Women & Crime Jordyn Updyke

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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As with many things in ancient or even recent history, women have effectively been pushed aside and left out of the main picture. It has been the men’s way of remaining superior to their frighteningly strong female subordinates in politics, education, career paths, and even criminological matters. Criminology and the scientific study of criminal behavior began in the mid-eighteenth century, but women were not added to the equation until over 200 years later in the 1960’s. Women were considered too docile and their crimes microscopic compared to men.

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The female criminal was a peculiar mutation, an oddity, and must be somehow deranged. This drastic lag in research has also overflowed into correctional methods of rehabilitating women. Women’s correctional facilities are somehow significantly ill-prepared to house female inmates, the inmates are more subject to sexual abuse and mistreatment, and there is a major lack of correctional officers willing to work in female prisons. Women seem to be an invisible variable in the criminal justice system with all the attention focused on male inmates. Even though women only make up approximately 4% of the prison population, that is still a percentage more than zero, which means there are housed inmates that are in need of proper conditions. Men and women are both considered human beings and therefore deserve universal equal treatment, even in prison.

There is a dismal history surrounding the United States’ penal system. Before the prison reforms in the mid-1800’s, all inmates (men, women, juveniles, the mentally-ill) were all housed in the together without any separation of age, sex, or severity of offense. Some women might not even have been locked up at all due to the nature of their crimes being mostly sex offenses, which were considered shameful and disgraceful, but not dangerous, so their partner would end up taking the blame for not properly policing his woman (Mann, 1984.) These heterogeneous prisons also presented plenty of opportunities for sexual abuse and assault upon incarcerated women by not only the male inmates, but guards as well (Bowker, 1981.) In some areas, treatment of female prisoners was even worse than men. The idea that women were pure, pious, and good was strongly reinforced within communities and if a women was incarcerated, she had gone against those values (Culliver, 1993.) Once the idea of rehabilitation became involved with prison time, this led to the sexist idea that women must be rehabilitated by “fostering sexual morality, the imposition of sobriety, the instilling of obedience, and the prescribing of the sex-role stereotype of mother and homemaker” (Mann, pg. 191.) Since the separation of sexes within prisons was necessary to accomplish this, the first female prison was built in Indiana in 1870 as a response to the prison reform movements in the National Congress on Penitentiary and Reformatory Discipline. Once women and men were separated, the design of women’s prisons were significantly different than men’s. Instead of towering concrete fortresses, the women had what were called the “domestic model,” or “cottage style,” which provided the woman with a room in “the home” (Mann, 1984.) This home-style housing method was a way for helping these lost women to learn the necessary skills of maintaining a home and family. Since then, more facility designs were created, such as the campus plan (designed to resemble a college campus with separate buildings and grassy areas outside,) and the single-building model (one main facility that houses all prison functions.) From there facilities have been physically very similar, sans gunned watch-towers, barbed wire, and concrete perimeter walls, with identical security codes: minimum, medium, and maximum. However, what goes on inside the buildings are a different story.

Females only make up about 5% of the total prison population, and account for about 20% of serious offense arrests (Culliver, 1993.) Contrary to popular belief, even though the percentage of female offender arrests is rising, incarceration rates have remained relatively the same. This could be due to two factors: women are typically not violent beings and do not have strong violent tendencies, and the fact that women get lighter sentences and even lighter plea deals than men, if they are sentenced at all. Female arrest rates have always been relatively low compared to men, and the incarceration rate is even lower. Thanks to this, female prisons and prisoners are swept under the rug and wholly forgotten. States rarely have more than one female penitentiary, so they are more than likely to be sent farther away from her family and friends than a man. This also means that she is farther away from her husband/wife and children, leaving her without a support system and a likely family breakup. When a mother is incarcerated, it is unfortunately less than likely for a father to stay and take care of the children while the mother is away, which means she will have to start anew once she is released (Culliver, 1993.) Child visitation also differs within each institution. Some allow visitation every day, twice a week, once a week, twice a month, or once a month. Women in federal prisons, rather than state, are at an even greater disadvantage since there are only really a few spread out throughout the country so a mother is often not housed in their home state, making it even more difficult to have family and child contact; whereas there are multiple men’s facilities all across the country, state and federal (Culliver, 1993.) When men are incarcerated, it is very likely they will end up not very far from home, making family visits and support easier and more available. If they have children, the mother at home will almost always remain home with the children and watch after them until he returns. Women too often don’t have that luxury.

Prison subculture also varies greatly between men’s and women’s facilities. While men typically stay away from their fellow inmates and mostly assemble into a gang-like dynamic to survive, women tend to create pseudo-families and band together. Sykes (1956) and Clemmer (1940) were the first sociologists to theorize that these subcultures could have something to do with the severe social deprivation of prison facilities. Others, like Irwin and Cressey (1962) theorized that it was due to the gathering of typically lower-class and criminal social structures. Most researchers today agree that both theories explain the origins and maintenance of these subcultures behind bars. A popular trend in female prison subculture is to engage in homosexual relationships regardless of their sexuality outside of the prison, a trend basically unheard-of in male prisons. Giallombardo (1966) believed it to be females maintaining their societal gender roles, and by having less loyalty to their partners or sexuality while incarcerated. In society, men are typically thought of as more independent and less in need of social/emotional support, while women, on the contrary, are the emotionally dependent beings with strong bonds to their partners and children. This tends has a unique effect on women in prison. They do not have the constant strong support of their partner and are kept away from their children. Women typically have a stronger bond, and therefore greater feeling of loss, than their male counterparts when separated from their children as they have physically birthed and created them (Bowker, 1981.) With the creation of these “families” and homosexual relationships, the women involved can often fall into stereotypical gender roles with one usually assuming the role of the man, or the “butch,” and the other as feminine (Bowker, 1981.) Interestingly, research unanimously agrees that the masculine “butch” individuals have a higher status than those in the feminine role, further supporting the continuation of gender stereotypes.

Staffing is also a significant issue with female prisons. While it may seem counterintuitive, when asked by researchers, most, if not all correctional officers, male and female, prefer to work with male prisoners (Rasche, 2000.) This seems strange, due to men being more likely to physically attack an officer, be incarcerated for more serious crimes, and tending to seem harsher and more weathered than a typical female inmate. When interviewed about their preference, there is a unanimous agreement that women are simply harder to patrol and are more effort to watch over than men. Male correctional officers often give the reasoning of fear of rape accusations (which would be an end of their career entirely and mandatory minimum sentences) and needing to patrol their own behavior more carefully, such as modifying their speech and using extreme caution when using force; women, on the other hand, preferred working with male inmates due to their increased respect for the officer and their appreciation for a female presence, enhancing their work experience (Rasche, 2000.) The general consensus among both male and female officers was that women are more demanding, complain more, and are more likely to refuse orders. A study by Pollack (1986) collected the occurrences of adjectives used to describe female inmates, the most popular being emotional, temperamental, moody, manipulative, demanding, and noisy. The policing of women’s facilities also requires more training and information to digest in regard to physical and mental health. This could be due to the fact that most incarcerated women have higher rates of drug use, especially intravenous opioids, leading to higher rates of HIV, and have higher levels of sexual and/or physical abuse as children, adults, or both (Rasche, 2000.) This leads to extra necessary training in non-aggressive policing techniques as to not trigger flashbacks for abused women, and more medical examinations needed (physical health, psychological needs, gynecological procedures, etc.) To most correctional officers, female inmates are simply more effort to maintain and patrol yet are significantly less violent and dangerous than men.

The amount of prejudice and stereotyping against female prisoners is astounding. This negative attitude towards female inmates certainly feeds into mistreatment or neglect of inmates, but it can also linger after prison life once they are released back into society. Hall-Williams (1970) explains “it is not seen as necessary or desirable to give women prisoners training for semi-skilled jobs…” further enforcing these sex roles and limiting female prisoners from finding decent jobs once they have been released (Smart, 1977.) From this statement, it appears that the policy-makers of the time had the belief that female prisoners were of little to no worth and could not be “retrained.” This old-fashioned custom is based on the idea that the rational woman is passive, gentle, and non-criminal; whereas a masculine woman is outspoken and more likely to follow a criminal path. This ideal has somewhat remained through the penal system and has strongly reflected on the prison education system. Some institutions had only taught the very basics, nowhere near the skill needed to gain her GED or beyond (Smart, 1977.) While around 90% of today’s prisons have some sort of education program in place, many do not take part. Congress passed the Higher Education Act in 1965, granting federal funds to educational systems within prisons, yet some conservatives found this a waste of government money as it was “soft on crime” (Rose, pg. 82.) Women’s prisons seem to even have less educational options than men’s prisons, contributing to less attendance. However, these women are those most in need of education, or else they will leave the system the same as they entered, uneducated, without much money, and most likely single, which leaded to higher rates of recidivism. Prison administrators often overlook these issues as well and pay little attention to the personal or post-incarceration needs of their inmates (Rose, pg. 94.) Some prisons offer college-level courses through a local university, but tuition is required to be paid and most of these women do not have the monetary advantage to partake in the course, which could ultimately lead them to a better job and future.

While women’s institutions have made great strides from the harsh punishments of the impure housewife and the abuse of the coed nightmare of the mid-1800’s, there are still many large steps to take. Even though women only make up 5% of the total prison population, there is no excuse for poor human treatment. 5% is more than 0% and no one should be treated any differently based on their sex or gender within a prison system, regardless of how many there are. The fact that traditional gender stereotypes exist in the system, especially within the correctional officers, is unfathomable. Even as prisoners, women deserve equal treatment to men, including educational opportunities, more facilities across the country, and better standards of living. Deeper research is vital to the sustainability of female inmates, both in and out of the prison. This by no means implies that there should be special treatment for either gender or for them to do their time in a five-star resort. What we simply need is equality.



  1. Mann, Coramae Richey. 1984. Female Crime and Delinquency. Alabama: University of Alabama Press.
  2. Smart, Carol. 1977. Women, Crime and Criminology. London: Fletcher & Son Ltd.

Book Chapters

  1. Culliver, Concetta C. 1993. “Females Behind Bars.” Pg. 397-413 in Female Criminality: The State of the Art, editor Concetta C. Culliver. New York & London: Garland Publishing Inc.
  2. Bowker, Lee H. 1981. “Gender Differences in Prisoner Subcultures.” Pg. 409-419 in Women and Crime in America, editor Lee H. Bowker. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.
  3. Rasche, Christine E. 2000. “The Dislike of Female Offenders among Correctional Officers: Need for Specialized Training” in It’s a Crime: Women and Justice, editor Rosalyn Muraskin New Jersey: Prentice-Hall , Inc.


  1. Rose, Chris. 2004. “Women’s Participation in Prison Education: What We Know and What We Don’t Know.” Journal of Correctional Education 55 (1): 78-100
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Women & Crime Jordyn Updyke. (2021, Feb 19). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/women-crime-jordyn-updyke/