Investigation: In U.S. Prisons, Women Punished More Often Than Men An investigation by NPR and the Medill School of Journalism finds that in prisons across the U.S., women are disciplined more often than men, almost always for low-level, non-violent offenses.

Investigation: In U.S. Prisons, Women Punished More Often Than Men

Investigation: In U.S. Prisons, Women Punished More Often Than Men

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An investigation by NPR and the Medill School of Journalism finds that in prisons across the U.S., women are disciplined more often than men, almost always for low-level, non-violent offenses.


Female inmates in states across the country are disciplined more often and more harshly than men for low-level violations. That's the finding of an investigation by NPR with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Low-level violations typically are not violent, but they can result in serious consequences, like time in solitary confinement or extended prison sentences. We're going to spend this week digging into that finding on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Jessica Pupovac starts our investigation in Chicago.

JESSICA PUPOVAC, BYLINE: Monica Cosby spent 20 years in Illinois state prisons for murder. She says that, during that time, she and her fellow inmates were disciplined a lot.

MONICA COSBY: So you'll get a ticket for having, like, a piece of candy. Or, like, you have a library book that's overdue, and you're on your way to the library.

PUPOVAC: Once, she picked up a shift working in the kitchen. She thought she had permission, but a correctional officer gave her a ticket for unauthorized movement and sent her to solitary confinement for 60 days. The offense she says she received the most tickets for was insolence - things like talking back to an officer.

COSBY: I did 20 years of me being locked up. I think there's only, like, three people that I know that never got a ticket for insolence.

PUPOVAC: We couldn't get Cosby's prison records, but a 2016 audit done in collaboration with the state's Department of Corrections found that women are disciplined more than men. Women received on average almost double the number of disciplinary tickets. And the biggest disparity in those tickets - the ones for insolence.

MAGGIE BURKE: I would say, as a whole, we discipline based on emotion rather than on safety and security.

PUPOVAC: Maggie Burke is the former warden at Logan Correctional Center in Illinois. She recently retired after three decades with the department. She says officers tend to overuse extreme punishments like solitary confinement, also called segregation, or seg.

BURKE: Is a facility safer because I put a woman in seg longer because she talked back to someone?


BURKE: But the expectation is that she should be in seg because she - you know, she really pushed my buttons. She really got under my skin.

PUPOVAC: And Illinois is not alone. With students at the Medill School of Journalism, we analyzed data from 15 states that track discipline by gender, visited four different prison systems and interviewed dozens of current and formerly incarcerated women, academics and prison staff. We found that, across the country, women are disproportionately disciplined for low-level offenses.

In Indiana, women had more than double the rate of tickets than men and three times as many tickets for refusing to obey an order. In Vermont, female inmates are three times as likely to get a ticket for making a derogatory comment. And, in California, women are two and a half times as likely to be ticketed for disrespecting an officer. Alyssa Benedict is a national expert in a small but growing movement to address this disparity. She says this system of punishing women for mostly non-violent behavior is causing more problems than it's solving.

ALYSSA BENEDICT: All people are suffering right now under prison discipline systems. What we're finding, however, is that women are suffering very unique impacts.

PUPOVAC: Benedict says that's because women in prison often have a history of trauma. According to the Illinois audit, 97 percent of female inmates have been the victims of sexual or physical abuse. They show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder more than any other study demographic, including combat vets. That's according to a 2010 study by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. And the ways that women are controlled and punished in prison with things like isolation, strip searches or loss of phone privileges - Benedict says these responses exacerbate that past trauma.

BENEDICT: We're leaning on these very outdated tools and instruments of discipline that have no grounding in psychological research and are actually antithetical to the research on trauma and recovery.

BENEDICT: And the isolation doesn't only affect inmates. Monica Cosby, the woman who went to solitary for taking on a kitchen shift, had three young daughters when she was arrested, and a common punishment while in prison was losing phone privileges.

COSBY: Obviously, it hurt me, but it was so harmful to my children. I couldn't see them because they were out of state, so I didn't get visits. But I was able to talk on the phone. You know, and then I wasn't because I was in seg. And my daughters needed me.

PUPOVAC: Since her release in 2015, she's been working on rebuilding those connections with her now adult children.

For NPR News, I'm Jessica Pupovac.


MERAJI: This story was reported in collaboration with NPR and Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the Chicago Reporter.

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