Women Behind Bars: Why does the justice system favour women?

ITV3 have allowed us to accompany Trevor McDonald as he enters two of America’s secure female correctional facilities. In the first of two episodes, Women Behind Bars explores the lives of some of America’s most dangerous female inmates, in Rockville Women’s Correctional Facility and Indiana Women’s Prison. More women are in prison in America than anywhere else in the world and over eighteen hundred offenders are housed here.

Despite inmates emphasising the harshness of their existence behind bars, it appears that their lives are not as difficult as those of male prisoners. Both facilities, although far from being desirable places to live, seem to give relative freedom to the main body of inmates. Many women describe the strong bonds of friendship which they share with their fellow offenders. This is a far cry from the brutal gang lifestyle and atmosphere of danger so commonly portrayed in documentaries on male prisons.

Although the US gives more prison sentences to women than any other country, a 2009 study found that not only are women treated much more leniently in federal court – with male’s sentences being on average 63% longer than female’s sentences – but men are twice as likely to be incarcerated if convicted. But why is there such a disparity? Joyce Arnold, a corrections professional, attributes this to the fact that women are seen as having greater caregiving responsibilities, so courts are reluctant to punish the women’s children as well as the offenders themselves. Other studies have highlighted the role of the ‘girlfriend theory’, in which women are viewed as accessories to crimes committed by men. The documentary featured a woman who tried to appeal to this theory, Sarah Pender, a double murderer. Despite being tagged as “one of the best manipulators” in the prison, Pender maintains that she merely assisted her boyfriend, by purchasing a gun which was then used to kill two people. In an attempt to portray herself as the victim of a dependent relationship with a dangerous man.

Within prisons themselves, the stark inequality between conditions is clear. Arnold, who has worked with both male and female inmates, talks about the differences between how men and women interact with each other. She describes groups in women’s prisons as tending to be of a close and “familial” nature. Whereas men more frequently form gangs, in which they are forced to prove themselves and their masculinity. She puts this down to the fact that for many women, prison is a refuge, allowing them to discover themselves away from abusive or exploitative relationships, and thus they use prison as an opportunity for change. Male offenders, however, are far less likely to respond to rehabilitation, many seeing change as an admission of weakness.

It seems that, as with sentencing, motherhood is a large factor at play here. McDonald explains that over 85% of women at the Rockville facility are mothers, and many of the inmates speak about their children in their interviews with him. Twenty-five year old Addy tells McDonald that returning to her two daughters is her “biggest motivation for changing” and reforming after her experience in prison. Twenty-eight year old Paula also tearfully expresses her guilt over her inconsistent presence in her children’s lives. It seems as though inherent gender differences play a large part in the differing experiences of male and female prisoners, shaping their time behind bars, as well as their motivation for change.


Fiona Willmott


Image: timeout.com.

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