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Women Prisoners Disciplined More than Men, but Staff Training is Changing That

by Dale Chappell

According to an October 2018 news report, women prisoners are disciplined more often than male prisoners – two to three times more – and often receive harsher punishments. But updated staff training and new laws are helping to address that disparity.

Since 1980, the population of women in prison has increased over 750 percent. In 13 of 15 states analyzed by National Public Radio and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, data showed women prisoners consistently got in trouble more often than their male counterparts. Are women more dangerous or disruptive, then?

Not at all. They are just more emotional, according to experts, which leads them into conflict with (usually) male guards – who are trained to deal with male prisoners. 

“We discipline based on emotion rather than on safety and security,” said Maggie Burke, former warden at the Logan Correctional Center, the largest women’s prison in Illinois. “Typically when you tell a man to do something, a male inmate, he’s either going to do it or he’s not going to do it. But he’s not going to lip off to you. He’s not going to talk back. There isn’t a whole lot of emotion to it.” 

On the other hand, for a woman prisoner, “She’s just like: Go ahead, write me a ticket. It just kind of fuels the fire,” Burke added. A majority of women prisoners have histories of sexual and physical trauma that might cause them to react in a certain way to male guards. They are also more likely to have histories of substance abuse and mental illness, and to be the primary caregiver of minor children.

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

In 2015, at the Logan facility alone, women prisoners lost a combined total of 93 years of good conduct time, usually for minor infractions such as “disrespect” or “insolence,” for talking back to staff members. One prisoner said she received a disciplinary write-up for “reckless eye-balling,” for looking at a guard in a disrespectful manner. Women who receive disciplinary sanctions are often placed in solitary confinement, too.

Between January 2016 and February 2018, women prisoners in California reportedly lost 1,483 years of good time due to disciplinary write-ups, at a higher rate than good time lost by male prisoners.

In early 2018, then-Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed a law that mandates better training for prison workers who deal with women prisoners. The law re-established the Women’s Correctional Services Division, and requires a “gender-responsive and trauma-informed corrections” training program. An earlier bill, passed in June 2017, was stripped of reforms related to disciplining women prisoners after opposition by the union representing state prison guards.

As of early 2018, the week-long training program for staff who interact with women prisoners had been provided to 200 Illinois prison workers. While that was only a small fraction of the 700 employees at Logan, advocates say the program is making a difference. 

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Sources: npr.org, chicagoreporter.com, thecrimereport.org 

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