The Treatment of Women in the U.S. Prison System

By: Mary James 

Image result for women in prison
a woman’s hands outside the cell bars

Imagine women being beaten and raped by correctional officers. Imagine their voices and cries going unanswered and ignored. Imagine a man coming into the stall while these women are just trying to use the restroom. Now imagine that woman wearing a prison jumpsuit. Women who are incarcerated face sexual assault every day. Sexual assault has become an epidemic in American prisons.

There are over 200,000 women in state and federal prisons. In federal women’s correctional facilities, 70 percent of the guards are male. Correctional officer’s subject female inmates to rape, sexual assaults, and groping during body searches. Not only are women violated but they are also denied essential medical resources and treatment. Women who are pregnant and or have degenerative diseases usually suffer from this lack of treatment the most.

Women face medical neglect in U.S. prison. Women have little to no access to medical attention, resulting in death or permanent injury. Most women suffer from treatable diseases such as asthma and diabetes but don’t get the medical assistance they need. Women who are seen often face health care charges through the prison, this is a violation of international standards but it’s very common. This deters prisoners to seek medical attention because they often don’t have the money.

According to the American Psychological Association, women are offered fewer programs than men and the services provided offer little recognition to the traumatic paths that led them into the criminal justice system.

Correctional officer’s subject female inmates to rape, sexual assaults, and groping during body searches. The Prison Rape Elimination Act was passed in 2003. The purpose of the act is to provide resources, recommendations, and funding to protect prisoners from rape. The PREA implemented national standards for prevention and punishment of rape. However, PREA standards only apply federally. A majority of the inmates are confined at state and local facilities, so most inmates are not protected by PREA.

Guards are encouraged to review the inmate’s personal history files. Guards use this opportunity as a threat towards inmates. In the history report it shows complaints the women make about officers and other prison authorities. Correction officers retaliate, often brutally, against inmates who complain about harassment or sexual assault. Guards also threaten the women’s visitation rights as a way of silencing the women. Keeping women connected to their families is a key aspect of providing services to incarcerated women but correctional officers often take that opportunity away from them if they speak up. These men watch women undress, use the toilet, and shower. There’s no escape for the women who are incarcerated.

Women differ from men in the criminal justice system. The women who are incarcerated often face abuse, poverty, and addiction sometime in their life before being locked up.

Stephanie Covington, PhD, co-director of the Center for Gender and Justice in California is working on promoting better services to women who are incarcerated. Covington said, “You have to acknowledge that gender makes a difference. Many places today are still trying to do everything gender-neutral. There is not gender-neutral. In our society, gender-neutral is male.” Covington believes this issue needs to be addressed and by doing so she developed the, “Helping Women Recover: A Comprehensive Integrated Treatment Model.” This intervention focuses on women’s specific needs and incorporates services to help women’s psychological growth. This intervention helps reduce the cycle of substance abuse and criminal behavior. Covington also developed, “Beyond Trauma: A Healing Journey for Women.” This program encourages women to face what happened in their past, often dealing with sexual/physical abuse or other traumatic occurrences.

By targeting substance, physical and sexual abuse, and allowing inmates to maintain healthy connections to their families and significant others, institutions can help women stay tied to their communities. It’s important to incorporate women back into the community so that they can successfully rejoin them when they are released from their sentence. Without these interventions, these women have little chance of succeeding after prison, says Covington. “Many women come out of these systems in worse condition than when they went in.” Covington believes women’s correctional institutions need these programs to help better the lives of these women. Sadly, that’s not always the case. In the last 10 years, the male prison population has increased 45 percent, while women’s is up 81 percent. The women’s population of mental health problems reach 75 percent compared to 55 percent of men.

Sexual abuse is rampant in U.S. prisons and 12 states still have no laws prohibiting sexual contact between the prisoners and the officers: Alabama, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. A common quote women use in prison is, “That was not part of my sentence.”


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