Prison Violence in Women's Facilities


Understanding prison violence in women’s facilities includes a review of the physical, sexual, and relational aspects of institutional violence. Sexual violence committed by staff against women offenders is an additional factor. Crowding, lack of treatment opportunities, and untrained staff may also contribute to violence among women in prison. Physical violence between female prisoners is infrequent, with serious assaults involving weapons even less likely. Verbal threats and loud arguments are the most typical expressions of conflict. Physical fights may occur in the context of a personal relationship or, less often, as a result of a drug transaction or other material conflict. Organized conflict related to gangs and ethnic strife is extremely rare.

Women prisoners commit institutional violence at substantially lower rates than men. Misconduct reports, weapon type, and inflicted injury demonstrate that women are less violent than male prisoners. Women prisoners may strike or scratch each other, but usually do not inflict serious injury. When weapons are involved, women prisoners are more likely to use a “weapon at hand” rather than one fabricated in advance. The extremely rare stabbing may occur with a pair of scissors or a tool in a spontaneous fight. Riots and other collective disturbances are also atypical.

Violence committed by and against women prisoners may also be connected to past experiences with violence and trauma. Women prisoners with histories of prior violent sexual assault have been found to have greater in-prison adjustment problems, such as arguments and fights. Mental health problems and post-traumatic stress disorders have also been connected with prison violence among women.

Very little is known about rates of sexual violence in women’s prisons. Although the evidence suggests that the majority of sexual encounters among incarcerated females are consensual, coercive encounters can occur. Rapes involving penetration between women prisoners are extremely rare. Coercion is typically verbal rather than physical. Women who have been sexually harmed in their preprison life through violence, inappropriate sexualization (such as incest), or sex work may lack the capacity to refuse or avoid unwanted sexual relationships due to the trauma of past abuse.

Prison violence among women should also be examined in relational and cultural contexts. As women adjust to their imprisonment, they develop friendships and other forms of relationships with other prisoners. Difficulties in relationships among women prisoners can lead to domestic violence or other forms of physical or sexual violence inside the prison. Another component of prison violence is “the mix,” one aspect of prisoner informal social activities that can bring trouble and conflict with staff and other prisoners. The mix is the “fast life” or “la vida loca” or the crazy life lived while “running the yard” in prison and can lead to violating the prison rules and developing destructive relationships with other prisoners. The mix also concerns involvement in drugs, debts and “being messy,” gossiping, lying, and other forms of making trouble for oneself and others, trouble which increases the potential for violence.

Women prisoners are also at risk of violence through staff sexual misconduct. Sexual misconduct includes any sexual behavior directed toward inmates, including sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, physical contact of a sexual nature, sexual obscenity, invasion of privacy, and conversations or correspondence of a romantic or intimate nature. The potential abuse of power inherent in staff-inmate relationships is at the core of staff sexual misconduct. The inherent difference in power between staff and inmates makes any consensual relationship between staff and inmates impossible.

Housing with insufficient supervision, crowding in cells and other housing areas, inadequate reporting procedures, and lack of staff training about the realities of women’s prisons may also contribute to the violence context. Retraumatization through security procedures such as segregation, searching, and cuffing are other factors contributing to the context of prison violence in women’s facilities.

Although prison violence occurs less often in women’s prisons, there are indications that younger prisoners may be responsible for an increase in such violence. Increasing treatment opportunities for women traumatized by their past experiences with violence and reducing prison crowding can address the problem of prison violence in women’s facilities.

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