How Does An Inmate’s Gender Change a Stint in Jail?

One of the most popular shows on Netflix right now is Orange Is the New Black, a show chronicling the incarceration of Piper Chapman and other inmates at a New York women’s correctional facility. While the show is fictional, the events are based off the real-life experience of Piper Kerman, who authored a book with the same name as the showThe great thing about this Netflix original is how relateable its characters are. Whether it’s Flaca, Red, Sophia or Taystee on screen, the episodes make you care about the horrific, funny and dramatic things happening to these female inmates. No punches are pulled when it comes to emotional impacts, and the show deals with a number of topics that may be hard to talk about.

Gender, for example, is a subject that is hard to talk about at any age. Perhaps we don’t like to talk about how our bodies differ because we like to pretend that everyone is the same, and that we all have the same basic wants and needs. Episodic television shows like Orange Is the New Black and Prison Break allow us to forge past these taboos and begin to talk about these concepts in a thoughtful, rational way. Let’s keep that conversation going, and dive into how gender affects the incarceration industry:

Gender Disparities

There is a gender disparity among the American prison population. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, females make up only seven percent of the prison population while males make up 93 percent. Currently, there are no solid numbers for those who do not identify with either binary gender, but we have to assume some of these people have also entered the criminal justice system in some way. The question is, how are they being treated within the system?

According to a Reuters staff article, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons released new guidelines in May 2018 concerning non-binary prisoners, “An inmate’s biological sex will now be used to make the initial decision as to where transgender prisoners are housed, instead of the gender to which they identify.” This decisions has enormous consequences.

Lesley Webster, a transgender woman who was formerly incarcerated in a men’s facility, said that during her time there, she had her hair cut off and was subjected to 90 days in solitary confinement. Webster claimed this was due to the gender which she identified with.

While it is unknown how many situations similar to Webster’s occur across our country, San Francisco and New York City have created policies to help prevent state mistreatment of non-binary people.

Sadie Gribbon of the San Francisco Examiner wrote, “In an effort to make conditions safer for all inmates, San Francisco County’s jails will be the first in the U.S. to allow individuals who identify as transgender, gender variant or non-binary to choose their preferred housing, be identified by their proper pronoun and to choose the gender of the person searching them.”

Following in San Francisco’s footsteps, New York City will start to house inmates according to their gender identity beginning in October 2018. These kinds of policies certainly stray from the norm, but it remains to be seen whether or not they’ll be effective for a US corrections environment.

Top 5 States with the most male corrections officers next to the top 5 states with the most female corrections officers.
We decided to augment our discussion of gender and corrections by doing a little fact-finding. These graphics directly pertain to the gender divide of Correctional Officers across the nation.

Program Access and Treatment Disparities

In a Monitor on Psychology article by Jared C. Clark, Dr. Stephanie Covington, co-director of the Center for Gender and Justice, said “women are offered fewer programs than men, and the services provide little recognition of the traumatic paths that led them into the criminal justice system.” Which is not to say that males entering institutions for the first time haven’t also experienced trauma, but that the available programs at female facilities are especially wanting.

In Clark’s article, he said one state in the eastern U.S. offers a parenting program in 27 male facilities while the same parenting program is only available in 2 female facilities.

Incarcerated women often also suffer from a lack of hygiene products, such as tampons and pads. In a Broadly article by Annamarya Scaccia, “The New York City Department of Corrections currently provides 144-count boxes of thin, non-adhesive pads per 50 inmates, per week, in the Rose M. Singer Center—the only women’s facility in the Rikers Island jail complex.”

From a 144-count box, every woman would receive 2.8 pads during their menstrual cycle, which is not only unsanitary, but potentially life-threatening. Women that re-use pads and feminine napkins often develop bacterial infections or Toxic Shock Syndrome. For all the money a facility might save by skimping on these hygiene products, just a single episode of illness resulting from this practice would wipe out those savings immediately when the associated costs are factored in. Not to mention the genuine discontent it causes among inmates in the facility.

Scaccia wrote that other name-brand feminine hygiene products are sold through the commissary, but often at marked-up prices. More than half of the women in the facility live below the poverty line, and these reoccurring purchases can really hurt.

But some county officials have already begun to take action on these fronts. In Dane County in Wisconsin, Board Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner passed a resolution that would provide feminine hygiene products in free dispensers in its correctional facilities and other buildings.

Bridging the gap between the genders

Women, men and those who do not identify with either traditional binary gender all have different needs, and therefore require different care. Male and female facilities have to treat their inmates differently, but this should only apply to how an inmate’s needs are met; not whether their needs are met at all. This doesn’t mean that every staff member and CO needs to attend gender sensitivity training. Instead, for officers whose populations demand it, additional education could eliminate gender-based mistreatment at facilities across the country.

In Orange Is the New Black, Litchfield inmate Sophia Burset is a transgender African-American woman who is threatened with harsh treatment after she is targeted by other inmates. The guards and administration move her into isolation for her own safety, even though isolation is usually reserved as a punishment. Burset stayed in isolation for six months, and during that time she didn’t get to interact with another person, see the sun or receive the hormone therapy she’d been prescribed. Burset acted out and attempted suicide during this time. The staff and administration obviously should have used other measures to ensure her safety, but what should they have done instead? It’s a tough question to answer.

Jail administrators across the country may not realize it, but there’s a whole community of advocates and organizations that want to help answer questions like these. Human suffering, public ire, and lawsuits could all be avoided if we all just took a second to realize how different we are, and how differently the world treats each of us.

Want to see how egalitarian your state’s distribution of Correctional Officers is? Click the image below:

  • Gender of Correctional Officers across all fifty states.

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