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Prisons: Prisons for Women - The Contemporary Prison

units housing male prisoners

Beginning in the 1970s, prison systems began to return to a custodial or "warehouse" model, with few prisons offering rehabilitative programs. This trend continued into the 1980s and 1990s. In this period, the numbers of women in prison began to skyrocket, due primarily to enhanced and punitive sanctions against drug offenders. Prisons for women then became increasingly crowded as women were hard hit by this national trend. The female prison population increased disproportionately to the increase in women's involvement in serious crime (Immarigeon and Chesney-Lind). Some states began to build new prisons for women, again using designs based on male prisons. Many of the reformatory prisons remain in use, but the majority of modern prisons for women are now run as custodial rather than as rehabilitative institutions.

Most states have a relatively small number of prisons for women and thus house women prisoners at one or two geographically isolated locations. California, with the largest prison population in the United States (at almost 12,000 in 1999), is the exception with five prisons for women. Women are often housed far from home, friends, and their families and are distant from services more available in urban communities. While male prisoners are assigned to the more numerous facilities with a wider range of security levels, the majority of women in the United States are confined to prisons that encompass all classification and security levels in one facility. In the contemporary prison, security procedures often interfere with privacy. While privacy is eroded by crowded conditions, shared housing units, and the need for surveillance, the presence of male staff undermines a woman's ability to attend to personal hygiene and grooming without the scrutiny of men. In most prisons, between 50 and 80 percent of the custody staff is male. Male staff supervise housing units, monitoring women in showers, toilets, and in the rooms or cells where they dress. Most prison systems prohibit male staff from performing strip searches.

With the exception of newly arrived prisoners and the small number held in the more restrictive special housing units (such as administrative segregation or security housing units), most women prisoners remain in the general population. Most women prisoners work, attend school, and participate in other programs with all prisoners, whose classification may range from minimum to maximum custody. A very small number of women are housed in administrative segregation or security housing units. Movement within the institution, program participation, and other privileges are severely restricted in these housing units. Women in these units are confined to their cells an average of 23 hours a day, eat their meals in their cells, and are allowed very limited recreation and visiting privileges (Owens, 1998). Only a small percentage of all the women in prison are confined to special housing units but these conditions are often severe.

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