The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

November 6, 2013

A new approach to women behind bars

GIG HARBOR, Wash. — When Jeannette Murphy first stepped onto the grounds of the Washington Corrections Center for Women 30 years ago, she recalls encountering tennis courts and what she terms the “patty-cake” treatment of inmates by prison staff.

Murphy, imprisoned for killing her parents in Thurston County, said inmates were treated more like troubled girls than convicts, even those like her who were doing lengthy stretches for murder.

But soon after, the treatment of female inmates drastically changed as prisons grew and administrators sought uniformity in inmates’ treatment regardless of gender. The women found themselves treated exactly like their male counterparts, from the clothes they wore to the way corrections officers dealt with them.

Now, with the growth of female inmates outpacing that of males and no space to house them, the state Department of Corrections (DOC) is shifting to more gender-specific treatment of incarcerated women. The changes range from simple — access to a fruity-smelling shampoo and better-fitting clothing, and special bras for inmates who’ve had mastectomies — to more substantive, such as greater focus on substance abuse and mental health counseling.

The change reflects a recognition that gender dictates different treatment of inmates.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all system,” said DOC Secretary Bernie Warner.

“The pathways coming to the system are different for women than men,” he said. “Men are incarcerated for criminal thinking and anti-social behavior. Women come in because of social influences and trauma.”

The DOC has embraced the findings of a 10-year University of Cincinnati study into female felons to create a “Gender Responsiveness Action Plan.”

The study was authored by professor Patricia Van Voorhis, who spent more than 10 years traveling the country talking to women behind bars, including at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, to find out what drives them to commit crime. Before she launched the study, similar research focused primarily on male inmates.

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