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My name is Fiona O’Neill. I am an undergraduate majoring in Biology at the University of Pennsylvania. The woman in this article, Rose, is my sister. My perspective and overall awareness regarding some of the issues in the women's prison system expanded immensely through her experience. She is my greatest inspiration. She survived her time in prison with resilience and strength because she had the support of my family, yet she still has a lot of psychological damage. Not all women are fortunate enough to have strong, stable support systems. However, it is our society’s responsibility to make sure that they have proper psychological support while in prison and when re-entering society.

Generally, when people think of prison, orange jumpsuits, crimes, and malicious people come to mind. We forget about the mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, and other loved ones behind all of these negative connotations. These women become numbers. They get lost in the incarcerated female population, along with the entire incarcerated male population. Yes, men and women should be treated equally, but that doesn’t mean they have identical needs or require the same psychological care. Women inmates need a different approach and type of attention in order to succeed in their rehabilitation and reform. Thus, there is gender bias in the way inmates are treated that needs to be reconciled.

Challenges Female Inmates Face

In order to get some personal insight on the daily lives of female inmates, I spoke with Rose, a woman who spent five years in a Pennsylvania state prison. We all know that building self-esteem is something that needs to be worked on daily. Have you ever wondered how incarceration would affect a woman’s self-confidence and self-worth? Through research and my interview with Rose, I found out five unsettling facts about the experience of female inmates in that Pennsylvania prison:

1. Tampons were not provided and are only available through commissary. If an inmate needed, a pad she had to get one from the officer station (often run by a man).

2. Women were given five pairs of white underwear per year.

3. Fifteen-minute phone calls cost a minimum of $6.00.

4. During visitation hours, inmates weren't allowed physical contact (so no holding hands).

5. Female prisoners were subject to a strip search at any given moment.

Incarcerated Mothers Experience Even More Obstacles

Here is something to consider: almost 80% of women in prison are mothers. Incarcerating women has a harsh ripple effect on the family dynamic. Often, there is no other option than state or foster care for the child of an incarcerated woman. Some may say that the child is better off in foster care than with the mother. However, research has shown that the cycle of victimization is frequently repeated in foster care. Children face many consequences from having an incarcerated mother, including psychological damage such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, and anxiety. These children are more likely to struggle with drugs and alcohol.

Prisons are frequently located far distances from where the families live, and visiting hours are only certain days of the week. It can be very difficult for the family to arrange visits or stay connected through expensive phone calls. These obstacles make it difficult to maintain family connections. If there was more effort to preserve the family bonds, especially the mother-child relationship, women, families, and children would greatly benefit. Women would be better prepared to rejoin their families and communities when released.

Though women who are sentenced to prison have committed a crime, they still deserve basic human rights

Unique Issues Significant to Women

Prison staff should be better educated and equipped when handling psychological issues such as victimization. The rate at which mental illness affects incarcerated women is significantly higher than it is for men. Many of these women need specialized care to have a successful rehabilitation. The lack of mental health care within the justice system needs to be addressed.

The most significant reason women need gender-specialized research and programming is their shared experience of violence, trauma, and victimization. With that being said, it is extremely alarming that women can be forced to strip down at any given moment. For women who have a history of sexual abuse, this can have harmful psychological effects. Some may argue that strip searches are a safety precaution. Certainly, it is important to keep the staff and inmates safe, but not taking into account women's backgrounds with sexual or physical violence can cause some serious psychological damage and distress. It can lead to flashbacks where they relive traumatic events. Strip-searches can also leave women feeling degraded, anxiety-ridden, violated, and scared. A 1997 study by Dorothy McClellan, David Farabee and Ben M. Crouch reported that 30.8% of female offenders reported experiencing sexual mistreatment or abuse in their lives, compared to 1.1% of male offenders. Usually, the prison staff is unaware of these histories.

 graph ab43aCompiled by the Prison Policy Initiative. For detailed sourcing, see http://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/women/.

The graph above shows the rapid increase of incarcerated women in the past twenty years. Considering this, it is imperative that gender-bias issues in the U.S. prison system be resolved. It is a huge problem that little research has been instituted, and few programs have been created, in response to this change. To date, most prison programs were developed based on the male population, and women are lost in the mix. Though women who are sentenced to prison have committed a crime, they still deserve basic human rights. So why haven’t women’s basic rights been met?

The methods used in the prison system are not designed for women. The rate of recidivism for women has been rising, and in many cases, women are leaving prison more damaged and unprepared to live healthy lives than they were before they entered prison. This is most likely the reason why many women are unable to remain outside of prison as functioning members of society. The lack of research and knowledge on female inmates is causing an unintentional negative outcome. The procedures and programs designed for men will cause a different response for women. It is crucial for these women to have the support and programs needed to tackle the emotional and psychological damage they face while in prison and especially outside in the real world.

top photo: Max Pixel/Creative Commons

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Fiona O’Neill is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania studying biology. Although science is her primary interest, writing is another passion. She is an animal enthusiast and loves the outdoors, as well as dressing up in disco gear and dancing to funk music. 

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