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Women Inmates:
Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work

As the number of women inmates soars, so does the need for policies and programs that meet their needs

Illustration by three.js

Over the past three decades, the number of women serving time in American prisons has increased more than eightfold.

Today, some 15,000 are held in federal custody and an additional 100,000 are behind bars in local jails. That sustained growth has researchers, former inmates and prison reform advocates calling for women’s facilities that do more than replicate a system designed for men.

“These are invisible women,” says Dr. Stephanie Covington, a psychologist and co-director of the Center For Gender and Justice, an advocacy group based in La Jolla, Calif. “Every piece of the experience of being in the criminal justice system differs between men and women.”

At the most basic level, women often must make do with jumpsuits that are made from men’s designs rather than being cut for female bodies. And standard personal-care items often don’t account for different skin tones or hair types.

It’s not just vanity: What drives some prisoners to mix their own makeup or tailor their uniforms is the need to maintain their dignity in a situation that does little to protect it.

Of course, not all women want to wear makeup, says Alyssa Benedict, the executive director of CORE Associates, an advocacy group that is partnering with the National Resource Center on Justice-Involved Women.

“I have met women inmates who would be insulted if anyone assumed that a necklace is going to make them feel better about what they have to deal with in prison.”

Deeper challenges

Women’s biological needs, family responsibilities and unique paths to prison combine to create incarceration experiences that are vastly different from those of men.

While simply expanding the existing system has provided a turnkey way to deal with the influx of women inmates, funneling women through an infrastructure whose amenities, treatment options, job-training programs and cultures of control were designed for male inmates makes an already dehumanizing experience even worse.

75 %or more of female inmates have suffered either physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime.

That history can transform otherwise normal prison protocols such as strip-searches, supervised showers, and physical restriction of movement into traumatic experiences.

This triggering of past abuses can keep inmates with painful pasts in a state of hyper-alertness, causing reactionary behavior that results in cycles of repeated punishment.

That punishment often comes in the form of the removal or reduction of visitation or phone privileges, further severing the familial connections that can otherwise offer imprisoned women needed support.

“When you incarcerate a woman, you incarcerate her whole family,” says Rusti Miller-Hill, whose children were put into foster care and subsequently adopted while she served two and a half years for possession of crack cocaine with intent to sell.

“When you incarcerate a woman, you incarcerate her whole family.”

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The Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics..

The Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that in 2007, the most recent year for which data are available, 1.7 million children had a parent in state or federal prison.

But since women inmates are more likely than males to have been their children’s primary caregivers, those children are often displaced — either sent to live with family members outside the home or placed in state care.

In addition, the comparatively limited number of women’s facilities — there are 28 federal women’s prisons, versus at least 83 for men — means that women often end up farther from their homes and families, compounding the strain of maintaining healthy relationships while they’re serving time.

In an August 2013 op-ed in The New York Times, Piper Kerman, author of the prison memoir Orange Is The New Black, which inspired the Netflix series of the same name, calls the distance between women prisoners and their families “a second sentence.”

Kerman stresses the importance of these relationships, noting that they are “one of the most important factors in determining whether [women inmates] would return home successfully and go on to lead law-abiding lives.”

To fill the void left by strained or severed relationships, incarcerated women often turn to one another. These prison relationships vary in their dynamics, from coercive sexual entanglements that prison staff try to prevent, to expansive, family-like structures in which women refer to one another as sisters, aunts, cousins and the like.

“We cry together. We get mad at each other together. We come back and ask for forgiveness together,” says Lillian Hussein, a resident of Nanakuli, Hawaii, who served seven years for identity theft.

Kerman stresses the importance of these relationships, noting that they are “one of the most important factors in determining whether [women inmates] would return home successfully and go on to lead law-abiding lives.”

To fill the void left by strained or severed relationships, incarcerated women often turn to one another. These prison relationships vary in their dynamics, from coercive sexual entanglements that prison staff try to prevent, to expansive, family-like structures in which women refer to one another as sisters, aunts, cousins and the like.

“We cry together. We get mad at each other together. We come back and ask for forgiveness together,” says Lillian Hussein, a resident of Nanakuli, Hawaii, who served seven years for identity theft.

Animation by Emile Drescher

“There’s definitely bonding,” adds Stacey McGruder, who had been in and out of prison in Santa Clara, Calif., for nearly 20 years before starting Sisters That Been There, a support program for women reentering life outside.

“But a lot of the time these bonds are not as healthy as they would be if the women were healthy.”

Healthy women, McGruder adds, are those who receive treatment for their health issues, support for their emotional needs and respect from correctional officers and other prison staff. Sadly, she says, that’s rare.

The Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that in 2007, the most recent year for which data are available, 1.7 million children had a parent in state or federal prison.

But since women inmates are more likely than males to have been their children’s primary caregivers, those children are often displaced — either sent to live with family members outside the home or placed in state care.

In addition, the comparatively limited number of women’s facilities — there are 28 federal women’s prisons, versus at least 83 for men — means that women often end up farther from their homes and families, compounding the strain of maintaining healthy relationships while they’re serving time.

In an August 2013 op-ed in The New York Times, Piper Kerman, author of the prison memoir Orange Is The New Black, which inspired the Netflix series of the same name, calls the distance between women prisoners and their families “a second sentence.”

Kerman stresses the importance of these relationships, noting that they are “one of the most important factors in determining whether [women inmates] would return home successfully and go on to lead law-abiding lives.”

To fill the void left by strained or severed relationships, incarcerated women often turn to one another. These prison relationships vary in their dynamics, from coercive sexual entanglements that prison staff try to prevent, to expansive, family-like structures in which women refer to one another as sisters, aunts, cousins and the like.

“We cry together. We get mad at each other together. We come back and ask for forgiveness together,” says Lillian Hussein, a resident of Nanakuli, Hawaii, who served seven years for identity theft.

The Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that in 2007, the most recent year for which data are available, 1.7 million children had a parent in state or federal prison.

But since women inmates are more likely than males to have been their children’s primary caregivers, those children are often displaced — either sent to live with family members outside the home or placed in state care.

In addition, the comparatively limited number of women’s facilities — there are 28 federal women’s prisons, versus at least 83 for men — means that women often end up farther from their homes and families, compounding the strain of maintaining healthy relationships while they’re serving time.

In an August 2013 op-ed in The New York Times, Piper Kerman, author of the prison memoir Orange Is The New Black, which inspired the Netflix series of the same name, calls the distance between women prisoners and their families “a second sentence.”

federal prison.

But since women inmates are more likely than males to have been their children’s primary caregivers, those children are often displaced — either sent to live with family members outside the home or placed in state care.

In addition, the comparatively limited number of women’s facilities — there are 28 federal women’s prisons, versus at least 83 for men — means that women often end up farther from their homes and families, compounding the strain of maintaining healthy relationships while they’re serving time.

In an August 2013 op-ed in The New York Times, Piper Kerman, author of the prison memoir Orange Is The New Black, which inspired the Netflix series of the same name, calls the distance between women prisoners and their families “a second sentence.”

Kerman stresses the importance of these relationships, noting that they are “one of the most important factors in determining whether [women inmates] would return home successfully and go on to lead law-abiding lives.”

To fill the void left by strained or severed relationships, incarcerated women often turn to one another. These prison relationships vary in their dynamics, from coercive sexual entanglements that prison staff try to prevent, to expansive, family-like structures in which women refer to one another as sisters, aunts, cousins and the like.

“We cry together. We get mad at each other together. We come back and ask for forgiveness together,” says Lillian Hussein, a resident of Nanakuli, Hawaii, who served seven years for identity theft.