Women and Imprisonment

Prisons serve the same purpose for women as they do for men; they are instruments of social control. The imprisonment of women takes place against the backdrop of patriarchal relationships. The imprisonment of women in the US has always been a different phenomenon than that of men; women have traditionally been incarcerated for different reasons; and once in prison they have endured different conditions of incarceration, based on this patriarchal system. Women's crimes have been rooted in the patriarchal double standard, and often have a sexual definition.

The nature of women's imprisonment reflects the position of women in society (Kurshan). Prisons have historically served to enforce and reinforce women's traditional roles in society, to foster dependency and passivity, bearing in mind that it is not just incarcerated women who are affected. All women are warned to stay within the "proper female sphere," rather than face the social stigma and conditions of imprisonment. This warning is not issued equally to women of all nationalities and classes; white supremacy alters the way that gender impacts on white women and women of color (Kurshan).

The profile of the typical women prisoner that emerges is that of a young, single, mother with few marketable job skills, a high school drop-out who lives below the poverty level. Seventy-five percent of between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four, are mothers of dependent children, and were unemployed at the time of arrest. Many experienced various forms of abuse throughout their lives. Race plays an extremely significant factor. Black women are eight times more likely than white women to go to prison. Although a greater proportion of white women are arrested, a smaller proportion are incarcerated.

There is a different set of dynamics at work for white women and women of color. Various studies have concluded that women of color, particularly black women, are over-arrested, over-indicated, under-defended, and over-sentenced. There are no criminals here at Riker's Correctional Institution for Women, only victims. Most of the women are black and Puerto Rican. Many were abused as children. Most have been abused by men and all have been abused by "the system. " There are no big time gangsters here, no premeditated mass murderers, no godmothers. There are no big time dope dealers, no kidnappers, no Watergate women.

There are virtually no women here charged with white collar crimes like embezzling and fraud. Most of the women have drug-related cases. Many are charged as accessories to crimes committed by men. The major crimes that women here are charged with are prostitution, pickpocketing, shop lifting, robbery, and drugs. Women who have prostitution cases or who are doing 'fine' time make up a substantial part of the short term population. The women see stealing or hustling as necessary for the survival of themselves or their children because jobs are scarce and welfare is impossible to live on.

Even at their best, women's prisons are shot through with a viciously destructive paternalistic mentality. Women in prison are perpetually infantalized by routines and paternalistic attitudes. A deception is in place, which reverts women to children. Women prisoners are subjected to "mass infancy treatment. " Powerlessness, helplessness, and dependency are systematically heightened in prison. Friendship among women is discouraged, and the homophobia of the prison system is exemplified by rules that prohibit physical contact (Kurshan). Alternatives to imprisonment and programs of any sort are limited.

There is little public or community support, and no outside pressure to create social and educational programs. The public outcry is deafening. Women of color and low-income women are not the only ones stigmatized by society and thus the State. This distinction extends beyond those criminalized because of race, ethnicity, or class, and extends to those who have consciously, politically resisted, opposed, or even attacked the injustices and inequalities of the State system of social control. These prisoners are political prisoners; historically among the most feared and despised of all by those who wield State power (Buck).