Federal civil rights agency: Unequal discipline of women in prison must be addressed

Federal agency cites collaborative investigation by The Chicago Reporter, NPR and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University which exposed disparities at prisons across the country.

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Logan Correctional Center

Photo by Billy Healy

Illinois Department of Corrections officials, Public Information Officer Lindsay Hess, Women's Division Chief Carolyn Gurski, and Warden Glen Austin, right, walk the grounds at Logan Correctional Center with reporter Jessica Pupovac, second from right.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated that the Department of Justice issues the report.

Incarcerated women in the U.S. receive disproportionately harsher punishments for minor violations of prison rules than men, including more time served and reduced access to programs, prison jobs, and family visits, according to a new report by the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

The findings follow an 18-month investigation by the federal agency, created in 1957 to monitor progress on the Civil Rights Act. The conclusions were informed by a 2018 investigation by The Chicago Reporter, NPR, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University that found female inmates in prisons across the country are disciplined up to two or three times more often than male inmates for minor violations —  things like disobeying orders, cursing, or altering clothing. 

Experts and prison psychologists said that many of these behaviors are attributable to the lingering effects of past sexual and physical abuse. Incarcerated women exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder more than any other studied demographic, including combat veterans.

The Chicago Reporter investigation was sparked by a 2016 study conducted by the Women’s Justice Institute that exposed poor conditions and deep gender biases among staff at the Logan Correctional Center, Illinois’ largest women’s prison. The Illinois Department of Corrections has since initiated an ambitious training program to better prepare their staff to work with women who have experienced trauma. 

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Women in prison punished more harshly than men around the country

An IDOC spokesman says that they plan to have all staff trained by July of this year. Those efforts have already led to a dramatic reduction in the use of solitary confinement at Logan.

Women who are incarcerated in America are disproportionately women of color and/or LGBT, and the report found both groups disproportionately targeted by some of the most severe forms of punishment behind bars. For example, black women in prison, investigators found, are more than two times more likely than their white counterparts to serve time in restricted housing such as solitary confinement.

The report also found incarcerated women more likely to face sexual abuse by prison staff, to lose custodial and parental rights upon their incarceration, and to lack access to appropriate health care while behind bars. The USCCR made recommendations to the president, states, Congress, and prison officials to address these and other potential violations of civil rights.

The report offered alternative models of prison management. For example, pressure from the Department of Justice has prompted widespread reforms and led to a safer environment for both inmates and staff in the Alabama Department of Corrections, where a 2014 DOJ investigation found officers were using threats of disciplinary action to pressure female inmates into submitting to and keeping quiet about sexual abuse. 

USCCR investigators also warned that DOJ actions are, at times, insufficient. They urged government bodies to take action before federal action is needed, not just out of fear of losing federal funding or facing litigation, but to promote faith in the criminal justice system and support healthier women, families, and communities.

“These revelations are only the ones we have managed to learn about through press reports and lawsuits. Behind prison walls, many things go unnoticed unchecked unreported,” USCCR Commissioner David Kladney said today.

“Policymakers should tailor prison policies and programming accordingly so that women have a true opportunity to heal and the history of trauma won’t dictate their future once they are released, because they will be released.”