ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
All this week, we've shown you how women in prison are more likely than men to be disciplined for minor violations of prison rules. We end our investigation with a look at leadership - prison reform created by women for women. NPR's Joseph Shapiro explains.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Jennifer Sprafke is assistant superintendent of the women's prison in Vermont. She started her career as a corrections officer, a guard, 18 years ago. And she got a quick reminder about how prisons are a world dominated by men.
JENNIFER SPRAFKE: I was first told that we'd get women's uniforms only to find out there were no women's uniforms. There were only men's sizes, and I had never worn men's clothes. I had no idea what size pants I was supposed to get.
J. SHAPIRO: A woman making a career in corrections likely has stories of facing resistance or hostility from her male co-workers and bosses. But as women slowly moved up the ranks, they've helped spark a movement called gender-responsive corrections.
SPRAFKE: OK. So let's get started. So I'm going to ask the first tough question
J. SHAPIRO: In a crowded classroom, Sprafke trains the most recently hired corrections officers in Vermont.
SPRAFKE: You guys have been taught you're supposed to treat offenders how?
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Equally, fairly.
SPRAFKE: Equally, fairly, consistent, right? So then tell me why do you have one unit on working with women?
J. SHAPIRO: These new officers get five weeks of training but just the four hours Sprafke teaches on how to deal with women prisoners.
SPRAFKE: If everyone's the same, we're supposed to treat everyone the same for fair and consistent, why is there a unit on working with women offenders?
J. SHAPIRO: Across the country, some 15 states are teaching new ways of treating women prisoners. Gender-responsive corrections is built around the understanding that women prisoners are different. They're less likely to come to prison for violent crimes. In prison, they're less likely than men to be violent. But the discipline system in prison is set up to control violent men, so those rules can treat women more harshly, more unfairly. It's an insight that came out of decades of academic research from feminist historians, sociologists and other academics, from women consultants who specialize in prisons and from that minority of women who've made a career in corrections, like Maggie Burke. She was the warden of a women's prison in Illinois. But she too started as a corrections officer at a men's prison.
MAGGIE BURKE: You do firearms your very first week of training, and then that screens everybody out. If you can't pass with a weapon, then you can't do the job. And I'm going to tell you that, you know, 29 years in the department and I've never had to use my gun.
J. SHAPIRO: The second thing she says corrections officers learn - how to use handcuffs.
BURKE: And so that kind of sets people up with an expectation that the work we're doing is physical, is aggressive, is law and order, is paramilitary. But the work we're doing is talking to people and changing lives. And you don't do that by barking orders. You don't do that by forcing people to do something.
J. SHAPIRO: About 75 to 90 percent of women in prison have been victims of sexual or physical violence. When a corrections officer, especially if it's a man, yells or barks an order, the woman's reaction is often defensive. She might just shut down, or she might yell back, and that can result in a ticket. She gets disciplined.
BURKE: Typically, when you tell a man to do something, a male inmate, he's either going to do it or he's not going to do it. But he's not going to lip off to you. He's not going to talk back. There isn't a whole lot of emotion to it.
J. SHAPIRO: Burke worked in men's and women's prisons.
BURKE: Whereas with women, emotion is in there.
J. SHAPIRO: This sounds like a generalization, but we heard it over and over from experts on women's prisons.
BURKE: And when she's just like, go ahead, write me a ticket, it just fuels the fire. And so then it's an emotional ticket.
J. SHAPIRO: Prison guards are trained to keep inmates under control. Women in our society in general are expected to be compliant. And if they push back, which in prison they do more than men, officers use that tool they have for control. They hand out punishment.
BURKE: Now she's got some insolence because she's talking back at me, and maybe she said something that I can perceive as threatening, and I'm going to write, you know, that she threatened me.
J. SHAPIRO: NPR and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University collected data on prison discipline from 15 states. We estimated rates of punishment for men and women. And our numbers show that women typically get disciplined at higher rates for the more minor violations of prison rules - often at twice or three times the rate for men for those smaller things like disobeying a corrections officer or cursing or...
LUCINDA GILLAM: Talking back (laughter).
J. SHAPIRO: Lucinda Gillam is a prisoner at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, serving time for robbery. She remembers when not that long ago she'd get into a lot of trouble for talking back. Once, a corrections officer made an announcement on the overhead speaker for the women to be quiet, but Gillam says she was on another part of the cellblock and didn't hear it.
GILLAM: While I was coming from upstairs, and I caught the end of it and I said, what was that? And he said, hey, I said no talking or whatever. And I was like, well, you don't have to yell. I wasn't down here. And he made a comment, and I was like, well, this is America. I can say what I want (laughter). And he wrote me up for it. So my response was smart alecky (ph) and I got a major report.
J. SHAPIRO: Typically, when women prisoners violate rules - even a lesser violation - they can lose privileges, like getting visits or using the phone. They can go to solitary confinement or have days added to their time in prison. Now the prison in Iowa trains officers that if it's not a security issue, let's some of those things go. De-escalate situations that lead to tickets.
GILLAM: Because the officers, the new ones that I've noticed, they talk to us more. They interact with us more. They ask us how we doing - not trying to be our friend but realize that we're people although we've made mistakes to get ourselves here. You know, they - they're kinder.
J. SHAPIRO: And Gillam says that change in the way corrections officers responded to her helped her mature. She's been taking college classes, and when she leaves prison next year, she wants to complete her degree and get a job counseling people recovering from substance abuse. As states start implementing these new ways of treating women, there's a small amount of research that shows women like Lucinda Gillam then do better when they leave prison. So are there lessons in this women's reform to make prison work better for men, too? Becki Ney thinks so.
BECKI NEY: Women lead the way - yes.
J. SHAPIRO: She's a pioneer of gender-responsive corrections. She started the National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women.
NEY: Men probably have trauma in their lives. Men probably have been victimized in their lives. Men have lots of discipline issues.
J. SHAPIRO: And men make up 93 percent of people in prison.
NEY: So maybe we will find some opportunities to take the work we know about trauma and give it a male spin and have that be very helpful to them as well.
J. SHAPIRO: Just like women's prisons learned from studying what's specific about the trauma of women, Ney says men's prisons can learn by studying what's specific about the lives of men. She says there's already an example. More men's prisons are training corrections officers how to de-escalate conflict to figure out what it is about men that causes them to act up and to use that gender-based knowledge to avoid situations that lead to getting disciplined for violating prison rules. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.