Women now represent one of the fastest-rising segments in American prisons. In 2001, for example, the number of prison inmates has risen to 94,336, more than double the female prison population in 1990. Women now comprise 6.7% of the prison population, and the figure is expected to rise (Beck, Kerberg and Harrison 2002).
Corrections facilities, however, have been slow to respond to these changes. Many of these facilities were designed to incarcerate violent male inmates. They therefore remain unresponsive to the needs of female inmates.
This paper looks at prison experience from the point-of-view of the female inmate. First of all, this paper argues that the crimes most female inmates commit are quantitatively different from those committed by men. Because of these different reasons, prisons built around the need to contain violent male offenders are ill-equipped to meet the special needs of a growing female population. By taking into account the different reasons women go to prison and re-orienting their programs towards rehabilitation, this paper argues that prisons and correctional facilities could be more responsive to the needs of female prisoners.
The differences between male and female inmates starts before imprisonment. For many women inmates, the seeds are sown in childhood, as a significantly larger percentage of women than men report being sexually, mentally or emotionally abused while they were growing up. Various studies of female prison inmates consistently find high rates of abuse suffered during childhood and as adults (McClellan, Farabee and McCrouch 1997).
For men, this vulnerability to abuse decreases once they reach adulthood. In contrast, the proportion of women who suffer victimization rises when they become adults. Women in prison are thus more likely to suffer mental or emotional problems, like depression. More female prison inmates are prone to suicide attempts. Some psychiatric problems are serious enough to warrant treatment (McClellan, Farabee and McCrouch 1997).
Corollary to this, women offenders are more likely to need substance abuse programs, since many use drugs and alcohol as a result of severe emotional problems (McClellan, Farabee and McCrouch 1997).
The growing number of women in prisons has also given rise to another disturbing trend -- a rising number of pregnant inmates giving birth in prisons. In 1999, a prison survey conducted for the American Correctional Association found that more than 2,800 babies were born to female inmates in from 1997-1999. As harsher drug measures mete out sentences for even non-violent offenses, the number of pregnant women in prisons is expected to rise (Siefert and Pimlott 2001).
Women in Prison
According to the Bureau of Justice, over 70% of women in all state prisons are serving time for non-violent offenses. The great majority of these crimes -- one in three -- are drug-related offenses (Beck, Kerberg and Harrison 2002). Most of these drug-related crimes are also non-violent offenses, including prostitution, burglary and fraud (Siefert and Pimlott 2001).
Of the women who commit violent crimes, a great majority targeted someone close to them instead of a stranger (Beck, Kerberg and Harrison 2002). The distinction in violent crime targets highlights an important difference between male and female violent offenders. While many male offenders commit violent acts during the commission of other felonies, most women will only be violent against those close to them. An overwhelming majority of female violent offenders are in jail for attacking abusive spouses.
Prison programs for female offenders
Analysts of the current correction system believe that as a whole, the prison system is set up to deal with male inmates. As such, it is unable to deal effectively with the different needs of female inmates, regarding issues like physical abuse, substance abuse, depression and pregnancy.
The problem begins with the court system, which is often biased against female offenders. For example, an empirical study of a juvenile court in Hawaii found substantial differences in the labels given to the non-criminal behavior of boys and girls. Most girls were sent to juvenile court for offenses like running away and incorrigibility. In contrast, boys were often charged with property and gang-related offenses (MacDonald and Chesney-Lind 2001).
Despite the clear differences in the quality of their crimes, however, habitual female offenders often receive harsher penalties for offenses like running away from home. These…