In California’s women prisons, talking back or talking it through

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Photo by Kari Lydersen

Sabrina Robinson is an inmate who also serves as a certified drug and alcohol counselor and mentor in California's Folsom Women's Facility, where women prepare for re-entry to society.

Officials implementing gender-informed practices in California’s prisons say small things can make a big difference.

Things like allowing women to wash their own undergarments rather than sending them to an industrial laundry, and adding solid panels to open bathroom doors so women’s private parts are obscured as they shower.   

INVESTIGATIONLogan Correctional Center

Women in prison punished more harshly than men around the country

But as in other states, significant disparities in discipline rates between men and women still exist.

Correctional officer Daniel Johnson, who trains other officers to work with female inmates in the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, the state’s largest women’s prison, says that women simply do commit infractions more, and sanctions like taking away phone privileges are necessary.

“If phone calls…are important to them, [discipline] will curb their behavior for the future,” he said. In a cell, he points out potential disciplinary infractions: items not stored in lockers, papers and photos taped to a wall, an unauthorized cache of food including tortillas and milk. The rules are meant to keep order and protect women’s health, he says, like making sure women don’t eat spoiled food.

Some women inmates agree that they break rules more than men, and more sanctions might be justified. LaVerne Dejohnette, 49, has been disciplined for “manufacturing a slashing device” and for “pen pal fraud,” she said, while serving a life sentence in Chowchilla. This year a board recommended the governor commute her sentence. She is awaiting a decision.

Photo by Kari Lydersen

Laverne Dejohnette

“From my understanding, men don’t do as much as we do,” said Dejohnette, who credits prison with saving her from the destructive path she was on because of a cycle of abuse. “The hurt, the pain, the trauma, they [women] act out here, and [correctional officers] do meet that accordingly with the right discipline.”

Other times, inmates say, women are disciplined unnecessarily or unfairly.

“You can get written up for altered clothes on – but it can be your own clothes that you done had and just decided to make shorts out of,” says Victoria Williams, 58, originally from Gary, Ind., who is serving 25 years in Chowchilla for a burglary conviction under the state’s three-strikes law.

“Or if you want to fix your room up nice and take some Kool-Aid and dye your pillowcase, you get written up for that. You get written up for not closing your doors, you get written up for jumping on the phone without permission, you get written up for jumping on the kiosk machine without permission, you get written up for going out of bounds in someone’s room or in the hallways.”

Williams has been sanctioned many times. “Sometimes they take like 30, 90, 150 [good credit] days or they take your yard, your phone, your boxes, your canteen” privileges away. “That’s too much, and that’s what causes a person to act out.”

Johnson noted that while women get more violations than men for fighting, the stakes are different. “When there’s a fight [in a male prison] someone is taken out in an ambulance, people are actually trying to kill each other…The same thing with the staff assaults – we have more staff assaults here, but it’s kicking, throwing something on staff. At a men’s institution they have a weapon and are actually trying to kill staff.”

He says the gangs that proliferate in men’s prisons actually help maintain order in part by imposing a strict hierarchy. Women interact more freely, and more dramatically, with each other and with correctional officers.

“So they have a tendency to be more defiant, and a tendency to lash out either at their peers or at staff,” Johnson said. “Are they more violent [than men]? No. Are they more defiant? In my experience, yes.”

Tracy Johnson is the associate warden at Folsom Women’s Facility, where women with less than five years left on their sentence go for job training and counseling to prepare for re-entry. She previously worked in San Quentin, the men’s maximum security prison, and notes the stark differences in behavior.

“The female inmates want to know why, and they are going to stand there until they get the answer,” she says. “But if you have those answers for them, it definitely helps in the long run.”

  • Marie Callahan

    When people are treated with humanity and dignity there are far fewer behavior problems.