DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Historically, prisons were built for men. But what makes sense for men in prison often doesn't work for women. That is the conclusion of a new report by the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Its findings reflect and cite stories by NPR that looked at why prison discipline policies often punish women more harshly than men. Here's NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: In 2018, NPR, working with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, collected data from prisons across the country. Our investigation showed that women were disciplined two to three times more often than men for minor violations of prison rules, like disobeying or talking back to a corrections officer. Those are nonviolent and often subjective violations. Now the United States Commission on Civil Rights has released a report that found some of these same discrepancies.
CATHERINE LHAMON: What we saw is that women themselves are substantially more likely to be subject to disciplinary practices for minor infractions - being what's called insolent or disobeying an order or swearing - than are men.
GREENE: Catherine Lhamon is the chair of the Civil Rights Commission.
LHAMON: If people - women - are serving time in harder ways than they would if they were men for like behaviors, then that is classic discrimination.
SHAPIRO: The Civil Rights Commission held public sessions and spent a year investigating issues around women in prison. Now its report calls on prisons to better address women's health care needs, to stop shackling pregnant prisoners, to better train staff to deal with the high rates of trauma among women prisoners and to change those discipline practices that punish women for those minor offenses.
LASHONIA THOMPSON-EL: Some of the things that women get punished for that men don't involve stealing from the kitchen, whether it be fruits or vegetables or even a leftover piece of cornbread...
SHAPIRO: Lashonia Thompson-El spent 18 years in prison. She came home and started The WIRE, Women Involved in Reentry Efforts, to help other women.
THOMPSON-EL: ...Or for disrespecting an officer, they call it insolence.
SHAPIRO: The NPR stories found there are serious consequences when women get punished for minor violations. They can get days added to their time in prison or lose privileges, like being able to buy food or women's hygiene products at the prison commissary. Thompson-El once got placed in solitary confinement for three months, she says, after she made an unauthorized phone call to her 10-year-old daughter. Then she lost phone privileges home.
THOMPSON-EL: So when you're in prison, it's difficult to try to transform your life and rehabilitate yourself and be strong and be positive when you can't talk to your kids because they're, like, the most important thing in the world to you.
SHAPIRO: Black women get some of the harshest punishments. The commission calculated that black women make up 23% of women in prison but 40% of women in solitary confinement. The report looked at states that cut back on the use of solitary confinement, replaced it with less punitive alternatives and got good results.
LHAMON: They are seeing dramatic reductions in incidents of violence, dramatic reductions in the kinds of behaviors that the prisons don't want to see repeated, and they are better preparing the women for reentry upon release from prison.
SHAPIRO: Women are just a small percentage, about 10% of people in jails and prison, but their numbers are rising, far faster than for men. The commission calculates that over the last 40 years, the number of women in state and federal prisons has increased by more than 730%.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
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