In Prison, Discipline Comes Down Hardest On Women Data from 15 states reveal that female inmates are disciplined at higher rates than men for smaller infractions of prison rules — often with harsh consequences.
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In Prison, Discipline Comes Down Hardest On Women

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In Prison, Discipline Comes Down Hardest On Women

In Prison, Discipline Comes Down Hardest On Women

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're spending a few days looking at a striking disparity in prisons across the United States. Women are disciplined more frequently, and often more harshly, than men. That's the finding of an investigation by NPR and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro and reporter Jessica Pupovac found that women are punished disproportionately for minor infractions, and those violations can have major repercussions, like the loss of good conduct credits or solitary confinement. Here's Joe.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: We collected data on prison discipline from 15 states. In all but two, women get disciplined at higher rates than men. What's most striking is that women get punished far more for minor violations of prison rules at rates we estimated often two to three times higher for what prisons classify as smaller infractions.

VICTORIA WILLIAMS: Petty stuff. You can get written up for not closing your doors. You get written up for jumping on the phone without permission. Or if you just want to just fix your room up nice and just take some Kool-Aid and dye your pillowcase, you get written up for that.

SHAPIRO: That's Victoria Williams, an inmate at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, Calif.

V. WILLIAMS: You get written up for going out of bounds in somebody else's room or out of bounds in the hallways. It's just basically everything you get written up for.

SHAPIRO: Our numbers showed that in California, women, compared to men, get twice the disciplinary tickets for disobeying an order, and more than twice as many for what's called disrespect. In Vermont, we found women are more than three times as likely to get in trouble for making what's called derogatory comments. In Rhode Island, they get more than three times the tickets for disobedience.

Those tickets have consequences. Women lose good conduct credits. They can have time added to their stay in prison or lose phone and visitation privileges or go to solitary confinement. In Rhode Island, women were more than three times as likely as men to end up in solitary confinement for disobedience.

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SHAPIRO: Prisons were built for men, and the rules for discipline were set up to control those men. Deanne Benos says those rules don't work very well with women.

DEANNE BENOS: You walk through a women's prison, and it's a profoundly different experience.

SHAPIRO: We met Benos on a day she was visiting Logan Correctional Center, a women's prison in Illinois. Several years ago, Benos was a top official in the Illinois Department of Corrections. Now she works with prisons as a consultant. She helps them address that problem of why women in prison get disciplined more.

BENOS: Women are more communicative when you walk through a prison. They're more emotional. They want to talk to you. They want to talk about their children. They want to talk about their experiences.

SHAPIRO: Two years ago, Benos helped conduct an audit of that women's prison in Illinois and found that women prisoners were disciplined almost twice as often as men for all offenses, big and small, but almost five times more likely to get in trouble for a lesser offense called minor insolence.

BENOS: And they also really - if they see an injustice with another woman in a prison or something that happened, they want to fix it. Like, they want to be the mom that's going to come in and mediate between people and fix a problem.

SHAPIRO: Benos told us she likes it that women prisoners are this way. But she said many corrections officers - and often even in a women's prison, most of them are men - say they hate it.

BENOS: The first thing that they'll tell you is these women are so difficult. Gosh, they're a pain. I would rather work anywhere but here. They always want to talk to you. They won't take no for an answer.

SHAPIRO: Corrections officers are trained to keep control. They expect women to be compliant. If the women push back, that's where those disciplinary tickets for insolence come in. Two women we met in Illinois told us they'd been written up some years ago for an infraction called reckless eyeballing.

While women get more tickets than men, certain women get the most tickets of all - women with mental illness, those who are lesbian, bisexual or transgender, African-American women - especially for those lesser, nonviolent offenses.

TYTEANNA WILLIAMS: Like me cursing a guard out because they said something to me that I didn't like, or - yeah, stuff like that.

SHAPIRO: Tyteanna Williams was 19 when she went to prison in Illinois after repeatedly missing her court-ordered 9 p.m. curfew at her foster care facility. In prison, after a fight with an inmate, Williams was charged with hitting an officer who tried to stop it. Her sentence was doubled from two years to four.

But most of her tickets were for cursing and talking back to officers, and those kept her in prison for extra days, and she lost privileges. One time, she says she got in trouble for cursing at a guard when her cellmate, who had diabetes, passed out. Williams thought the officer was too slow to help.

Williams says the hardest thing was when she lost her phone privileges and she couldn't call her son. He was a baby when she went to prison, and he was growing up without her.

T. WILLIAMS: It was sad because I'll miss those years. Like, I missed when he was 2, 3, 4 and 5.

SHAPIRO: He's 9 now. But Tyteanna Williams says that time separated, often not even able to talk to him on the phone, makes it hard to be a parent now.

T. WILLIAMS: Even to this day, I still have to deal with the consequences of missing out on those years that I missed. It's hard, right next to this day, 'cause, like, I still don't understand my son. Like, he be being bad, doing stuff. And my family always tells me, like, it could be because you was gone.

SHAPIRO: More than half of women in prison are the mothers of children under the age of 18. One common punishment at that Illinois prison was that women lost good conduct credits. In one year alone - 2015 - women lost 93 years of those credits. That's 20 extra days of prison time for each woman. That's an average. Many women had no days added, but some ended up with months, even a year or more of extra time.

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SHAPIRO: A small number of states, including Illinois, are trying to change this. They're trying what's called gender-responsive corrections practices. It's built around the idea that women are in prison for different reasons than men, that they respond differently in prison and that prison rules need to recognize those differences and be less punitive.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Scenario is offender got in trouble. Offender found out that she has no phone right now.

SHAPIRO: At that prison in Illinois, a trainer at the front of a classroom tells corrections officers to think through the different pressures in a woman's life.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And she needs to see what's going on with her son because she just found out he's kicked out of school. All right? How can we help her deal with this moment?

SHAPIRO: With phone privileges revoked, all she can do is write a letter home or to her son's school. It's a reminder to the corrections officers that tickets, even ones for lesser offenses, can have significant consequences.

Reporter Jessica Pupovac met officers at that training. They didn't want to give their names. They said the gender-responsive approach makes sense to them but that many of their co-workers are much more skeptical.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I was open-minded. I heard a lot of things, but...

JESSICA PUPOVAC: What'd you hear?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Stupid. Worthless. Wasn't going to work.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hug a thug.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah. Hug a thug was big.

SHAPIRO: Hug a thug - that's a derogatory way of saying it's letting the inmates run the prison.

We wrote letters to some of the women at that Illinois prison. One woman who wrote back said that since the training started, she's not seen much difference. She said corrections officers - both the men and the women - are disrespectful and cruel. And this is a quote, "they're on a power trip. They call us bitches, hoes. They try to provoke you. If you say anything back, they send you to segregation for threats and intimidation."

The number of women in prison is rising. But still, they're only about 7 percent of the prison population nationwide, so it's hard to get prison officials to make their problems a priority, like the heavy punishment of women for those lesser violations of prison rules. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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