VI. Female Inmates
Females represent the fastest-growing incarcerated population, with a rate faster than that of their male counterparts. This needs special attention because, even with a greater rate of growth, this is an area in which female offenders have perhaps remained the most invisible. Despite the greater rate of growth, there are still fewer female inmates than men; they are often incarcerated for less serious offenses; and they are rarely associated with violence in prison, rioting, or other assaultive behavior. There are, however, important gender-specific issues that female offenders face while in prison.
In early jails and prisons, female, male, and youthful offenders were placed in the same institutions without regard to safety, exploitation, or other issues of vulnerability. As the theory of penology changed, so did the manner in which individuals were incarcerated. By the early 20th century, most jails and prisons segregated males and females, either in separate institutions or separate within the same institution. These earlier separate, and seemingly equal, institutions were in fact equal only at face value. The earliest facilities for women were designed to rehabilitate the offenders such that they would conform to gender-related societal standards. In other words, women were taught how to be better cooks and better cleaners, and to perform other traditionally female-oriented roles so that they could be “better” daughters or wives. Because the purpose of their incarceration was rehabilitation, their sentences were typically indeterminate, meaning that they did not serve a fixed amount of time (although there was typically a maximum sentence to be served). These female inmates would be released when they were deemed rehabilitated. During this same time frame, though, men were sent to prison primarily for punishment and were released on the basis of a fixed sentence. The result of these different systems was that women often served more time than men for similar offenses.
In the 21st century, punishment remains the primary goal of incarceration for both males and females. Therefore, it would seem that the nature of the incarceration would be the same for both, yet this is not the case. As mentioned earlier, perhaps the most troubling difference is that the rate of incarceration for females has continuously outpaced that for men for the past decade. It is important to note that the “get tough” and harsh crime control policies of the late 20th century have seemingly had the greatest impact on female offenders. The biggest policy area that affects female offenders, though, has been that associated with the war on drugs.
The earlier discussion of female offender pathways highlighted the reasons why many women become involved with illegal drugs or develop substance abuse problems. The underlying addictions and associated criminal behavior, for many women, are symptomatic of their troubled lives and untreated trauma and other mental health issues; as a result, comorbidity (i.e., having more than one problem) is a significant problem in women’s prisons. The war on drugs, with a heavy reliance on incarceration as a solution, has been the most prevalent form of “treatment” many female offenders have received.
Unfortunately, prison has not proven an effective place in which to treat the very complex issue of drug addiction, especially for a population of women who are likely un- or underemployed, undereducated, economically marginalized, and who have untreated physical or mental health problems and are responsible for the care of young children. Many scholars, feminist or otherwise, believe that the problems of addicted individuals could be better served in the community with social-service-based help.
It should also be noted that over two thirds of women are responsible for caring for their dependent children prior to incarceration, compared with less than half of men. Furthermore, if a mother goes to prison, her children are more likely to be cared for by a relative, friend, or someone other than the child’s father; however, when a father is incarcerated, his children are likely to be cared for by the mother. Thus, incarceration policies that disproportionately affect female offenders have often been thought to have collateral consequences for the children left behind. Because there are fewer female inmates, nationally, than male inmates, there are also fewer female facilities. Facilities for females, and for many men, are often located at distances too far away from families to allow for visits. These women tend to come from economically marginalized families who cannot afford visits far from home, so many children will not see their mother while she is incarcerated. This is an unfortunate situation, because research has demonstrated that increased family visits and support reduce the likelihood of recidivism and overall success in the community.
The nature of female incarceration has received much less attention than male incarceration. The number of female inmates, relative to males, is often referenced as the reason for the lack of research attention; however, the current literature suggests some important distinctions in what it means to do time in a female institution compared with a male facility. Sexual assault of inmates by inmates is much more prevalent in male facilities. The culture in a female facility, though, is more likely to involve consensual sex and to sometimes be part of pseudofamilies developed in prison. When sexual abuse does occur in a prison facility, it is likely to occur at the hands of staff. These abuses often go unreported or are not investigated. There is not an adequate infrastructure in place to deal with these types of institutional-based abuse. Only recently have states begun to criminalize sexual abuse of female inmates by staff, recognizing that females are in vulnerable positions relative to the status and power of prison staff and are never in a position to have consensual sexual relationships with staff.
Women in prison, similar to women in society at large, are overly controlled. Relative to male inmates, females tend to receive more write-ups and misconduct violations. However, the nature of write-ups and misconduct reports are for minor violations of institutional rules (e.g., not following orders, being insubordinate) instead of violence within the institution. Although the nature of the prison environment for women is much less violent than it is for men, female inmates are nonetheless considered a more difficult population to work with. Correctional staff often cite female offenders’ reluctance to follow orders without question as one of the main reasons for this difficulty, as well as women’s greater emotional needs.
Women do have greater untreated mental health, and often physical health, needs compared with male offenders. This is often due to women’s greater histories of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse and related untreated trauma. Female inmates are significantly more likely than male inmates to have suffered abuse as both children and as adults. The physical and mental health care of incarcerated females are often inadequate for their needs.
The smaller number of female inmates has also contributed to a shortage of research, attention, and money applied toward women’s in-prison programming. Mental and physical health in prison was mentioned earlier, and women’s vocational and educational programming, relative to male inmates’, also has remained inadequate. There are not enough existing programs to teach women vocational skills that will help them earn a living wage on their release from prison. These types of programs are much more likely to be found in male facilities.
An important consequence of fewer female inmates is that there are fewer female facilities. Not only are these facilities located long distances from the female offenders’ homes, but also there are rarely separate facilities for females based on risk level. Although most female offenders represent a low risk to institutional security, the ability to segregate female offenders by low, medium, and high risk is often missing. All female offenders serve time in the same facility, regardless of classification level.