became heavily invested in a prison-based identity and developed a form of doing time that was based on prison values. Finally, some women retained their street identity of the petty criminal and adopted "the Life" as their style of doing time. These three studies found remarkable similarities: Prison culture among women was tied to gender expectations of sexuality and family relationships and these expectations also shaped the way women developed their lives within prison.

Decades later, In the Mix: Struggle and Survival in a Women's Prison described the daily life of the women's prison, with an emphasis on the gendered nature of its social structure, roles, and normative frameworks. Owen also found that prison culture for women was tied directly to the role of women in society as well as to a dynamic social structure that was shaped by the conditions of women's lives in prison and in the "free world." Like Heffernan, In the Mix describes the lives of women before prison and suggests that these lives shape their adaptation to prison culture. Owen found that economic marginalization, histories of personal and substance abuse, and self-destructive behavior are defining features of inmate's lives prior to prison. She also saw that the amount of time women have to serve and their kinds of work and housing assignments affect the way women in prison "program," developing a pattern to their daily life and relationships that determines the way women adapt to prison. Since about 80 percent of the women in prison are mothers, great importance was placed on relationships with their children. Finally, Owen described "the mix" as part of prison culture that supported the rule-breaking behavior that propels women into prison. This study concluded that prison subcultures for women are very different from the violent and predatory structure of the contemporary male prison. Owen did not find the presence of gangsa central feature of the contemporary male prisonat the prison she studied. Women experience "pains of imprisonment" but their prison culture offers them other ways to survive and adapt to these deprivations.

Population increases

Enormous increases in population characterize prisons for women since the mid-1980s. In 1980, 12,300 women were imprisoned in state and federal institutions, rising to 44,065 in 1990 and to 75,000 women in 1996. By 1998, this number had risen to 84,427, an almost fourfold increase in just under twenty years. In addition, approximately 64,000 women were incarcerated in local jails and over 700,000 were on probation, parole, or community supervision. In total, nearly 850,000 women were under some form of criminal justice supervision in the United States (Bureau of Justice Statistics 1999a, 1999b). In California alone, the female prison population rose dramatically from 1,316 in 1980, to almost 12,000 in 1999. During 1998, Texas incarcerated over 10,000 women, New York prisons held just under 4,000, and Florida over 3,500. In the federal system, the women's prison population almost doubled from 5,011 in 1990 to 9,186 in 1998. Between 1990 and 1998, the number of women in U.S. prisons increased 92 percent compared to 67 percent increase in the number of men (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999a).

This explosion in the women's prison population cannot be explained by looking at the crime rate of women only. Compared to men, women generally commit fewer crimes and their offenses tend to be less serious. A major gender difference is the low rate of violent crime committed by women. The offenses for which women are arrested and incarcerated are primarily nonviolent property and drug offenses. When women do commit acts of violence, it is most likely against a spouse or partner and in the context of self-defense. In analyzing data from the 19701995 Uniform Crime Reports, Steffensmeir and Allan found that drug offenses have had the most significant impact on female arrest rates. Sharp increases in the numbers of women arrested for minor property crimes, like larceny, fraud, and forgery, have also contributed to the explosion in women's imprisonment. Many women resort to minor property crime in order to support their drug use. In addition to increased prosecution of drug offenses, the lack of viable treatment and alternative community sanctions for women has contributed to this unprecedented increase in women's population (Bloom, Chesney-Lind, and Owen). Most criminologists see that the war on drugs, a drug control policy started at the federal level in the 1980s, accounts for the unprecedented rise in the imprisonment of women.

The composition of women's prisons

The profile of women in prison has remained consistent: Female prisoners are primarily low income, disproportionately African American and Hispanic, undereducated, unskilled, and unemployed. They are mostly young and heads of households with an average of two children. At least two-thirds of incarcerated women have children under the age of eighteen. Substance abuse, compounded by poverty, unemployment, physical and mental illness, physical and sexual abuse, and homelessness also characterize the women's prison population (Owen and Bloom). Surveys conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (1991b, 1994), the American Correctional Association (1990), and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Klein), as well as individual state profiles (Owen and Bloom) provide information about the demographic characteristics of women in prison. These descriptions remain accurate even as the numbers of women in prison continue to surge upward. The following factors characterize this population.

Race and ethnicity. In addition to gender differences between male and female crime, women's arrest and incarceration rates vary by race (Chesney-Lind). Minority women are disproportionately represented in the U.S. prison population, with the percentage of African American women who are incarcerated growing at increasing rates. In 1991, African American women made up about 40 percent of the female prison population; by 1995, this population had grown to 48 percent. The percentage of Hispanic and Latina women is also growing at a somewhat slower rate (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1997, 1994).

In spite of this disproportionate racial and ethnic composition, racial conflict has not been a primary feature of the social order of female prisons. While racial and ethnic identity is predominant in male prison culture, these conflicts do not shape the way women do their prison time. Women in prison generally live and work in an integrated environment and form personal relationships that often cross racial lines. Racial and ethnic gangs have not yet appeared in women's prisons to the extent they are found in male prisons. While a small number of women may enter the prison with some street gang or clique affiliation, the subculture of the women's prison offers little support for these pre-prison identities. Women seeking the personal and community ties found in street gangs are likely to find substitutes within the prison families or other personal relationships (Owen).

Race relations with staff, however, are potentially more antagonistic. The majority of correctional staff is both white and male in most U.S. prisons for women. Minority women prisoners have reported race-based instances of name-calling, job and program discrimination, and unfair disciplinary practices (Owen; Bloom). Faily and Roundtree (1979) found that African-American prisoners are more likely than other women to be cited for disciplinary infractions.

Age at first arrest and criminal history. The American Correctional Association (ACA) survey found that most women in prison were first arrested at a young age. One-third of those interviewed were first arrested between fifteen and nineteen years of age, and another quarter between twenty and twenty-four years old. Just over 9 percent were arrested prior to their fourteenth birthday and just over 10 percent were arrested after age thirty-five. According to the 1994 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, over half of the women in prison were serving their first prison term. This survey also found that most women serving a second term had been convicted in the past for only nonviolent offenses. Nearly two-thirds of all female inmates had two or fewer prior convictions. Almost three-quarters of all state female prisoners had served a prior sentence to probation or incarceration, including 20 percent who had served a sentence as a juvenile.

Drug use and drug arrests. In the 1990s, substance abuse played a key role in the imprisonment of women and contributed dramatically to the increasing numbers of women prisoners. Women are more likely to use drugs, use more serious drugs more frequently, and be under the influence of drugs at the time of their crime than males (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1994). In the national studies, over one-third of all female prisoners interviewed in 1991 reported being under the influence of some drug at the time of their offense. Around 40 percent reported daily drug use in the month before their offense. Almost one-quarter of the 1991 sample reported committing their crime to get money to buy drugs (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1994).

Victimization. Women in prison have extensive histories of sexual and physical abuse. In the 1991 national surveys, an estimated 43 percent of women in prison reported previous physical or sexual abuse. Others found higher rates of abuse among women in prison (Owen and Bloom). Violent offenders were most likely to have previously experienced this abuse (Bureau of Crime Statistics, 1994). An estimated 50 percent of women in prison who reported abuse said they had experienced abuse at the hands of an intimate, compared to three percent of men. More than three-quarters of the female inmates who had a history of abuse reported being sexually abused. An estimates 56 percent of the abused women said that their abuse had involved a rape, and another 13 percent reported an attempted rape (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1994). The 1990 ACA survey found that 50 percent of the women reported a history of physical abuse, with 35 percent reporting sexual abuse. This abuse was likely to be at the hands of husbands or boyfriends.

Other demographic factors. According to surveys conducted in the early 1990s, just over half of the women in prison at that time had been employed in the year prior to their arrest. Most were unmarried; 45 percent of the women prisoners had never been married and another third of female inmates were either separated or divorced. Just about 60 percent grew up in households without both parents present. Almost half (47%) had an immediate family member incarcerated at some time. About 35 percent had brothers and 10 percent had sisters who had been incarcerated. Eighty percent of the prisoners interviewed in a national survey reported incomes at or below the poverty level (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1994).

Problems and unmet needs in the contemporary women's prison

Women in the contemporary prison face many problems; some resulting from their lives prior to imprisonment, others resulting from their imprisonment itself. Women in prison have experienced victimization, unstable family life, school and work failure, and substance abuse and mental health problems. Social factors that marginalize their participation in mainstream society and contribute to the rising number of women in prison include poverty, minority group member, single motherhood, and homelessness. While in U.S. prisons, women, like prisoners throughout the world, face specific pains and deprivations arising directly from their imprisonment. Criminologists have argued that the prison system is ill-equipped to deal with these problems and that theses issues are better managed outside the punitive environment of the prison (Owen and Bloom; Owen). Without attention to these issues, women are often released from prison unprepared to manage their preexisting problems as well as those created by their imprisonment. There are several critical problems faced by women in prison; most are unmet in the prison environment.

Separation from children and significant others. National surveys of women prisoners find that three-fourths of them were mothers, with two-thirds having children under the age of eighteen. Bloom and Chesney-Lind argue that mothers in prison face multiple problems in maintaining relationships with their children and encounter obstacles created both by the correctional system and child welfare agencies. The distance between the prison and the children's homes, lack of transportation, and limited economic resources compromise a woman prisoner's ability to maintain these relationships. Children of women in prison experience many hardships. Children may be traumatized by the arrest of their mother and the sudden, forced separation imprisonment brings. Emotional reactions such as anger, anxiety, depression, and aggression have been found in the children of incarcerated mothers. While most children of imprisoned mothers live with relativestypically grandparentsa small percentage of these children are placed in the child welfare system. These conditions compound the problem of maintaining contact with children. Over half of the women responding to Bloom and Steinhart's 1993 survey of imprisoned mothers reported never receiving visits from their children.

An estimated 4 to 9 percent of women come to prison pregnant. Women who give birth while incarcerated are rarely allowed to spend time with their child after birth. Mother-infant bonding is severely undermined by this lack of contact after birth. Bedford Hills, a women's prison in New York, is the only program in the U.S. that allows women to keep their newborns with them in a special prison program. This humane response is more common in Britain and other European nations.

Most correctional systems do not take into account the importance of the mother-child relationship in designing policy for women in prison. Some states, such as New York and California, have begun innovative programs to address these problems. Coordinating visits to the prison and support services with child welfare agencies, providing special visiting areas, developing effective parenting classes, and developing community corrections programs for mothers and their children are examples of these innovations. Termination of parental rights also affect prison mothers. About half the states have policies that address the termination of parental rights of incarcerated parents. Advocates of women in prison and their children argue that family reunification, rather than termination of the mother's parental rights, should be a priority of correctional policy for women prisoners.

Lack of substance abuse treatment. Although women offenders are very likely to have an extensive history of drug and alcohol use, a relatively small percentage of women receive any treatment within the justice system. Insufficient individual assessment, limited treatment for pregnant, mentally ill, and violent women offenders, and a lack of appropriate treatment and vocational training limit the effectiveness of the few programs that exist (Wellisch et al.). These findings are supported by a 1998 study released by the National Center on Addition and Substance Abuse. The report found that women substance abusers are more prone to intense emotional distress, psychosomatic symptoms, and low self-esteem than male inmates.

Physical and mental health care. In addition to requiring basic health care, women offenders often have specific health needs related to their risky sexual and drug-using behavior prior to imprisonment. Acoca has argued that the enormity of health care issues may in fact eclipse other correctional concerns as the female inmate population continues to grow. Women in prison are also at risk for infectious diseases, including HIV, tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases, and hepatitis B and C infections. Pregnancy and reproductive health needs are another neglected area of health care. Problems of pregnant inmates include lack of prenatal and postnatal care, inadequate education regarding childbirth and parenting, and little or no preparation for the mother's separation from the infant after delivery.

Mental health disorders are equally neglected in U.S. prisons. While the prevalence and incidence of these needs are still to be determined, estimates suggest that 25 percent to 60 percent of the female prison population require mental health services. Teplin, Abraham, and McClelland found that over 60 percent of female jail inmates had symptoms of drug abuse, over 30 percent had signs of alcohol dependence, and another third had post-traumatic stress disorder. Few prisons have adequate assessment or mental health treatment programs and often "overmedicate" women inmates in need of more intensive treatment.

The impact of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse found in the experience of women offenders also creates a significant need for counseling and therapy (Pollock). This abuse has implications for their emotional and physical well-being and may be tied to drug-abusing and offending behaviors.

Vocation and educational programs. In addition to insufficient substance abuse and mental health services, educational and vocational programs are also in short supply. Several studies (Pollock-Byrne; Morash, Haarr, and Rucker) found that female prisons offered fewer vocational and education program opportunities when compared to those offered in male institutions. In general, women across the country lack training needed to obtain jobs that pay a living wage. One aspect of this inadequacy is that, like the training offered in the reformatories of the early 1990s, many vocational programs for female inmates emphasize traditional roles for women and work.

Sexual abuse. The patterns of sexual abuse and coercion established in the early days of women's imprisonment continue in the contemporary era. Human Rights Watch examined this serious problem in their review of sexual abuse in selected U.S. prisons. The damage of the abuse itself is compounded by four specific issues: (1) the inability to escape one's abuser; (2) ineffectual or nonexistent investigative and grievance procedures; (3) lack of employee accountability (either criminally or administratively); and (4) little or no public concern. The report bluntly states that the "findings indicate that being a woman in U.S. state prisons can be a terrifying experience" (p. 1).

Disparate disciplinary practices. Although male prisons typically hold a much greater percentage of violent offenders, women tend to receive disciplinary action at a greater rate than men. Research has found that women prisoners were cited more frequently and punished more severely than males. These infractions committed by women in prison tend to be petty when compared to the more serious infractions committed by male prisoners (McClelland).

Gender-specific treatment. Bloom and Covington have charged that the criminal justice system often fails to develop a diversity of options for dealing with the gender and culturally specific problems of female offenders. Gender-specific services should incorporate physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and sociopolitical issues in addressing these needs. Gender-responsive supervision and program approaches must focus on issues such as cross-gender supervision, appropriate relationships between staff and offenders, parity in programming, and appropriate interventions for women offenders. There is also a need for gender-responsive (and culturally relevant) classification tools, assessment instruments, treatment plans, and aftercare. Based on the characteristics of women offenders, their pathways to crime, how they differ from male offenders, and how the system responds to them differently, the need for gender-responsive treatment and services seems clear.


Women in prison are typically young, poor, from minority communities, and have experienced significant problems in their life prior to imprisonment. More simply, women in prison have been triply marginalized by race, class, and gender (Bloom).

Throughout history, women have been sent to prison for offenses that differ dramatically from those of male prisoners. While the increasingly harsh treatment of the drug offender leads to the incarceration of thousands of women and men into the contemporary prison, women have been sent to prison in rates far surpassing those of men. Women are usually incarcerated for nonviolent property and drug offenses and are very often serving their first prison term. Women also "do their time" in ways different from men: The "play family" and other personalized relationships structure prison culture for women; racial and ethnic differences are less pronounced; and children remain an important part of women's lives, even while imprisoned.

While scholarship in the 1990s provided more detailed description of women's prisons and those confined to them, significant gaps in our knowledge about women's prisons remain. There is insufficient information about programs and policies that address the gender-specific needs of women in prison (Bloom and Covington) and little criminological theory that explains why women come to prisons (Chesney-Lind). McQuiade and Ehrenreich have also argued that we know virtually nothing about the characteristics of women prisoners across racial and ethnic groupings.

From the beginning, prisons in the United States were designed to punish men, with little consideration for women and their specific needs. Although the numbers of women in U.S. prisons continue to grow, programs and policies responsive to the needs of women prisoners has not kept pace. This lack of policy and research attention only continues the tradition of neglect and inattention that characterizes the history of prisons for women.

Barbara Owen

See also Correctional Reform Associations; Deterrence; Incapacitation; Jails; Juvenile Justice: Institutions; Prisoners, Legal Rights of; Prisons: History; Prisons: Correctional Officers; Prisons: Prisoners; Prisons: Problems and Prospects; Rehabilitation; Retributivism.


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Belknap, Joanne. The Invisible Woman: Gender, Crime, and Justice. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Press, 1996.

Bloom, Barbara. "Triple Jeopardy: Race, Class, and Gender as Factors in Women's Imprisonment." Ph.D. diss. University of CaliforniaRiverside, 1996.

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