How gender constructs the prison system

Women in prison are often overlooked in conversations about mass incarceration. Up to this point, they’ve been largely ignored on this very blog. But let’s dive into it …

CA has the largest number of women in cages of any state in the country that incarcerates the most people on earth. The biggest women’s prison in the world is in CA. More than 1/3rd of all women incarcerated in CA are from Los Angeles county. 75% of women in CA’s prison system are classified at Levels I and II (CA inmates are placed at facilities based on safety levels I-IV). In comparison, only 55% of men in CA are classified at Levels I and II. Approximately 70-80% of incarcerated women are mothers. African-American women are the fastest growing sector of the US prison population. Women in prison are typically women with complex histories of abuse, trauma, and addiction.

Women 1

Since most women in prison have had lives shaped by a multiplicity of abuse (80% report abuse of any type at anytime in their lives), it’s safe to assume the prime motivation for most of their crimes is economic, psychological, and emotional survival. Like men, most incarcerated women are under educated. Women are sent to prison less frequently than men, for far less serious offenses, and commit less disciplinary infractions once inside.

Historically, women have been incarcerated in psychiatric institutions at greater proportions than in prisons. Masculine criminality is seen as more normal than feminine criminality. Deviant men are constructed as criminals, while deviant women are constructed as insane. Psychiatric drugs like Haldol are distributed more extensively to imprisoned women than men. For most of the twentieth century, the female incarceration rate nationwide was 8 per 100,000. Today it is 51 per 100,000. The incarceration rate for African-American women currently exceeds that for white men as recently as 1980.

Prison culture for women often involves themes of violent sexualization and exploitation. (Male Correctional staff at women’s prisons in CA hovers around 70%). A 1996 Human Rights Watch report summarized, “Our findings indicate that being a woman prisoner in US state prisons can be a terrifying experience. If you are sexually abused, you cannot escape from your abuser. Grievance or investigatory procedures, where they exist, are often ineffectual, and correctional employees continue to engage in abuse because they believe they will rarely be held accountable, administratively or criminally. Few people outside the prison walls know what is going on or care if they do know. Fewer still will do anything to address the problem.” Clearly, men don’t share the same struggles with patriarchy or sexual and personal oppression found in the lives of women. 

Incarcerated women organize their time and create a social world that is quite different from contemporary men’s prisons. The culture of women prisons develops in ways different from the degradation, violence, and predatory structure of male prison life. In some ways, the culture of the women’s prison seeks to accommodate these struggles rather than to exploit them. Race and ethnic identity provide a subtext to prison life for women, they are clearly secondary to the dominant issue of personal relationships. (Unlike male prisons in CA that are racially segregated, female prisons are not).

Good books about issues pertaining to women in prisons:

In the Mix: Struggle and Survival in a Women’s Prison — Barbara Owen

In Search of Safety: Confronting Inequality in Women’s Imprisonment — Barbara Owen, James Wells, Joycelyn Pollock

Are Prisons Obsolete? — Angela Davis


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