With male inmates vastly outnumbering females, prisons are typically designed and managed for violent men. Women prisoners, most of them serving less than two years for drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes, are thrust into a one-size-fits-all world, the Los Angeles Times reports. They are governed by rules and practices that ignore their distinctive pathways into crime and do little to help them mend their tattered lives.
In a national movement gathering steam in California, says the Times, scholars, activists, wardens, and lawmakers are pushing to reshape prisons to reflect differences between the sexes. At a minimum, advocates want more female guards, to protect women’s privacy and dignity; more food for pregnant inmates; easier access to sanitary products; and regulations for visits that enhance close family ties. More ambitiously, some criminologists envision shifting most women out of the remote maximum-security penitentiaries typical in California and elsewhere. Instead, they say, many female convicts would do better – and save taxpayers money – in neighborhood centers with rehabilitative services, from job training to drug treatment. The female population in state and federal prisons is at an all-time high – about 103,000 – and the rate of incarceration is growing at nearly twice that of men, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics says. “Women are typically arrested for survival crimes: dealing drugs, selling sex for drugs, bad checks, welfare fraud, credit card abuse,” said Phyllis Modley of the National Institute of Corrections in Washington, D.C. “They do not commit the predatory crimes that men do at nearly the same rate. Yet they are sent to a correctional system that doesn’t distinguish.”