Chapter 2: 'Doing Gender' in a Women's Prison Barbara H. Zaitzow, Ph.D. The horrors of life in men=s prisons are already part of our common currency B prison fights, riots, prison gangs, inmate-on-inmate rape, the threat of contracting HIV. Our lens on women=s prison has a softer focus, largely contrived by B movies in which tough, curvy broads with sharp tongues and snake tattoos start cat fights in the cafeteria. A few trays are thrown and peas tossed, but in the end, the matronly guards restore the order. It=s titillating, lurid, harmless. The truth, of course, is much more alarming.
When women enter prisons and jails they essentially become invisible. Statistically, women inmates are much less likely to be visited by their friends and family, in part because their facilities are in remote locations. Women have less money at their disposal than most men when they enter prison, since the crimes that land them in prison in the first place B drug offenses, theft and welfare fraud B are crimes of poverty. Slave wages for their labors behind bars don=t help them achieve any level of self-sufficiency, even to buy basic goods like aspirin or toothpaste. Stripped of their rights, money and contact with the outside world, they feel powerless, helpless and easy to manipulate.
As a result, women behind bars are saddled with an added level of punishment, which is, of course, not sanctioned by any prison system, but is so overlooked and so common as to be essentially institutionalized. This chapter explores the gendered experiences of women in prison with special attention to how prisoner culture is maintained and experienced by the women who live there. Moreover, the impact of institutional regiments of daily life on the prison culture which develops in women=s prisons will be discussed in the context of how such regiments may(not) be of benefit to the women upon release from the prison setting.
Characteristics of Female Offenders
As in any examination of women prisoners, the first point is to note that they constitute a small percentage of the total number of people incarcerated in the United States, contributing in part to their being labeled the Aforgotten offender.@ And while their relative proportions are small, the growing numbers of women being sent to prison is disproportionate to their involvement in serious crime. Women imprisoned in state and federal correctional institutions throughout the United States totaled 94,336 at mid-year 2001, representing 6.6 percent of the total prisoner population (Beck & Harrison, 2001). This represents twice the number of incarcerated women held in jails and prisons one decade earlier. Moreover, the impact on women of color has been disproportionately heavy. For African-American women, the incarceration rate is eight times that for white women; for Latinas, it is almost four times greater (Beck, 2000) - circumstances that reflect issues not only of race, but also of poverty.
Female offenders share many characteristics with male offenders and are very similar in terms of age, socioeconomic level and race/ethnic background. Female inmates are young (about two-thirds are under thirty-four years old), minority-group members (more than 60%), unmarried (more than 80%), undereducated (about 40% were not high school graduates), and underemployed (Beck & Mumola, 1999). Unlike men, large majorities are unmarried, mothers of children under 18, and daughters who had grown up in homes without both parents present. Moreover, a distinguishing characteristic of incarcerated females is their significantly increased likelihood of having survived sexual and/or physical violence, particularly by a male relative or intimate partner (Greenfeld & Snell, 1999). Research also shows that women in prison have experienced unusually high rates of extremely abusive "discipline" from parents, involvement in drugs, and prostitution, whether they were imprisoned for these crimes or not (Harlow, 1999).
The increased use of imprisonment for women offenders has been attributed to changes in legislative responses to the "war on drugs," changing patterns of drug use, and judicial decision making (Mauer, Potler, & Wolf, 1999). In other words, the criminal justice system is more willing to incarcerate women. Increasingly, women who are incarcerated in this country are there for non-violent, drug-related offenses that account for the largest source of the total growth among female inmates (38% nationally). The popularity of imprisonment as a sanctioning tool has significant implications for corrections, which traditionally has allocated few resources for institutional or community-based programs for female offenders. Because the overall proportion of women prisoners is still small relative to the total prison population, the special problems of women prisoners - while creating a wide range of recent individual and social concerns - continue to be minimized.
The picture that emerges of the female inmate is troubling. Female criminal behavior appears to be the product of continuing personal and social problems - the impact of physical and emotional abuse and extreme disadvantage, exacerbated by economic problems as well as drug and alcohol abuse. Often overlooked, is the fact that these personal and social problems are imported into the prison setting and become a part of the intricate web of the prison culture through which women negotiate their daily existence. At the same time, there is a need to address how institutional rules and programmatic opportunities available to women in prison, contribute to the continuation of the disadvantaged status of women prisoners. The gender stereotypes that influenced the first women=s reformatories - the idea of "treatment" for women entailed the fostering of sexual morality, the imposition of sobriety, the instilling of obedience, and the prescribing of the sex-role stereotype of mother and homemaker (Chandler, 1973:7; Freedman, 1981) - continue to affect the treatment, conditions, and opportunities of incarcerated women today.
Deception of the Prison Appearance
On the surface, most women's prisons are more attractive than men's. Some have been converted from country mansions or children's homes and the obvious aspects of security (such as gun towers) are often lacking Indeed, it has been acknowledged by various Departments of Correction (personal communications with administrators in California, 1976-1980, Virginia, 1983-1987, Illinois, 1988-1993 and North Carolina, 1994-present) that security considerations for women offenders do not loom so large because there is less public anxiety and fear when women escape from custody. Yet, as the inmates point out, there is only the appearance of a campus. Repression is every bit as strong as in men's prisons; it is simply much more subtle. The social control in women's prisons is best described as "pastel facism;" control glossed over and concealed by a superficial facade of false benevolence and concern for the lives of inmates. What few possessions they have are often confiscated or destroyed, and they are subject to arbitrary body searches at anytime (Cambanis, 2002; personal communications with women inmates housed in a maximum security prison in the southeast, 1994-present). When women in prison fail to conform to expectations, physical control is quickly instituted.
In the following sections, the insights of several women who live or have lived the prison experience of prison will be shared. The voices of these women echo the sentiments and realities of many women in prisons throughout the United States.
Upon Entry Into Prison
The objectives of the correctional system and the crimes of female offenders notwithstanding, once women enter the institution they often go from being a victim of justice to a victim of injustice. Cruel and unusual punishment is not supposed to exist today; however, one would never know by observing life in women's penal facilities. After arriving at her assigned correctional home, the new female prisoner must go through a series of orientation or "reception" procedures. She may come in handcuffed and be re-fingerprinted and photographed for institutional records. She soon loses all remaining dignity when she is stripped and searched for contraband, showered, and issued prison attire and bedding. When she is given her prison number, she is officially AProperty of the State.@
Being processed was like an assembly line. Each person had a job to do.
You go in there, you weren=t a person anymore, you weren=t human anymore,
they could care less. About forty-two of us came in together. They threw us
all in the same room, and we, four of us, shower together, it was awful. We
were in orange jump suits, with no underwear. For some girls, it was that
time of the month. One girl had to keep a pad on with a jump suit with no
panties on. That=s just the way it is. And they don=t care. The phrase is always,
AWelcome to the real world.@ (Vanessa at the Central California Women=s Facility,
in Owen, 1998: 77).
Over the next two to six weeks the incarcerated woman, who is relegated to a communal segregation living unit during this period, goes through medical and psychiatric examinations for everything from venereal disease to mental illness.
By the time she joins the general prison population, she has been instilled with the extensive rules and regulations of her confinement, including her new status of "institutional dependency." Although women's prisons are usually not the maximum security fortresses that men's prisons are, some suggest that the rules women must abide by are stricter (Carlen, 1994). These rules and regulations, as well as disciplinary actions for infractions, vary from one institution to another.
Many female inmates view the rules and regulations of prisons as willful efforts to "diminish their maturity" by "treating them like children and fostering dependency (Mann, 1984:210). The reality of women's prisons is that they create just as much frustration and pain as men's prisons (Giallombardo, 1966:Ch. 7; Freedman, 1981; Rafter, 1990).
identity and respect. We become accustom to the chaos and lurking danger
because we have to. We are forced to accept absurd rules and cope with insane
reasoning. (Christy Marie Camp at Valley State Prison for Women, in Camp, November, 2001: 1).
The Prison Experience
Sykes (1958) described the pains of imprisonment for men as the deprivations of liberty, goods and services, heterosexual relationships, autonomy, and security. All these deprivations apply equally to female prisoners, and some may be more severe for women. Separation from one's family is an obvious example of this. Women may also suffer from receiving fewer leisure, work and educational opportunities and closer surveillance than men.
Many have noted the corrections experience is significantly different for women than for
men, because men and women are treated differently by the courts and corrections systems
(Chesney-Lind & Pollock, 1995). It has been suggested that this differential treatment has to do
with the nature of crimes committed by women and the role of many women as mothers.
Unfortunately, our understanding of the role that sex and gender play in shaping prisoner culture
and experience has been constrained by a lack of recent research.
Although female offenders became the subjects of extensive research in the 1960s, studies examining their adjustment to imprisonment today have received minimal attention. Research continues to focus primarily on the effects of incarceration on male prisoners, suggesting that the female inmate remains a Aforgotten offender@ (MacKenzie, Robinson & Campbell, 1989; 1995). Those studies that have focused on the female inmate, however, have shown that the impact of imprisonment is more severe on women than on men, especially if they have family responsibilities (Durham 1994). As noted by Elaine Lord, Superintendent of Bedford Hills):(1995:266
Women Ado time@ differently from how men do time. Men concentrate on
Adoing their own time,@ relying on feelings of inner strength, and their ability
to withstand outside pressures to get themselves through their time in prison.
Women, on the other hand, remain interwoven in the lives of significant others,
primarily their children and their own mothers, who usually take on the care of
the children. Yet the inmate continues a significant care-giving role even
while incarcerated (Lord, 1995: 266).
Despite the growing number of long-term offenders in the United States, studies continue to focus primarily on the male long-term offender, with little emphasis being placed on females. Since few studies have examined issues of coping among women within the prison setting, very little is known about the special concerns of female inmates. Those studies that have focused on long-term female offenders, however, have had inconsistent results with regard to the effects of long-term sentencing.
In a study of female offenders, Carlen (1985) found that long-term inmates were more likely than short-term inmates to engage in one of four responses to the pains of imprisonment, including death, institutionalization, self-mutilation, and madness. Her results indicated further that the primary means of survival for long-term female offenders involved the formation of relationships with other prisoners. In contrast, MacKenzie et al. (1995) found no difference in the level of anxiety experienced by women serving both short- and long-term sentences, regardless of their time served in prison. In addition, they found the establishment of relationships with other inmates, or Astate families,@ to be a coping mechanism only for newly entered inmates as opposed to those having served their sentences for a longer period of time. A more recent investigation into women=s imprisonment experiences noted that Along-termers@ and Alifers@ have different challenges in composing a life in prison (Owen, 1998:71). Women serving sentences of ten years or more eventually reach an accommodation by which they can Ado their own time.@ As one young Alifer@ shares:
Can you imagine what it is like being a lifer and sitting in a room with five other
people who have three more months they have to sit through before they go
home and they can=t handle it? They are hysterical because their baby is out
there having a birthday without them? I am disgusted with their complaining
over nothing. (Mindy at the Central California Women=s Facility, in Owen, 1998: 72).
These studies suggest that coping behavior and prison adjustment may in some cases differ among short- and long-term female inmates, although a specific response to long-term incarceration cannot be generalized to the entire female prison population.
The social world found in men=s and women=s prisons exhibit at least two key differences. First, the social climate of the average women=s prison is, in comparison to even a medium-security men=s prison, far less tense; the institutions are far less violent (Gray, Mays, & Stohr, 1995). Most female prisoners come to prison because of a drug offense or property crime. Far fewer are violent personal offenders. Therefore, women=s prisons have a less predatory inmate population than that found in men=s prisons (Welch, 1996:360). Second, the functions served by the inmate subculture in prisons for men and women are different. For example, the inmate subculture in men=s prisons exists largely to protect inmates from each other. The subculture also helps to neutralize the rejection associated with incarceration, and provides a buffer between inmates and staff. In prisons for women, the subculture exists for these reasons plus an additional one. The subculture provides female inmates with emotional support (Pollock-Byrne, 1990:59-63; Welch, 1996:360).
Numerous historians and researchers have critiqued the tradition and current practice of treating women prisoners as wayward children, as distinct from men prisoners who are at least accorded adult status (Burkhart, 1973; Carlen, 1985). As noted by Watterson (1996), the controls of prison that attempt to regulate lives, attitudes, and behavior are synonymous with those used during infancy. The women prisoners, like children, are told when to get up, how to dress, what to eat, where to go, how to spend their time - in short, what to do and what not to do. The prison - represented by officers, staff, and administrators - acts as a Aparent,@ imposing rules and sanctions, much like the model of a punitive parent who seeks to control the child through sanctions and punishments. For instance, women have shared instances when they have angered authorities and, as a consequence, were moved from a choice living unit and/or job but were told that such actions were Afor their own good.@ Some women whose lives were out of control by being caught in a cycle of drugs and violence, may, indeed, feel relief from the restraints imposed by imprisonment.
Where would I be if I hadn=t been busted? Probably dead. Everyone I was
with out there is either dead of AIDS or in prison. I was in a prison within
myself. The drugs controlled my life. If I=d been thinking about my child,
I wouldn=t be here today...I loved my child. I did. But that=s not what
controlled me. (Judith Clark at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, in Clark, 1995: 309).
Prison forces that break and provides a Atime out@ from such destructive behaviors and driven activity as well as a space away from the pressures and problems women faced outside (Clark, 1995). Although external controls may mask problems, they do not solve them. Moreover, some women become dependent on the controlled prison environment.
Prison rules and interpersonal dynamics within women=s prisons perpetuate/promote the
dependency of it=s Aclients.@ Ironically, the closed, punitive prison environment can re-create
many of the dysfunctional family and social dynamics many of the women experienced as children
and as adults, with the resultant negative self-representations and impulses. This is particularly
significant given the large percentage of women in prison who report experiences of physical,
sexual and emotional abuse as children and/or adults (Zaitzow, 1996; Girshick, 1999). Forced
dependency can undermine a woman=s sense of autonomy and responsibility needed to succeed as
an individual on the outside.
Adaptation to Prison Life
The first moments upon arrival at prison can be terrifying, when the offender is uncertain where she fits in. Inmate adaptations to prison vary from facility to facility depending on such factors as institutional and administrative programs, personal philosophy, and inmate characteristics. These adaptations can be grouped under the concept of prisonization, which describes the degree to which inmates participate in and adopt the prison subculture.
Prisons are places of intense pressure and like all war zones, produce intense change;
for better or worse, no one will leave the same. A day in the system is an endless
deed...Faced with daily evidence of societal rejection and condemnation, with daily
blows to their self-esteem and sense of self, prisoners have no choice but to seek
their own sources of dignity and pride; their own ways of investing their lives with meaning...All prisoners confront the same problem: how to maintain their sense of
self and prove to themselves and others that they are women of substance and worth
in an environment designed to destroy this. (Christy Marie Camp at Valley State
Prison for Women, in Camp, March, 2001: 1).
Women quickly learn to adopt certain inmate identities and lifestyles as ways of adjusting to life behind bars. Female inmates, like their male counterparts, make adjustments to prison life. For many, faced with years behind walls, life becomes a strategy of survival. Their attempts at survival often mean that, compared to male inmates, women are more likely to be rule-breakers. Correctional officers describe female inmates as more emotional and manipulative. They are perceived by guards to be more difficult to supervise than men because they are seen as less respectful to authority and more willing to argue (Pollock, 1986). They are written up for twice as many infractions as men, but usually the infractions are less serious than those committed in men=s prisons (McClellan, 1994). Because of prior emotional problems or those induced by the stresses of incarceration, especially the separation from their children or loved ones, female inmates are more likely to engage in self-aggression, including suicide and self-mutilation (Pollock, 1990).
Like men, women become involved in an inmate subculture that includes codes of conduct established by inmates, roles to be acted out, and special terminology that sets inmates apart from staff and the outside world. The subculture facilitates adjustment and coping to counterbalance the negative aspects of confinement (Hart, 1995). Many women incarcerated for the first time do not see themselves as criminals and are called Asquares@ by other inmates. Those referred to as Acool@ are professional criminals, such as con artists, who see the time spent in prison as merely a temporary setback. They maximize their opportunities to enjoy prison life as much as possible by manipulating others. Habitual offenders, referred to a being Ain the life,@ such as drug addicts and prostitutes, find status and acceptance into a family structure (Heffernan, 1972).
Women who face the emotional deprivation and cold environment of imprisonment find ingenious ways of accommodating to the world in which they live. The reality for incarcerated women is that no matter the ambiance, degradation, or lack of heat, prison is Ahome@ - a perfect setting for playing house. To play house, of course, you need all the players, including husbands and children. The architectural model is there, the emphasis is there. The only missing elements are the real relationships with men and children and blood relatives. So a family system has developed naturally, an evolution of the model for rehabilitation that reformers first conceived but failed to understand.
Women are more likely to form dyads (two-person groups) and pseudo-families. Surrogate or make-believe families - also referred to as Astate families@ - form groups in which inmates play the roles of father, mother, brother and sister. Others may attach themselves to the family as aunts, uncles, and cousins. The mother-daughter relationship is the most common. Sometimes inmates Amarry@ or Adivorce@ each other. Most homosexual relationships in women=s prisons appear to be voluntary and are not present in all kinship families. The woman playing the role of father or husband is referred to as the Astud,@ and the wife is the Afemme.@ Women who assume the male role and characteristics, sometimes referred to as Abutches@ or Adykes,@ may do so because of the associated power and status. This transformation is created by how they dress, style their hair, adopt nicknames, and display toughness. Yet, as noted by Superintendent McLaughlin of the Federal Reformatory for Women at Alderson, Virginia:
Who knows how much of it is real homosexuality? Or how much of what seems
to be homosexuality is actually consummated?...in our culture, if you ain=t got a
man, you ain=t got nothing. And that model from the outside carries into this
institution. People play roles, but a lot of it is just to fill out the public image the
people needing to be close to another human being. (Watterson, 1996:297)
Whether as lovers and/or as Afamily@ members, these kinship groups provide stability, warmth, security, and social bonding for women seeking primary group relationships (Propper, 1982).
Having a prison family means that when a woman is sick, she has someone to mother her. If a
woman is being bullied or threatened by someone outside of the family, she has family members
who will come to her defense. If she receives bad news from the outside, she has people to
confide in. Women rely and depend on their family members to varying degrees. Some of the
relationships are healthy, some are abusive, others are matters of convenience. And although it
may sound peculiar, this world of prison families is extremely natural, somehow, in the unnatural
world of prison. Recent research suggests that these pseudo-families are a logical extension for
incarcerated women, who like most women have Abeen socialized to concentrate their energies on
family relationships, women presumably miss these relationships more than men do and therefore
create pseudo-families to replace lost familial relationships@ (Bowker, 1981:415).
Special Needs of Female Inmate
Women in prison manifest a number of problems in common with men (e.g., drug dependence, lack of marketable job skills, health problems), but they have certain special needs.
Separation from one's family is an obvious example. Not infrequently, women enter prison pregnant and give birth while serving their sentences. In only a handful of states are they allowed to keep their children with them for limited periods; in most situations, the infant is removed soon after birth. Mother-child bonding is, thus, cut off from the very beginning. Incarcerated women are far more likely than incarcerated men to be the emotional and financial providers for their children. A recent study found 90 percent of men who are incarcerated report that the other parent had custody of their children once they were incarcerated. This same study found that 23 percent of incarcerated women report the children=s fathers had custody once they were institutionalized (Schafer & Dellinger, 1999). Some children go to relatives, and the mothers try to stay in touch but others are sent to foster care; and once there, parental rights can be terminated. AUnlike men sentenced to prison, women seldom have been able to rely on a spouse to care for their children; therefore they have suffered more anxiety about the welfare of their families@ (Rafter, 1985:179). In her study of almost 300 women prisoners, Owen (1998:101) describes most women=s relationships with their children as Asacred,@ providing Aa basis for attachment to the outside world not always found among male prisoners.@ There is no doubt that AMom is always Mom,@ and that doesn=t stop just because a mother is in prison (Lord, 1995).
The quality and quantity of health care received by all inmates have been questioned and generally found in need of reconsideration. Ross and Lawrence (1998) identified the medical problems of women prisoners as asthma, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, hypertension, herpes simplex II infection, chronic pelvic inflammatory disease, anxiety, neurosis and depression. The mental disorders, especially anxiety and depression, are high for both mothers and non-mothers, and one study found incarcerated women had perceived depression scores more than twice that for general population samples of women. Among the more egregious indignities to which pregnant women are subjected is that they are shackled while being transported to local hospitals to deliver their children or when seriously ill. According to a report by Amnesty International (1999), the delegates found that in one ward, every woman was chained by their leg to a bed. Because women commonly need and avail themselves of more medical services than men, the problem of poor medical services for the female inmate is even greater than it is for the male. The street lifestyle of many female inmates (e.g., drug and alcohol abuse, poor diet, possibly indiscriminate sexual behavior, restricted access to medical services, and the tendency to neglect medical problems) means that women entering prison are likely to require significant medical attention and education to help them take better care of themselves on release to the community (Acoca, 1998; Zaitzow, 2001).
With respect to vocational training and placement, the training available in correctional institutions typically Adoes not necessarily assist women offenders in obtaining meaningful and financially rewarding work@ (Prendergast, Wellisch, & Falkin, 1995:242). The focus on women as wives and mothers clearly belies the vast and growing number of single women who are heads of households. Although this situation has improved somewhat, there is still a theme in prison programming for women to reflect society=s bias that the most acceptable role for women is that of mother and wife (Diaz-Cotto, 1996). The work assignments that are available to women incarcerated in the United States tend to be in cosmetology, office skills (including data processing), sewing, and horticulture but few train women in skills to help them become legitimately independent on their release. By emphasizing training for traditional women=s low-skilled jobs and traditional definitions of gender roles, prisons also tend to increase women's dependency, stress women's domestic rather than employment role, aggravate women's emotional and physical isolation, disrupt family and other relationships, engender a sense of injustice (because they are denied many of the opportunities available to male prisoners) and may thereby indirectly intensify the pains of imprisonment. The irony of this situation is that the majority of women currently housed in institutions throughout the United States will be released from confinement and expected to "fit in" with mainstream society. Without providing these women the necessary social skills with which they may become viable contributors to/for society, their chances for successful assimilation as well as day-to-day survival will be impeded.
Vicitmization of Women Prisoners
The experiences of women in custody can be far more onerous than what their male counterparts face. Once a woman enters a federal or state facility, she gives up all her rights, not only to freedom and daily tasks, but to her body and to ward off sexual advances. Worse than the deficiency of programs for incarcerated women, some studies have found the medical Acare@ in women=s prisons to be abusive, with the psychiatrists among the Aworst offenders (Faith, 1993).
Faith recounts stories of imprisoned women coerced into being guinea pigs to test ineffective medications, psychiatrists who viewed and treated all incarcerated women=s problems as Apenis envy,@ and hysterectomies given indiscriminately to large numbers of women by unaccredited medical establishments and retired general practitioners with no gynecology experiences. As a Nightline (1999) series on the medical needs of female prisoners illustrated, in some institutions, abuses by medical staff may border on sexual harassment and generate litigation.
In addition, female inmates in all but one state have been victims of sexual misconduct by corrections employees, according to a report by Amnesty International USA (2000). Whether the proportion of incidents of sexual misconduct are increasing or whether more women are willing to talk about it remains to be seen. We do know that women prisoners are far more likely to be subjected to physical and other forms of sexual-related abuse than their male counterparts, including sexual assaults and other forms of non-consensual coercion. To compound the trauma of these exploitative and abusive experiences, the Human Rights Watch study (1996) of sexual abuse of women in U.S. prisons found that the women who reported the abuses were frequently retaliated upon by the perpetrator himself, other guards, or the entire system. Although some states have made any form of sexual interaction - whether consensual or non-consensual - a felony, the problems of staff-inmate sexual predations remain. Considering the large number of allegations of sexual misconduct by prison staff, the number of actual prosecutions has not been overwhelming. According to the U.S. Department of Justice=s own records, only 10 prison employees in the entire federal system were disciplined in 1997 for sexual misconduct, and just seven were criminally prosecuted (Gilliard, 1999). Sexual degradation and humiliation of women by staff is so ingrained in the culture of many women=s prisons, that it seems to have become an accepted mode of control in the custodial environment.
Complicating the problem, of course, is that many women in prison have just left the streets, where the same thing was expected of them, whether they were prostitutes or addicts who gave up their bodies in return for drugs. At the same time, a huge proportion of women serving time have already been sexually victimized in their lives. According to Human Rights Watch, anywhere from 40 to 88 percent of incarcerated women have been victims of domestic violence and sexual or physical abuse either as children or adults. They have already been Aconditioned@ to believe that they deserve such treatment, and to remain silent, and the prison system plays on that vulnerability to intimidate them and keep them in line. Of particular relevance to the present discussion, is Diaz-Cotto=s observation that:
While the literature on imprisoned women seldom mentions how
prisoners have sought to reform prison conditions, my study
found that when outside sources of support were available, for
example, in the form of prisoners= rights attorneys, prisoners
were more than willing to join together to engage in litigation
efforts against the facility. (Diaz-Cotto, 2000:129)
In an ideal world, it would seem that equal treatment should be the goal. Given that women and men have such varied experiences in terms of public, private, and criminal lives, however it is questionable that achieving parity with men's prisons is the best solution. Attempts to provide women with facilities, programs, privileges, and rights on the same level as men is an undeniably worthwhile goal. But, it appears that Aequal treatment@ may have some detrimental effects for women offenders. For example, sentencing reforms designed to reduce class and race bias in men=s sentencing may also negatively affect the sentencing of women by increasing their incarceration rates and the lengths of sentences. Nor would complete equality be entirely beneficial for women. To attempt to eradicate gender differences within prison while they persist in the outside world makes little sense. For example, the fact that women continue to be responsible for child care means that prison programs should be designed to take this into account (See Baunach, 1985 for examples of programs which are geared towards female prisoners increasing contact with their children.). As noted by Daly and Chesney-Lind (1988:526), ACriminologists, especially those involved in the formation of policy, should be aware that equal treatment is only one of several ways of redressing discrimination and of moving toward a more humane justice system.@
If we hope to facilitate the re-entry of incarcerated women to Afree@ society, we must attempt to reform current policies and programs, both in prison and in the community, which tend to reinforce women offenders= dependency upon the system.
When I was released on parole, I discovered that no matter my outlook or my
efforts, the world seemed to be closed. I was denied jobs and housing because
of my convicted felon status, and I felt like damaged goods...And I cried
because I couldn=t do anything about any of it, no matter how hard I tried. I
could not change public opinion...I realized that all the honest endeavors in the
world would not help me gain entry, and I thought I no longer had a place Aout
here@...We can research and write about how women get to prison and what goes on
there. It is fascinating and helps us to develop strategies toward prevention.
We can do many things to help inmates prepare for a different and better life
on the outside. But if we do not acknowledge and address the Aset up to fail@
situation that parolees currently face, we are tilting at windmills.
(Dearing, 2002: 46).
As Richie (2001: 386) notes, Athe nature of the reform centers on both enhanced delivery and
systemic change especially in low-income communities of color from which a majority of
incarcerated female population in this country come from.@ Here, (1) the provision of
comprehensive programs, that would utilize a case management approach, would enable women
to deal with multiple gender-specific and culturally-specific needs; (2) community-based programs
need to build linkages with other services to prevent incarceration in the first place as well as
provide user-friendly networks by which incarcerated women might avail themselves of services;
and (3) economic and emotional empowerment to facilitate the attainment of individual self-
sufficiency. Because women offenders manifest multiple problems that require the services of
many different agencies, corrections Aneeds to move toward a more system-oriented
approach...that emphasizes linkages and coordination among programs and agencies, joint
planning, shared resource allocation, and continuity for clients Prendergast, Wellisch, & Falkin,
A recognition of the differing needs and expectations of men and women, the expectations of society, and the implications for dealing with the crime committed by women will give courts and correctional administrators a basis for making choices about the sentencing and correctional alternatives that best serve society and these women. For example, many women currently serving prison terms could safely and more economically serve their sentences in community-based programs. For those with drug problems, there is a need to expand treatment programs. For many others, the economic crimes they committed resulted from their disadvantaged position and lack of marketable skills. And finally, for many women offenders who are victims of abuse, there is a need to embrace and assist these women with programmatic and community support.
We must remember how women=s issues and prison issues are part of the same struggle.
Prison issues are important because individual women are being oppressed by prison and, in a wider context, because the judicial/prison system exists to support the larger power structure that oppresses us all. Women in prison are fighting to maintain a sense of self within a system that isolates and degrades; one which attempts to teach submission through the constant exercising of power, in both serious and petty ways, over prisoners. What is generated is not obedience but anger, and since a prisoner risks punishment such as being sent to segregation if she directs her anger at the system that is hurting her, that anger often gets directed inward or at other prisoners.
Our task is to learn about and support the struggles of prisoners. Women inside fight back and resist all the time. Support from the outside is a crucial factor in the success of prisoners= campaigns. The knowledge that people outside care about what is happening contributes to prisoners= strength and makes prison administrators respond much more quickly to demands.
No one can argue with the necessity of prisons and jails for people who commit crimes, even women. However, although incarceration is not a picnic for anyone (nor, some argue, should it be), clearly on a collective basis female inmates are a great deal worse off than male inmates. For one thing, it is arguable that many of these women should be in prison at all. Often their biggest crime seems to be trying to feed their families or having the misfortune to be pregnant or nonwhite. Control-oriented rules and regulations, poor diet, neglectful health care, degradation, lack of vocational training and recreational facilities, exploitation, abuse, and unsanitary conditions typify the conditions in many prisons and jails that house women. Reform is needed both within the correctional system and in a society that condones inhumane treatment of women prisoners.
For most women, prison is just a chapter in their life, but for some, it=s
the whole damn book. Freedom is a complex issue. There are no
simple answers. The liberty to think and do as we wish is one of the
greatest treasures of life. Yet we appreciate it most when we have it
least. Too often it is more of an illusion than a fact. In reality,
freedom is never total, and it is surely never free. But for the legions
of women Aunder supervision@ this hour, freedom is the main goal of
daily life. Not just physical liberty, but freedom of mind and spirit as
well...No matter how long you must remain in prison, there will be only
two things you truly own: the power of your will and the quality of your
mind. A woman doing days counts hours, a woman doing months
counts days, a woman doing a year counts months, a woman doing
life counts breaths. (Christy Marie at Valley State Prison
for Women, in Camp, September, 2000: 2).
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