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Incarcerated women are punished much, much more than men

Prison Aviva
In Vermont, women inmates are more than three times as likely as men to get in trouble for “derogatory comments” about a corrections officer or a fellow inmate. (Myfuture.com)

Punishment in prison is a gendered phenomenon, just not in the way you might expect. In many states across the country, women in prison are disciplined at two or three times the rate of men—and often for smaller violations of prison rules, according to an investigation released Monday by NPR and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

At the root of the problem is the fact that prison rules were designed to control male behavior, while women generally end up in prison for different reasons than men and respond in distinct ways to the experience of incarceration. 

“Women right now are being punished for coping with their trauma by a workforce that doesn't understand them,” prison consultant Alyssa Benedict told NPR. “There is a deep, dark secret around discipline and sanctions in women’s prisons.”

In their investigation, NPR and the Medill School of Journalism collected data from women’s and men’s prisons in 15 states, visited five women’s prisons across the country, and interviewed formerly and currently incarcerated women, past and present prison officials, and various experts.

What they found is staggering. Women are disciplined at higher rates in 13 of the 15 states studied, and this discrepancy is most significant when it comes to minor violations of prison rules. In California, for example, “women get more than twice the disciplinary tickets for what’s called ‘disrespect’” and in Vermont, they’re more than three times as likely to get in trouble for “derogatory comments” about a corrections officer or a fellow inmate.

While these infractions may seem minor, being punished for them is no small matter—it means women are spending more time behind bars Between January 2016 and February 2018, women in California prisons “had the equivalent of 1,483 years added to their sentences through good-credit revocations, and at a higher rate than for male prisoners,” according to the study. Getting tickets for minor infractions can also lead to the loss of phone and visitation privileges and the ability to buy items from commissaries, including women’s hygiene products.

The discrepancy in punishment rates exists because women’s facilities have failed to create gender-sensitive disciplinary policies, according to experts interviewed by NPR. Women are more likely than men to get locked up for drug and property crimes, as opposed to violent crimes. They’re also more likely to have mental health problems or issues with substance abuse.

Perhaps most significantly, the vast majority of incarcerated women—80 to 90 percent, by some estimates—are survivors of abuse, which means they may get defensive, shut down, or yell back when they’re shouted out by an officer.

In recent years, some states, including Illinois, have started to institute “gender-responsive” training for correctional officers to ensure that prison staff are better equipped to engage with incarcerated women. It’s an important start, but there’s a long way to go: while the number of men incarcerated in the U.S. has been declining, the number of women behind bars has grown dramatically—by more than 750 percent since 1980, according to the Women’s Prison Association.

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