Prisons Discipline Women More, Often Harshly

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A study of 15 states’ prison records found women are disciplined up to three times more often than men, and that discipline is often harsher and for smaller infractions of prison rules, reports NPR in collaboration with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. In 13 of 15 states where reporters analyzed data from women’s and men’s prisons, the disciplinary rates for women exceeded those for men. The disparities were highest for breaking minor rules such as “disrespect,” “derogatory comments,” “disobedience,” or being “disruptive.” Although women make up only about 7 percent of the nation’s state and federal prison populations, their numbers have been growing while the numbers of male prisoners shrink. Even for infractions that sound minor, punishments can have significant consequences, such as the loss of good-time credits — in effect lengthening a sentence — along with solitary confinement and loss of commissary, telephone, and visitation privileges.

Experts said that prison rules meant to control violent men don’t always work for female prisoners, most of whom have been victims of sexual or physical violence and who come to prison with higher rates of substance abuse and mental health problems. Alyssa Benedict, a consultant helping Illinois and other states change the way prisons treat women, noted that when a corrections officer — usually a man — yells an order, a woman with a history of abuse might react in a way that’s defensive, either to ignore the officer or yell back. Those are responses that can result in a disciplinary ticket.

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