Women and the System

11 Jul

Women Behind Bars

When the image of a criminal comes to mind, it is most often that people will picture a scruffy faced, unkempt man, not a woman.  Women are equally as capable of committing crimes as their male counterparts are.

“As women became more liberated, they would have equal access to the kinds of crimes that men were already committing.”  (Women’s Review, 1997)  It is interesting that as we developed into an equal society, that women became involved in not just the jobs men worked, but also the routes of crime.

“There has been a dramatic increase in the number of incarcerations among women over the past three decades.”  (Ruiz, 2002)  The number of women incarcerated for a broad range of crimes has been steadily increasing over the years.  “In 1970, only 5,635 women were incarcerated in federal and state prisons.  By 1985, however, this number increased to 21,296, and was as high as 74,730 by the latter part of 1996.  Presently, there are over 90,000 women in U.S. prisons.”  (Ruiz, 2002)

More recently in 2002, there were 113 women in state or federal prisons and local jails per every 100,000 residents.  The total amount of women behind bars that year was 165,800; which when broken down was 68,800 Caucasian women, 65,600 African-American women and 25,400 Hispanic women.  (Banks, 2004)  A common misconception is that the minorities that are committing the most crimes.  The statistics prove that in the year 2002, more Caucasian women were serving behind bars than the minority groups of African-Americans and Hispanics.

“Female inmates largely resemble male inmates in terms of race, ethnic background, and age.  However, women are substantially more likely than men to be serving time for a drug offense and less likely to have been sentenced for a violent crime.  Nearly 6 in 10 female inmates grew up in a household with at least one parent absent, and about half reported that an immediate family member had also served time.  More than 4 in 10 reported prior physical or sexual abuse.”  (Dept. Justice, 1994)

Women are usually housed in different facilities than men, ranging from minimum to maximum security prisons.  The level of security they are placed in is decided upon after review of the offender, the charges they are convicted of and where they would most likely fit in best with the current prison population.

“Unpleasantness should be an essential part of what is intended.”  (Banks, 2004)  Prison must be a humane place, but not a place for free pleasures and relaxation.  When sentenced to a prison term that is short or with parole it is the job of the inmate to work on reforming themselves so that when they are granted parole they would live a righteous life and steer away from crime.  Inmates must comply to rehabilitate themselves or else the odds are against them; continuing a life of crime would most likely land them back in a courtroom and then behind bars for a longer sentence since they did not learn their lesson the first time around.

A women’s prison in California named the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) is the largest institution of its kind in the world.  Typically, these facilities consisted of different sections in order to separate prisoners of different criminal degrees from each other.  There is usually at least general population housing, security housing, Administrative Segregation and ultimately death row even though not all states carried out capital punishment.  (Banks, 2004)

Delinquency in the Juvenile Female Population

Current trends in female delinquency show that it is increasing in frequency and seriousness.  “While males are still very disproportionately represented in youth crime statistics, females now seem to be engaging in more frequent and more serious illegal behavior” (Carney, 2008).  Over a thirty-year period female delinquency rates have doubled, “In 1967, females accounted for 5% of violent crime arrests, and today they represent 10%” (Carney, 2008).

Girls become delinquent for different reasons than boys.  “Gender differences in cognition, socialization, and behavior may exist as early as infancy, when boys are able to express emotions at higher rates” (Siegel, 2006, p.174).  Even at the earliest stage of life, males and females differ in their development.  It is shown that “girls show greater control over their emotions, whereas boys are more easily angered” (Siegel, 2006, p.174).  It is almost as though boys act out without thinking and the girls think before acting.

According to Gisela Konopka’s theory, “male delinquents were portrayed as rebels who esteemed ‘toughness,’ ‘excitement,’ and other lower-class values” (Siegel, 2006, p.185).  Conversely, she believes that “female delinquency has its roots in feelings of uncertainty and loneliness” (Siegel, 2006, p.185).  Male delinquents will act out in order to be seen as tough or hard.  Female delinquents usually act out because of some for of abuse they have suffered.

Girls are much more sexualized in our society and fall victim to more sexual abuse than boys are.  Female delinquents “are likely to be in their early to mid teens; have a personal as well as a family history of drug and/or alcohol use; be sexually active, usually with multiple partners; have been physically and sexually abused; and sexually revictimized; and have problems in school” (Weisheit, 2000, p.78).  For males, being delinquent is sometimes an act to prove themselves to others whereas for girls it tends to be brought on by unfortunate experiences they have had to deal with at a young age.

“There are indications that gender differences in socialization and development do exist and that they may have an effect on juvenile offending patterns” (Siegel, 2006, p.174).  Males and females differ psychologically in the way their brains process information.  Young females “process information differently than males and have different cognitive and physical strengths.  These differences may, in part, explain gender differences in delinquency” (Siegel, 2006, p.195).

Additionally, “females are more left brain-oriented and males are more right-brain oriented” (Siegel, 2006, p.), which can account for differences in biological makeup.  Culturally in our society, “girls are socialized differently, which causes them to internalize rather than externalize anger and aggression” (Siegel, 2006, p.195), which is the opposite of what males do.

Understanding juvenile delinquency in females is crucial to understanding women and the criminal justice system.  Female criminals did not emerge out of thin air they too were once juveniles.  By addressing the issues with juvenile female delinquency, it is hopeful that a reduction in adult female crime could be seen.

Abuse Inside the Walls

A major area of corruption within female detention facilities is the incidence of abuse.  “Female inmates were more than three times as likely as incarcerated men to report having experienced physical or sexual abuse at some time prior to incarceration” (Ruiz, 2002).

“As we know, many more women are now being incarcerated.  You have more and more women in overcrowded conditions, with inadequate supervision, largely being overseen by male officers who are not well-trained.  In virtually every prison system that we investigated, male officers outnumber female officers by somewhere between two and three to one.  It is an accident waiting to happen.  You have a highly sexualized, very hostile environment, and it is creating a context in which all forms of sexual misconduct occur” (Women’s Review, July 1997).

The types of abuse women behind bars usually face are both physical and mental.  Most often, the abusers are in a position of authority.  “We heard about pervasive sexual harassment of women by male officers–from constant commentary on their bodies and propositioning them, to inappropriate touching, on to sexual contact between the officers and the prisoners, sometimes all the way to the level of rape and sexual assault” (Women’s Review, July 1997).

The stigma against prisoners sometimes makes them feel as though others believe they lack credibility.  This may lead a woman who is already ashamed and distraught about the abuse she has endured to become discouraged from reporting the incident or incidents.  Intimidation by their abuser could also scare them out of rightfully reporting what has happened to them.  There is no way to justify abusing any man or woman.

“Women in prison are really caught between a rock and a hard place.  If you are being subjected to sexual abuse, you do not have any way out of it, or, if you seek a way out of it, you are likely to be harassed and even penalized.  The system in fact is designed to keep the problem hidden.  There are no adequate complaint procedures or investigatory procedures.  There is very little, if any, independent oversight.  In that context, it is very dangerous for women to speak to outside investigators about what they’re experiencing, because they are potentially exposing themselves to retribution on the part of the prison authorities”  (Women’s Review, July 1997).

Pregnancy and Health Under Lock and Key

Female prison inmates can have a serious health related problems.  “Any number of health problems may accompany a woman to prison, including drug addiction, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases.  It is reported that rates of HIV among the female inmate population is much higher than that which is found in the general population” (Ruiz, 2002).

“One in four women is either pregnant or postpartum at the time of imprisonment” (Ruiz, 2002) Women who are pregnant at the time of their sentencing often find themselves in a difficult situation.  It is especially hard for those mothers-to-be who are facing long terms sentences and the realization that they may never see their child grow up.  These women have to deal with a constant worry that they may pick up one of the numerous diseases there and then pass it on to their child.

Visitations with newborn children as well as other children are very common in women’s facilities.  In one prison “Two-thirds of the women had at least one child younger than 18; altogether, they were mothers to more than 56,000 minor children.”  (Dept. Justice, 1994)

In addition to visitations with their mothers, the children had other forms of contact to utilize.  “An estimated 46% of women with minor children said they talked with those children on the phone at least once a week; 45% had contact by mail at least once a week; and 9% were visited by their children.”  (Dept. Justice, 1994)

When a woman leaves prison, a completely new hardship of custody begins.  “Women prisoners have to go through an incredible bureaucratic process in order to regain custody of their children, even from their own relatives, once they’re released.  They have to have a formal reunification plan.  Part of the reunification requirement is that they have to have contact with their children” (Women’s Review, 1997).

Controversial Issues

“Battered Woman Syndrome” is a real life condition that some women who commit crimes under the law suffer from.  It is believed in these situations that had the woman not suffered the abuse, she would not have committed the crime.  This is a hard pill to swallow for those who strictly believe in the saying “You do the crime, you do the time.”  In some extenuating circumstances, women who commit violent crimes will not be heavily sentenced as they were acting out of suppressed self-defense against their abuser or attacker.

“Police selectivity in enforcing laws may have the effect of discriminating against certain groups in society… police treatment of domestic violence cases has historically involved a pattern of noninterference by police based on the assumption that such violence was not a proper subject of crime control unless it involved injury that could be defined as felony assault.”  (Banks, 2004, p.45)  This attitude of the police was incredibly unethical.  It does not matter if it is not a felony; no one is legally allowed to be beat against his or her own will in our society.

“Thus, women who were battered by their partners received discriminatory treatment by police because whether or not action was taken against the batterer depended on whether the crime was considered a felony or misdemeanor.”  (Banks, 2004, p.45)  This issue is a contributing factor why some women are reluctant to report abuse; they feel as though the authorities do not care to know what goes on within their homes.

Chivalry and the notion that women are innocent and gentle in society often cloud the courtroom during trials of women.  Female defendants and their lawyers sometimes use this common defense tactic.  For instance, if the defendant is a mother of three small children the lawyer will try to promote her role as a mother.  Everyone has a mother and for the most part people have a fond feeling about mothers.  A woman’s role in society can have significant influence on how she is viewed.  While the court is sworn to uphold the law, it is difficult for some people to differentiate the fact that the woman is a mother and a criminal.

“Punishment is a sanction imposed for a criminal offense.”  (Banks, 2004)  In 1994, “Female inmates generally had not been sentenced to incarceration or probation as often as male inmates, and their record of past convictions was generally less violent than that of male inmates.  About 28% of the women reported no previous sentences to incarceration or probation, compared to 19% of the men.  Four in ten women had a history of violence, compared to more than 6 in 10 men.”  (Dept. of Justice, 1994)

Women are a permanent staple in the criminal justice system.  Society is still in an adjustment phase in developing the correct ethical treatment plan for these women.  The increase in women being incarcerated in the last few decades was something for which the government was not ready.  There is hope that in time women will be treated as human beings who have rights to not be mistreated and abused.  “Women in prison aren’t who people think they are.  When the public becomes aware of the real faces and stories of incarcerated women, they begin to develop an approach to public policy that addresses a broader range of issues.  That’s the only way we’ll ever get decent criminal justice or social justice legislation.”  (Jacobs, 1997)
Banks, C. (2004). Criminal Justice Ethics: Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Inc., W. R. (1997). In the Lost World: Women in Prison Must Not Only Endure their Sentences but also the Complete Degradation of their Personhood. Women’s Review of Books .

Inc., W. R. (1997). Population Explosion. Women’s Review of Books .

Jacobs, A. (1997). More than Halfway: The Women’s Prison Association and Home Inc is an Organization that Assists Women Prisoners and Ex-prisoners in New York City and State. Women’s Review .

Justice, U. D. (1994, March). Retrieved April 11, 2008, from U.S. Department of Justice Website: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/ascii/wopris.txt

Nolan, T. (Spring 2008). MET CJ 701- Online Lecture Notes. Boston, MA, USA.

Siegel, L. J., Welsh, B. C., & Senna, J. J. (2006). Juvenile Delinquency: Theory, Practice, and Law. Ninth Edition. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth.

Weisheit, R. A., & Culbertson, R. G. (2000). Juvenile Delinquency: A Justice Perspective. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.


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