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What Happens in Female Prisons? Life Behind Bars

Prisons are an unfortunate but necessary part of our criminal justice system. While male prisons often get more attention, female prisons have their own unique culture and challenges. This article will take an in-depth look at what life is like for women serving time behind bars.

Daily Routine and Rules

Inmates in women’s correctional facilities generally follow a strict daily schedule. A typical day may look like this:

  • 5:00 AM – Wake up call. Inmates are required to make their beds and get dressed.
  • 5:30 – 6:30 AM – Breakfast. Food is served in a communal dining hall.
  • 6:30 – 11:30 AM – Work duties. Inmates are assigned jobs such as kitchen duty, janitorial work, laundry, etc.
  • 11:30 AM – 12:30 PM – Lunch
  • 12:30 – 5:00 PM – More work duties, educational classes, or recreational time in the yard.
  • 5:00 – 6:00 PM – Dinner
  • 6:00 – 9:00 PM – Free time before lights out. Inmates can shower, make phone calls, watch TV, read, etc.
  • 9:00 PM – Lights out. Inmates must be in their bunks for the nightly prisoner count.

In addition to the schedule, inmates must follow strict rules and regulations. Some common rules include:

  • No fighting, bullying, or gang-related activity.
  • Contraband items like weapons, drugs, and cigarettes are prohibited.
  • Inmates must wear their uniform at all times and keep their appearance neat.
  • Cells must be kept tidy and beds made every morning.
  • Inmates must request permission from guards before moving from one part of the prison to another.
  • Talking during meals or work duties is prohibited.
  • Inmates may not cover or tamper with lights, ventilators, locks, or cameras.

Breaking any rules can result in disciplinary action such as loss of privileges, solitary confinement, or an extension of sentence.

Work Duties and Educational Opportunities

One of the primary ways inmates spend their time is through work duties and classes. Nearly every women’s prison has a work program that inmates are required to participate in. Common jobs include:

  • Kitchen and dining hall duties like cooking, cleaning, and serving food
  • Janitorial and maintenance like cleaning bathrooms, floors, offices, etc.
  • Laundry and sewing facility jobs
  • Groundskeeping and landscaping outside the prison
  • Clerk or office assistant jobs

In addition to work programs, most prisons offer educational and vocational classes to inmates. Some examples include:

  • GED preparation and testing
  • High school diploma courses
  • College classes
  • Computer skills training
  • Job skills like accounting, business, marketing
  • Parenting, anger management, and substance abuse counseling
  • Vocational programs like welding, construction, cosmetology

These programs aim to provide women with skills to lessen recidivism once they are released from prison. However, space in these rehabilitative programs is often limited.

Medical and Mental Health Services

The prison environment can take a toll on women’s physical and mental health. All correctional facilities provide basic medical services to inmates, though these are often criticized as inadequate. Common health issues for female inmates include:

  • Substance abuse and withdrawal symptoms
  • Communicable diseases like HIV, hepatitis, STDs
  • Chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension, asthma
  • Reproductive issues, pregnancy, and gynecological problems
  • Physical disabilities and mobility issues
  • Mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD

Prisons employ nurses, doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists to diagnose and treat inmates. However, long wait times and poor quality of care often lead to complaints. Many inmates report feeling dismissed or ignored by prison medical staff. Specialists are rarely accessible.

Some other issues with healthcare in women’s prisons include:

  • Lack of adequate nutrition and exercise options
  • Poor sanitation and exposure to communicable diseases
  • Stress-related disorders due to the prison environment
  • Insufficient treatment for pregnant inmates and babies born in prison
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Advocacy groups continue to push for improved medical and mental health services to address the complex needs of incarcerated women.

Relationships with Children and Family

One of the greatest deprivations of prison life is separation from loved ones. Over 80% of women in prison are mothers, and many have dependent children when they become incarcerated.

Maintaining relationships with children is extremely challenging:

  • Prisons are frequently located far from inmates’ hometowns, making visits difficult for families.
  • Regulations limit visitation privileges for minor children.
  • Phone calls are restricted and expensive. A 15 minute call can cost up to $20.
  • Normal mother-child interactions like hugging, reading stories, or playing are prohibited during visits.

This lack of contact takes an emotional toll on both mother and child. Children of inmates are much more likely to suffer mental health issues, drop out of school, and get caught up in the criminal justice system themselves.

In addition to separation from children, romantic relationships are put under significant strain during incarceration. Marriages often end in divorce. Some inmates seek companionship with fellow prisoners. However, homosexuality and sexual relationships are forbidden in women’s correctional facilities.

Safety and Victimization

Within women’s prisons, there is rampant concern about personal safety and the threat of victimization. Some key issues include:

Sexual assault – Rape and sexual abuse by fellow inmates or guards remains a serious problem. Privacy and protection are lacking, placing vulnerable women at risk.

Domestic violence – Many incarcerated women suffered domestic abuse before imprisonment. But even in prison, they may face violence from partners incarcerated in affiliated men’s prisons.

Gangs and violence – To feel protected, inmates often join prison gangs divided along racial and ethnic lines. These gangs severely restrict interactions between groups and lead to tension.

Police brutality – There are frequent reports of excessive force, physical intimidation, strip searches, and verbal degradation by correctional officers.

Self-harm – Inmates face high rates of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. This can lead to self-mutilation, eating disorders, and attempted suicide.

Prisons often lack the proper staff and resources to address safety concerns, counseling needs, and mental health issues. Unfortunately, many women leave prison traumatized and afraid from their experiences.

Coping and Prison Culture

Faced with the boredom and isolation of prison life, inmates develop their own culture and ways of coping:

  • Slang and codes – Inmates use unique slang, acronyms, and codes to communicate. “Gumps” are guards. “Bugs” are inmates who inform guards about rule violations.
  • Prison tattoos – Tattoos are a popular form of self-expression, to convey toughness, commemorate loved ones, or mark accomplishments. Common symbols include teardrops, butterflies, and barbed wire.
  • Contraband – There is great ingenuity in fashioning prohibited items like makeup, cigarettes, extra food, alcohol from everyday supplies.
  • Jailhouse hooch – Inmates brew homemade alcoholic beverages from fruit, sugar, bread, etc. This “pruno” provides a risky escape from sobriety.
  • Gambling – Bets and wagers on sports, card games, and other activities are ways to earn income and pass time. It also leads to debts and violence.
  • Gift giving – Within friendships or gangs, women exchange commissary goods, cosmetics, tattoos, hair styling, and handmade crafts as treasured gifts.
  • Prison family – In the absence of real relatives, inmates form close “prison families” for loyalty and companionship. Lifelong friendships form.

While these coping mechanisms help get through prison sentences, they also lead to an alternate society removed from the general population. This makes reentry and rehabilitation more difficult.

Reform and Activism

Given the numerous problems in women’s prisons, there are ongoing calls for reform and activism. Some changes advocated by prisoner rights groups include:

  • Alternatives to incarceration – Increase community supervision, treatment programs, and probation for non-violent offenses.
  • Prison nurseries – Give mothers and newborns opportunity to bond during early months in special nursery units.
  • Education and counseling – Expand rehabilitative and vocational programs to benefit inmates and society.
  • Protective policies – Implement stronger policies to prevent sexual victimization, excessive force, and safety issues.
  • Healthcare – Increase medical and mental health staffing and access to address physical and psychological issues.
  • Family reunification – Improve visitation privileges and community connections to ease reentry after prison.
  • Oversight and reporting – Strengthen civilian oversight and transparency to expose abuses.

There is growing understanding of the unique needs of incarcerated women. However, practical change comes slowly. Advocacy combined with evidence-based policies remain the best strategy for improving outcomes.

Notable Female Inmates

While every woman’s story is unique, some high-profile female inmates represent the wide spectrum of women sent to prison. Some memorable cases include:

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Martha Stewart

The celebrity homemaker was convicted in 2004 of obstruction of justice and lying to investigators about a stock sale. She served 5 months in federal prison.

Jodi Arias

Convicted in 2013 of murdering her boyfriend Travis Alexander, she was sentenced to life in prison without parole. The case garnered national attention.

Casey Anthony

Her controversial 2011 trial for the murder of her daughter ended in acquittal. But she was convicted on multiple counts of providing false information to police.

Lindsay Lohan

The actress spent 35 days in jail in 2011 for violating drunk driving probation. She has been in and out of legal trouble for drug possession and theft.

Squeaky Fromme

She gained notoriety as a member of the Charles Manson “family” and for attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975. She was paroled in 2009.

Patricia Krenwinkel

An infamous member of the Charles Manson cult, she participated in the murder of actress Sharon Tate and served over 45 years in prison before getting parole.

These and many other well-known cases shed light on the women who end up behind bars—some notorious criminals, but many just ordinary women who made mistakes.

Comparison to Male Prisons

There are a number of key differences between female and male correctional facilities:

  • Women’s prisons in general are smaller and have lower security levels. They are built with less emphasis on preventing escape.
  • Male prisons have more gang activity divided along racial lines. Women’s gangs exist but are less violent and organized.
  • Men’s prisons feature more frequent assaults, homicides, and violence between inmates.
  • Women inmates are more likely to self-harm through cutting, drug use, or eating disorders. Male inmates lash out more aggressively.
  • Sexual violence is a huge concern in women’s prisons, with inadequate protections. Rape of men also occurs but is reported less often.
  • Women inmates have greater childcare and family concerns. More programing caters to motherhood and substance abuse issues common in women.
  • Vocational programs in men’s prisons focus on trades like welding, mechanics, building. Women learn domestic skills like sewing, laundry, clerical work.

So while many aspects are similar, female prisons must adapt to address the unique vulnerabilities and needs of incarcerated women.

Major Incidents in Women’s Prisons

Like all prisons, occasionally major incidents put problems in women’s correctional facilities under the spotlight:

Oct 19743 female inmates escape minimum security Federal Correctional Institute in Alderson, West Virginia
Feb 197526 prisoners’ wives seize control of a section of the New Mexico State Penitentiary for 36 hours
Jul 1975Joanne Little is acquitted after killing a guard she alleges sexually assaulted her in the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women
Jan 1979Assistant warden Geraldine Kassel is taken hostage for two days by three inmates at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York
Jun 19864 correctional officers are held hostage for 2 hours by a pregnant inmate at Downstate Correctional Facility in New York
Aug 1988A 2 day riot at Louisiana Correctional Institute leaves 23 inmates injured
Aug 1997Red Onion State Prison opens in Virginia with state-of-the-art segregation areas for women
Jun 2001500 women engage in destructive riot at New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility
Feb 2006The Federal Detention Center in Miami sees the first escape in its history
Apr 2009Michelle Rempel kills prison chaplain Monsignor William Kerr at the Minnesota Correctional Facility – Shakopee
Feb 2012Inmate Catrina Roberts slips out of her restraints at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility and escapes
Aug 2013Male and female inmates escape together from Piedmont Regional Jail in Virginia
Sep 2016Prisoners riot at Capella Correctional Institution private prison in Oklahoma
Apr 201957 women escape from minimum-security Pierre Community Work Center in South Dakota

These incidents highlight security issues, violence, healthcare concerns, and the need for stronger policies in correctional institutions for women around the country.

Reentry Into Society After Incarceration

Leaving prison comes with a mix of relief and anxiety. Inmates look forward to freedom, but face hurdles reintegrating into society. Challenges include:

Housing – Many former prisoners have nowhere to live once released. Transitional housing is scarce. Landlords often deny housing to those with a criminal record.

Employment – The stigma of incarceration makes finding a job difficult. Some professions bar licensing for felons. Many women lack job skills or education.

Finances – Inmates leave prison with as little as $25. Most have no savings and struggle to meet basic financial needs after release.

Healthcare – Affording and accessing medical treatment, especially mental health resources, is tough without employment.

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Substance Abuse – Relapse temptation is high. Over 40% return to drug or alcohol abuse without a support system in place.

Custody Issues – Mothers trying to reconnect with children face expensive legal battles, with no guarantee of custody.

Supervision – Parole monitoring, fines, and restrictions make getting back on one’s feet a challenge. Yet support programs are underfunded.

Stigma – Having been in prison carries a lifelong stigma. Discrimination in housing, jobs, education, and healthcare is common.

With little preparation for release, it’s easy to see why over 40% of female inmates ultimately end up back in the prison system. Supportive transitional programs remain inadequate to address the needs of formerly incarcerated women reentering society.


While conditions have improved, women’s prisons remain bleak places in many respects. Inmates face issues from healthcare deficiencies to sexual victimization. However, the justice system often ignores female-specific needs. Prison culture provides friendship and distractions, but can perpetuate violence. And inadequate reentry programs make relapse likely.

There are no easy answers, but continued reform efforts are needed to provide incarcerated women safety, dignity, and tools for rehabilitation. By better understanding life behind bars, we can advocate for policies that balance justice with compassion. Although separated from society, female inmates deserve basic human rights, medical care, family connections, and opportunities to improve their lives. Treating prisoners humanely uplifts us all.

Frequently Asked Questions About Women’s Prisons

Women’s prisons remain mysterious places to those on the outside. Here are answers to some common questions about life behind bars for female inmates:

What are women’s prisons like?

Women’s prisons generally have dormitory-style housing units with shared open sleeping areas and communal bathrooms. Some higher-security facilities have celled rooms with locked doors. Daily routines are highly regimented with set times for meals, duties, roll calls, etc. Facilities have designated areas for programs, recreation, dining, medical, visiting, and work.

What types of facilities hold women prisoners?

Female inmates occupy a mix of facilities including federal women’s prisons for higher-security convicts, state women’s penitentiaries for serious offenders, local jails for those awaiting trial or serving short sentences, minimum-security camps for nonviolent crimes, and transitional centers pre-release. Juveniles under 18 go to separate youth detention centers.

What crimes do female prisoners commit?

According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 37% of incarcerated women are serving time for drug offenses and 28% for property crimes like fraud and theft. Another 13% were convicted of assault, 11% public disorder, and 9% weapons charges. Smaller percentages are jailed for more serious crimes like homicide.

What are special risks women inmates face?

Some unique risks faced by women prisoners include higher incidents of sexual harassment and abuse, inadequate medical screening and prenatal care, greater likelihood of self-harm, and loss of parental rights. Discrimination, domestic violence, poverty, and mental illness also disproportionately impact justice-involved women.

How do women cope with prison life?

Common coping mechanisms female inmates use include befriending fellow prisoners for companionship, seeking distractions through hobbies/exercise, getting tattoos or altering appearance for self-expression, abusing drugs/alcohol, joining gangs for protection, and relying on faith for comfort. Some prisons offer counseling to help women constructively manage incarceration.

What opportunities exist for rehabilitation?

Prison programs focusing on education, job training, parenting, counseling, and substance abuse recovery aim to rehabilitate inmates. However, spaces are limited and quality varies between facilities. Participation can earn reduced sentences or parole consideration, providing incentive to enroll. But lack of oversight allows programs to be cut or mismanaged.

How do women maintain family relationships while incarcerated?

Maintaining family ties while in prison poses major challenges. Contact is limited to infrequent monitored phone calls, expensive video visits, and in-person visitation on weekends or holidays. Families must travel long distances, yet visits prohibit contact beyond a quick hug. Mothers have a particularly hard time separated from children. Some prisons have special programs for parenting skills and strengthening mother-child bonds. But reunification after release can be difficult.

What issues complicate reentry after release?

Returning citizens face issues getting housing, healthcare, employment, education, and government aid due to criminal records. Special reentry programs are few and often underfunded. Discrimination and lack of support means over 40% of former female inmates ultimately end up back in prison. Common reasons for reincarceration include probation violations, failure to complete court-mandated programs, or committing new drug/property crimes.

How could conditions for female prisoners be improved?

Advocates call for more humane policies tailored to women’s needs, including trauma-informed healthcare, protection from abuse, prison nurseries, and family-strengthening visitation. Expanding community supervision and diversion programs could reduce incarceration rates without sacrificing public safety. More transition housing and reentry job training are needed for successful rehabilitation and lowering recidivism. Oversight committees could expose deficiencies needing reform.

Do women’s prisons allow romantic relationships?

No – prisons strictly prohibit any sexual contact or relationships between prisoners. However, some inmates still secretly engage in homosexual relationships called “gay for the stay.” Any type of sex, even consensual, can be prosecuted as a felony under custodial misconduct laws. Relationships are also forbidden between inmates and staff, though abuse of power still occurs. Prison policies aim to prevent misconduct, coercion, and assaults.

What are differences between men and women’s prison cultures?

Male prisons tend to have more regimented hierarchical gangs divided by race that control illegal trade and use violence to settle conflicts. Female facilities have looser cliques or “families” for mutual protection but less racial division and violence. Men focus on weightlifting and competing for dominance while women form close friendships and share contraband makeup or food. Men are more likely to riot while women self-harm through cutting, drug overdoses, or eating disorders when suffering from mental illness.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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