Federal report reveals female inmates receive harsher punishments than male inmates
A federal report reveals that female inmates, when compared to their incarcerated male counterparts, often receive disproportionately harsh punishments for minor infractions of prison rules.
According to National Public Radio (NPR), the United States Commission on Civil Rights published a report on these findings after a 12-month investigation and series of public hearings.
The commission's chair, Catherine Lhamon, said that when women in prison violate minor rules (violations such as talking back to a corrections officer, disobeying an order, or using foul language), they're more likely to be disciplined than male prisoners.
A 2018 study revealed that women were disciplined two to three times more often than men for minor violations of prison rules.
Punishment for these minor violations often carried significant consequences such as having days added to their prison sentence, losing the 'privilege' of purchasing women's hygiene products from the prison commissary, or losing phone and visitation privileges.
Lhamon told NPR if these reports are accurate, they're a clear illustration of discrimination.
"If people — women — are serving time in harder ways than they would if they were for men for like behaviors, that is classic discrimination," Lhamon said. "And also, it is counterproductive for the goal of making sure that women who will reenter society, as most [incarcerated people] do, will be able to be successful when they do."
The commission's report examines a range of issues incarcerated women face and lists five recommendations for improvement.
These five suggestions are:
1. Prisons should better address the health care needs of women in prison, "including gynecological and prenatal care, as is constitutionally required." NPR's reporting found that a large number of women with mental health issues end up in solitary confinement.
2. Prisons should "prohibit shackling pregnant women and placing them in solitary confinement, as these practices represent serious physical and psychological health risks."
3. Prisons should "do more to help women keep in contact with their children and families."
4. Prison staff should be better trained "to address the high rates of trauma among incarcerated women." NPR found that 75% or more of women in prison have experienced previous sexual or physical trauma.
5. Prisons should "avoid harsh punishments for minor infractions" and reduce the use of solitary confinement.
Lashonia Thompson-El, a former inmate who testified before the commission last February, says prison discipline policies were created to keep safety in men's prisons don't work when applied to women's prisons, where there is typically less violence.
"Some of the things that women get punished for that men don't involve stealing from the kitchen, whether it be fruits or vegetables or even a leftover piece of cornbread," she says. "Or for disrespecting an officer. They call it insolence."
Thompson-El spent 18 years in prison and was once placed in solitary confinement — for three months, she says — after making an unauthorized phone call to her 10-year-old daughter. She also lost her privileges to call home.
After prison, Thompson-El returned to her home in Washington, D.C., and founded The WIRE, or Women Involved in Reentry Efforts, to help other women.
A new report indicated that in women's prisons, black women get some of the harshest punishments. The commission calculated that black women constitute only 23% of women in prison, but make up 40% of women in solitary confinement.
The report also analyzed states that cut back on the use of solitary confinement, replaced it with less punitive alternatives and got good results.
"They are seeing dramatic reductions in incidents of violence, dramatic reductions in the kinds of behaviors that the prisons don't want to see repeated," says Lhamon. "And they are better preparing the women for reentry upon release from prison."
Women are just a small percentage — about 10% — of people in jails and prisons, but their numbers are rising far faster than those for men. The commission calculates that over the last 40 years, the number of women in state and federal prisons has increased by more than 730%.
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