Women in Jail: Gender Inequalities Behind Bars

3 mins read

By Valentine Fantino

The Orange is the New Black phenomenon put the female jail world in the spotlight and made people aware of its realities. The series is inspired by Piper Kerman’s book with the same name. Kerman was sentenced to a year in a federal jail for money laundering and drug trafficking. Her testimony brings up many issues of everyday life in female prison. These are often overlooked due to the fact that women make up only a small proportion of prisoners. However, the number of women in the US prison population is now growing faster than the number of men. This means that certain infrastructures have to be adapted to cater to the needs of this growing female population. This article will focus on some of the specific issues that are becoming more relevant because of the increasing proportion of women in the prison population of Western countries.

Living conditions in jail are often worse for women. Many factors can be identified to explain this. Firstly, victimisation of women currently exists in prisons and can particularly be observed in the sexual assault rates. For instance, The Guardian disclosed in August of 2016 that 68 % of detained women in the US claim to have been victims of sexual aggression. To solve this problem it is common to exclusively employ female staff in women’s prisons. This enables the creation of a safe atmosphere and an equal scale reciprocity between civil servant and detained. In fact, British psychologist Stephanie Covington argues that the sharing of experiences between staff and interns can help women to cope with the everyday life of prisons and make staff understand that women in jail can be victims too. Nowadays, researchers working with female prisoner’s health put an emphasis on monitoring the mental health of the interns. Pascal Golovine, French psychologist in one of the main prisons in France, Fresnes, claims the importance of voluntary mental health monitoring. In fact, interns usually have an appointment only at their arrival and have to request for a continuation. This shows a willingness to involve the prisoner in the process, but these mental health initiatives are often poorly adapted to deal with intimidated victims of sexual harassment with a tendency to close themselves to discussion. Efforts have to to encourage women to accept the help of psychologists and medical teams, where female staff plays an important role.

Also, since women are socially considered as responsible for the reproductive sphere they often have to care for their family even while imprisoned. Pregnant women in jail are more numerous than one would think and specific structures, such as nurseries, are offered for women with babies and young children. Detained mothers often have access to equipped rooms with child care necessities and independent kitchens. This is a kind of privilege for a prisoner but is essential to the health and development of a baby. Depending on the country, the maximum age a child can be in order to stay in jail with its mother differs greatly: from 18 months in France and Ireland, to 3 years in countries such as Spain, Greece and Finland. In 2014 the French government even voted for a radical new law that would suspend jail sentences for pregnant women to avoid the situation of newborns in prison. But this is applied only in case of minor offence.

Furthermore, jail must be efficient, that is to say enable reinsertion to society and avoid offences being repeated. As far as women are concerned, they are at an disadvantage even after jail time and progress has to be made in this matter also. The reinsertion to society is a burning issue for women because they are still victims of gender inequality in their everyday life after imprisonment, with much fewer choices than their male counterparts. If women have less chances than men on the labour markets, this is intensified greatly after a prison stay. Women also need more health care because of the reproduction sphere issue: pregnancy and child care require specific health monitoring and services. To face these problems, women must have an accurate rehabilitation program after their stay in prison as well, that is developed specifically for women and their needs. Leaving jail can for many interns feel like leaving home and the helpful hands behind, as described by several previous jailbirds in a 2012 Le Monde article by V. Cahaupé. The fear of loneliness and abandon can overtake the newfound freedom and limit the opportunities women perceive. That’s why reinsertion programs should reinforce mental health assistance outside the walls of prisons and encourage half-opened structures and step by step re-introductory programmes to acclimate women to face society and its challenges.

To conclude, it is proved that women suffer due to a lack of adaptation of judiciary institutions to their needs in a male-thought judiciary punishment structure. Nevertheless, many solutions and means exist to improve women’s conditions in jail. But some social, cultural and political obstacles avoid a proper application of them. From an international point of view, we observe that inequalities even exist among Western countries’ prisons despite the “developed countries” label they claim. Health care, psychological help and reinsertion challenges are the main issues institutions have to focus on in in order to solve gender inequalities behind bars.

By Valentine Fantino

Image: Siri Christiansen

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