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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

Gender and Inequality in the American Prison System

By G.A.N. Member Jasmine Fox

In the past quarter century, much legal action has been taken to insure equal treatment for men and women incarcerated in jails and prisons in the United States. Historically, because female inmates were so few in number compared to male inmates, it had been considered too expensive by the state to provide them with the same privileges afforded to male inmates. For instance, although women were incarcerated in a system designed for male inmates, often wearing men's uniforms and shoes, they were not afforded the same vocational programs, educational opportunities, or access to law libraries as males were. While male inmates had access to minimum, medium or maximum security prisons according to the severity of their crime, women, who were again much fewer in number, were all lumped together under what had to be maximum security conditions. In addition, while women's health is more costly even in the general populace due to more complicated female reproductory systems, health care in women's prisons often received inadequate funding from the state.

Today, while male inmates still outnumber female inmates by about 20 to 1, the courts have decided that cost is not an adequate reason for not insuring equal treatment between male and female prisoners, and much has been done to eradicate inequalities. It took years of legal action on the part of women prisoners to obtain this decision. Some have hypothesized that female offenders had been treated with less compassion, if possible, than male offenders because a woman who breaks the law is seen as going against her very nature as the fairer sex, while male offenders are seen as exerting their masculinity.

While female offenders are now privy to most of the same privileges as male offenders, this push toward equality has also opened them up to some of the less beneficial aspects of the justice system endured by men. In the past, judges may have been less apt to penalize a woman as harshly as a man for a crime, but today everyone seems to be fair game. Indeed, women's incarceration in the United States is growing at a faster rate now than men's incarceration. The number of women imprisoned in the United States has increased eightfold since the 1980s, from approximately 12,000 in 1980 to approximately 90,000 in the late nineties.

It is thought that the growing numbers of women in prison is largely due not to growing criminality among women, but to new legislation enacting minimum sentencing rules and three-strikes-you're-out laws in many jurisdictions. Women are more likely than men to be arrested for non-violent offenses like drug possession, prostitution, and check forgery than are men. Under new sentencing laws, these sorts of crimes, especially drug possession, are being prosecuted at much greater rates.

Many feminists have argued that this is just as it should be. In order for the issue of equality to be taken seriously, they argue, women must accept equal treatment in all domains, whether favorable or unfavorable. However, significant differences in male and female prison populations warrant a closer look.

Firstly, as previously mentioned, men are more often imprisoned for violent offenses like assault and burglary, while women are more often imprisoned for non-violent offenses like drug possession and prostitution. In fact, the percentage of women serving sentences in state prisons for violent crimes actually decreased from 48.9 percent in 1979 to 32.2 percent in 1991. When a woman does commit a violent crime, it is very likely to be in response to years of domestic violence. Men are more likely to kill strangers (50.5 percent) than intimate friends or relatives (35.1 percent), whereas women are more likely to kill intimate friends or relatives (49 percent) than strangers (21 percent). Given the non-violent nature of women's crimes, it can hardly be argued that society would be at great risk if women were incarcerated at a lesser rate or were given sentencing alternatives to going to prison.

In addition, once behind bars, women prisoners are less likely to physically attack prison staff than are men. However, in most prisons, there is no difference in training for staff who work in men's or women's facilities. Most prison staff are given the same training in firearms handling, self-defense, and riot control for both genders. And militaristic programs like prison "boot-camps" and chain-gangs are becoming just as popular in women's facilities as in men's facilities. In programs like these, which were originally designed for male offenders, male and female prisoners are subjected to a military style atmosphere, complete with short hair, absolute adherence to strict rules of dress and behavior, and humiliation for any infraction. In many, male and female prisoners do hard physical labor for hours, often outdoors in hundred degree temperatures. One wonders what "equality" for women and men might have meant had women been the original model for which the prison system was designed.

Another very important distinction between male and female inmates is the level and type of health care needed by both. Female inmates often need a higher level of medical care than male inmates, not only because of reproductive issues and the fact that many women are pregnant when they enter prison, but also because of the fact that female prisoners are more likely than male prisoners to have a drug dependency, which often causes other health problems. While female prisoners suffer more frequent and serious disease, especially sexually transmitted disease than their male counterparts, correctional institutions continue to offer less than adequate health care to female prison populations.

It would also be a good idea to examine the differences in male and female mental health issues. For instance, female prisoners are far more likely than male prisoners to have been sexually abused before entering prison. Researchers estimate that anywhere from 20 - 40% of female inmates have been sexually abused previous to incarceration. And as recent reports in the media discuss, many women are forced to continue this cycle of abuse with male guards once they become incarcerated.

In addition, it is estimated that approximately 10 percent of women are pregnant when they enter prison. There is no mother-child bonding experience for a woman who gives birth in prison. In all but a few women's prisons, the child is immediately removed from the mother and placed outside the prison with foster or other types of caregivers. In an emotionally taxing experience like this, special psychological health services may be warranted for a female inmate, as a male inmate will have no need for a service like this.

About two-thirds of women inmates also leave behind children under the age of 18 when they go to prison and over 64 percent of these mothers were living with their children prior to incarceration. It is very difficult for a woman to retain custody of a child afterwards, and to many women, this is the most disturbing part of incarceration. Much research links maternal incarceration with higher levels of depression in both mothers and their children. Again, this is not as salient an issue for male inmates.

Because female and male prisoners are indeed different in the ways discussed, would it not be a smart move on the part of the justice system to address their needs in different ways? The argument that in order to gain equal access to the privileges male inmates have enjoyed, women must accept equal treatment in every aspect of incarceration is inherently faulty. Under this argument, women are already at a disadvantage, since male corrections systems are the model to which women must conform in order to be "equal".

Beyond that, given the essentially non-violent nature of women's crimes, it might just make good sense for society to think of some alternatives to incarcerating women at an astronomically increasing rate. Funds now used on the prison system could be allocated towards substance abuse programs, sexual health education, parenting classes, and counseling for victims of sexual and domestic abuse.


CHESNEY-LIND, M. [2003] Reinventing Women's Corrections: Challenges for Contemporary Feminist Criminologists and Practitioners. In The Incarcerated Woman: Rehabilitative Programming in Women's Prisons, 2003. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.
BLOOM, B. and CHESNEY-LIND, M. [2000] Women in Prison: Vengeful Equity. In It's a Crime: Women in Justice, 2000. Upper Saddle River, NY: Prentice Hall, Inc. Ibid.
ANDERSON, T. L. [2003]. Issues in the Availability of Health Care for Women Prisoners. In The Incarcerated Woman: Rehabilitative Programming in Women's Prisons, 2003. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.
SHARP, S. F. [2002] Mothers in Prison: Issues in Parent-Child Contact. In The Incarcerated Woman: Rehabilitative Programming in Women's Prisons, 2003. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.