During the conversations between Monica Cosby, Tyteanna Williams and Celia Colon they often reflect on years they spent as inmates at a women’s prison in Illinois.
The stories they share frequently turn to the times they would be punished for what seemed like most trivial, even senseless things.
Women Prisoners Subjected to Frivolous Punishments Inside
A correctional officer once asked Monica Cosby what she was doing. She was innocently playing Scrabble in her cell. Sarcastically, she responded:
What does it look like I’m doing?
The guard ended up writing Cosby up for insolence and for possession of contraband. Her contraband was the Scrabble game she was playing.
Tyteanna Williams cursed at a guard once that was too slow in helping her cellmate that had passed out from diabetes. She was written up.
Poor Celia Colon once more received a disciplinary ticket for reckless eye-balling. A correctional officer had given Colon an order as she had made the face. As of a result of the reckless eye-balling incident, Colon ending up in solitary confinement.
The Illinois woman prisoner said:
You could get a ticket for anything. Especially, it turns out, if you’re a woman.
Why Are Women Inmates Disciplined at Higher Rates Than Men Prisoners?
Right now, across the country, incarcerated women are being disciplined at much higher rates than men. This is often 2-3 times more often, sometimes for very small violations of prison rules.
This was according to an investigation by NPR and the findings from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Data from both women’s and men’s prisons were collected.
Five women’s prisons were visited from around the country. The following were interviewed:
- Current and former inmates
- Present and past prison officials
- Administrative officials
- Prison wardens
NPR analyzed 15 states. Of those, women got into more trouble at higher rates than men at 13 of those facilities. The conflicts are highest for more minor violations of the prison rules.
Sometimes, different states used different measures of counting prisoners and penalties. NPR used state-provided data to divide the number of punishments by the number of prisoners to access rates of discipline for women and men.
What Does the Data Show in Some States?
According to some of the data, in California, women get more than twice the disciplinary tickets for what is termed “disrespect.”
Women in the state of Vermont, are three more times likely as men to get in trouble for “derogatory” comments either about another prisoner or prisoner guard.
In the state of Rhode Island, for disobedience, women get more than three times the tickets.
And for the data for the state of Iowa, women prisoners were nearly as likely as men to get in trouble for the a violation of being “disruptive.”
What Does the Data on Illinois Women & Men’s Prisons Tell Us?
Although, these violations might seem minor, punishment for them can have compelling consequences, which was uncovered by this NPR study.
For example, in Idaho and Rhode Island, for disobedience violations, women are more likely than men to end up in solitary confinement.
Women are at risk of losing “good conduct credits” which could would shorten an inmate’s sentence, meaning this could cause them to spend more time in jail.
From January 2016 and February 2018, in the state of California, women had the equivalent of 1,483 years added to their existing sentences through good-credit revocations, and at a higher rate than for male inmates. This according to more data collected and studied by NPR.
- Receiving discipline for small violations can equal loss off privileges like:
- being able to buy food or supplies (including women’s hygiene products (sanitary napkins or tampons if allowed and not considered contraband by the prions) at the prison commissary
- loss their visitation
- phone privileges
- Rec time
According to the NPR analysis, in Massachusetts 60% of the punishments for women restricted where the women could go in prison, including containing them to their cells. Men received this type of punishment less often.
In the prison world, the shortcoming the overall discipline of women gets little attention in part because men make up about 93% of the population of the nation’s state and federal prisons. Nonetheless, the number of men in prison is declining, and the number of women in prison is increasing is by more than 750% since 1980. This is according to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Stricter drug laws and mandatory sentencing are the cited reasons.
These Women Seemed to Be So Difficult
Experts have been asked why women get disciplined more for minor infractions. They noted that prison rules were set up mainly to control men, especially violent ones. Yet that a strict system of control doesn’t always work for lady inmates.
Women typically come to prison for different reasons than do men and respond differently to prison life differently than men obviously. Most prison personnel, meanwhile, are not trained to understand these differences.
Women are more likely than men, to come to prison for drug and property crimes and less likely to be convicted of horrendous and violent crimes. Also, they are less likely to be violent once they’re in prison.
They’re also more likely than men to have compelling problems with substance abuse, to have mental health problems and to be the care-giving parent of a minor child.
A woman inmate with a history of abuse might react in a way that’s defensive, when a guard yells at her. Sometimes maybe shutting down, ignoring, the officer, or even yelling back. Those are responses that can result in a disciplinary ticket.
“Women right now are being punished for coping with their trauma by a workforce that doesn’t understand them,” Alyssa Benedict, a consultant who is working in Illinois and other states to change the way prisons treat women. “There is a deep, dark secret around discipline and sanctions in women’s prisons.”
“Typically, when you tell a man to do something, a male inmate, he’s either going to do it or he’s not going to do it. But he’s not going to lip off to you,” says.” Maggie Burke, who was warden until last December of Logan Correctional Center, the largest women’s prison in Illinois. “He’s not going to talk back. There isn’t a whole lot of emotion to it.”
“Whereas with women, emotion is in there,” says Burke, who started as a guard 29 years ago. “She’s just like: Go ahead, write me a ticket. It just kind of fuels the fire. And so then it’s an emotional ticket.”
A former assistant director at the Department of Corrections in Illinois, Deanne Benos, see it the same way also.
“Women are more communicative when you walk through a prison,” says Benos, after a recent visit to Logan. “They want to talk to you. They want to talk about their experiences. If they see an injustice with another woman in prison, or something that happened, they want to fix it.”
The discrepancies between men and women prisoners have historical roots as well. There were only a few handful of women in Illinois prisons in 1845 state auditors reports:
…one female prisoner is of more trouble than twenty males.
Time to Create Change: Forcing Prison Staff to Look in The Mirror
Both Benos and Benedict were part of a team that helped perform a federally funded audit at the Logan Correctional Center. Changing from a men’s prison, to a women’s prison in 2013. The corrections officers stayed the same.
A November 2016 audit discovered that they were given no training in the differences between handling men versus women inmates.
This audit also discovered the following at Logan Correctional Center:
- Overwhelmed Staff
- 6 warden in 3 years
- Resulted in harmed lady prisoners
- Increase in suicides from 1 a month up to 10 a month
- Overuse of solidarity confinement and force to control inmates
- Routinely guards using racial and homophobic slurs
Women were being punished at excessive exorbitant rates, nearly twice as often as men in other state prisons for nearly all offenses, big and small. Yet the audit found women at Logan were even more likely to be punished for lesser and nonviolent violations.
Women’s Prison Reform: What Is Gender Responsive Corrections?
As a result of the audit, Illinois made some changes in the past several years. Fewer women have gone to solitary confinement, and the loss of good conduct credits has been cut by 90%.
Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner singed new laws requiring specific programming for women in prisons. They require officer training to better handle and equip them in better ways on how to handle women inmates.
Officers are now being trained in something called gender responsive corrections as a result of all these audits, reviews, laws and attentions. This is built on the idea that there are major important differences between men and women in prisons.
The rules governing prisons should reflect those differences. Well duh. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure that one out… just saying.
Hiring new correctional officers has kicked off the new commitment to gender responsive training in Illinois. They will go through a 6-week training academy. And for those assigned to one of the state’s two women’s prisons, there is a 1-week focus on how to deal with lady inmates.
Currently, officers working at these women’s prisons are getting similar training.
However, this new training is time consuming and costly. As of this past Spring, only a fraction of the staff members at Logan prison have received the appropriate training.
Carolyn Gurski, appointed earlier this year to a new position in charge of women’s programs at Logan, explained how corrections departments have slowly evolved, They now understand the differences with lady prisoners — and how that plays out in discipline.
In 1989 when she got her first job, as a corrections officer, there was no similar training . She says:
I didn’t even think about women being in prison.
It will be three years before we can really show a difference on paper. We still have a lot of work to do.
“Until there are radical changes in our culture and the way we value women overall — not just in the prison system, but in our culture that built the prison system — it’s going to continue to be this way.” – Monica Cosby