The XX Factor

Is Prison Worse for Women?

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In case you missed it, the Jan. 30 issue of The New Yorker contained a powerful essay by Adam Gopnik on the staggering number of people (disproportionally of color) we have imprisoned—often, with sentences absurdly out of whack with the severity of their crimes—in this country. Here’s a brief taste:

Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.

Gopnik goes on to trace the intellectual history of our contemporary zeal for lengthy, impersonal, probably ineffective confinements, concluding that what’s needed is not a revolutionary throwing-over of the prison system, but instead a concerted, multifaceted effort to starve the beast though small measures: for example, the legalization and regulation of marijuana.

While this is all very compelling, one thing is missing from Gopnik’s harrowing portrait of “Lockuptown”—he doesn’t really acknowledge that city’s female residents.

According to a report (PDF) published by advocacy group the Women’s Prison Association in 2009, the number of women in prison had risen by a stunning 823 percent since 1977, compared to a relative increase of about half that much in men. The reasons for incarceration were largely non-violent, with drug offenses and minor property crimes accounting for about two-thirds of all female infractions. As with men, women of color were disproportionately represented in prison, and roughly two-thirds of all incarcerated women were mothers.

While their overall rosters are smaller than those of their male counterparts, jailed women are clearly caught up in same kind of unjust system that Gopnik describes. But the female prison population also has problems of its own. Kurt Erickson of the Illinois-based newspaper the Herald-Review reported over the weekend that his state’s female-only institutions are anxiously looking to recruit more female guards due to complaints from inmates of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior at the hands of male supervisors. Erikson cites a report by a prison watchdog group that notes that “a great number of inmates expressed distress over lack of privacy and the feeling that their bodies were thoroughly exposed and on display to observation and surveillance by male officers in the housing units.”

Gopnik is right in his piece to point out the startling ease with which our culture condones—even snickers at—the same-sex rape of men in prison; but it must be admitted that women are at far greater risk of similar violations in the system as it is currently constituted. I point this out not to luridly compare the values of different traumas, but rather to say simply that, in any discussion aimed at remedying our prison-happy culture, the complicated situation of women must be considered equally alongside that of men.