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Differences Between Men's & Women's Prisons

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Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

In the United States, there is a significantly higher amount of men's prisons than there are women's prisons. Learn about the differences between men's and women's prisons by exploring women inmates, women's prison services, and women's prison culture. Updated: 10/27/2021

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Women's Prisons

Have you heard of the TV show, Orange Is the New Black? It's a dark comedy about life in a women's prison, but in reality, life for women in prison isn't funny or entertaining.

There are around 4,500 prisons in the United States, but only about 170 of those are women's prisons. Prisons are correctional facilities used for long-term confinement and usually run by the state. People are sent to serve time in prison after they've been convicted of a crime and given a sentence. Women serve their sentences in prisons designed specifically for women, and men serve their sentences in prisons designed for men.

There's little resemblance between men's prisons and women's prisons. The main difference between men's and women's prisons is security level. A prison security level dictates the type and number of safety measures used to keep the public protected from the inmates and the inmates protected from one another. For example, very few women's prisons have tall stone walls, armed guard towers or razor wire barriers. Women's prisons tend to resemble men's minimum or medium security prisons. They often look like a college campus or a camp, with inmates housed in dormitories or cottages rather than cell blocks.

Women's prisons are typically less violent than men's prisons. There are fewer violent incidents between inmates and also between inmates and their prison guards. For this reason, female inmates tend to have more freedom. They can usually walk around the prison in order to attend classes or programs, eat in the dining hall, receive visitors, exercise or attend chapel services.

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  • 0:04 Women's Prisons
  • 2:06 Women Inmates
  • 4:17 Women's Prison Services
  • 6:41 Women's Prison Culture
  • 8:03 Lesson Summary
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Women Inmates

One reason women's prisons are less violent is because there are simply fewer incarcerated people as a result of violent crime. Female inmates are much more likely to be serving time for drug or property offenses than their male counterparts. One study found that as many as 60% of female inmates have unhealthy substance use, while almost 75% live with a mental illness. The same study showed that the women's crimes were most often a direct result of these problems.

Male inmates, on the other hand, are more likely to be serving time for violent crimes than their female counterparts. A violent crime is a crime in which the perpetrator uses or threatens to use force against the targeted person. Violent crimes include murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and assault.

There are also many more men than women serving time due to recidivism, which means repeated criminal behavior. For this reason, there are more male inmates serving their second prison sentence, or even more.

Overall, the vast majority of U.S. prison inmates are male, though the number of female inmates is growing. One study showed that the number of female prison inmates has increased by more than 600% since 1980. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were nearly 1.5 million men in U.S. state and federal prisons in 2011. During the same time, there were around 111,000 women.

In both men's and women's prisons, the inmates are mostly part of a minority ethnic group and younger than 40. Specifically examining the characteristics of the female prison population, studies found that the majority had experienced physical or sexual abuse. Most people in prisons have a low-income, lack technical training, and also haven't received an academic education. Many are single mothers.

Women's Prison Services

For these reasons, you might think that classes and rehabilitative programs would be a priority in women's prisons. Because most women serve time for drug offenses rather than violent crimes, they tend to serve shorter prison sentences. Rehabilitation efforts would be reasonable, considering the women will be returning to their families and communities. However, most studies show that rehabilitation classes and programs are lacking in women's prisons.

Programs might be lacking because women serve shorter sentences. This means there's a high turnover rate in the women's prison population. Prison administrators and government officials may feel that rehabilitation programs aren't a proper investment for short-term inmates. Some professionals cite a lack of funding or inadequate training as reasons why there are fewer rehabilitative prison programs available to female inmates than those available to males.

However, female inmates might need the programs the most. Besides higher rates of substance abuse, women inmates show higher rates of depression. Female inmates are also more likely to harm themselves than men. This includes attempting suicide. Also noteworthy, approximately 60% have chronic or communicable diseases, such as hepatitis or HIV.

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