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Do Women Have it Better than Men in Prison?

A recent study conducted by Ohio and New Mexico researchers found that women in prison have better social supports and participate in more social clubs and groups, allowing female inmates to better adjust to the conditions of incarceration. While females had no fewer rule violations than males, females nevertheless sent more calls to and received more calls from children outside the institution, received and sent more mail, had more visits, and participated in more social clubs and organizations, such as parenting programs, arts & crafts, or recreational programs.

Interestingly, the only time there were discernible gender-differences in rule violations arose when males were married and females were unmarried. Married males broke fewer rules than unmarried females, even though there was no difference between married females and unmarried females. The authors speculated that social support is far better for male inmates than it is for female inmates because it is generally only female spouses and not male spouses that actually visit their incarcerated spouses.

While both common sense and scientific research demonstrate that women are generally more relationship-oriented than men to begin with (and experience less reinforcement from misbehaviour, violence, and "machismo"), emerging research also shows that prisons for women are markedly less strict, disciplinary, and coercive. Although some researchers, such as Frances Heidensohn (1986), argue that female prison environments are only superficially or "cosmetically" softened as compared to male prison environments, female prison environments are nonetheless more conducive to social interaction, even if females require more of this social interaction. However this should not make carceral environments appear in any way independent of the behaviour of their inmates. It is possible that prison environments are less coercive to women because they simply do not need to be as coercive.

The authors suggest that future policy should be directed at increasing inmate ties with family while in prison, alleviating some of the pains of imprisonment, decreasing the likelihood that inmates will turn to prison subcultures to fill their needs, and improve their chances at successful reintegration. In all cases, married male inmates adjust better to prison life, thus the researchers propose that correctional staff encourage inmates to keep marital relationships strong while in prison, even if this an already difficult task.

References:

Jiang, Shanhe and L. Thomas Winfree Jr. 2005. "Social Support, Gender, and Inmate Adjustment to Prison Life: Insights from a National Sample." The Prison Journal, 86(1).

   
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