Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: WOMEN’S PRISONS
from Encyclopedia of Prisons and Correctional Facilities

Since the 19th century, women offenders in the United States have been held in separate women’s facilities. These institutions have always been shaped by ideas of gender as well as by the pathways that lead women to them. Because there are a number of differences between women’s and men’s prisons, it is important to examine women’s institutions separately.


In the first American prisons, women were housed in sections of men’s prisons, where they suffered from neglect and abuse. Left alone for long periods of time, denied regular exercise, education, work assignments, or religious instruction, women inmates were also particularly vulnerable to sexual assault by male officers and inmates. Much like today, most of the early women prisoners were incarcerated for crimes related to their gender and the struggles in their lives—drunkenness, petty theft, and prostitution.

The first prison for women in the United States was approved by the Indiana legislature in 1869 and opened in 1873. The Indiana Reformatory Institution for women and girls ushered in a new era of punishment. By 1917, 14 states had established similar penal institutions for women. Although the conditions in the reformatories were somewhat better than those in earlier facilities, these institutions often confined women in another way, by reinforcing traditional feminine and domestic images. Usually built in the “cottage style,” reformatories housed women in relatively small buildings that were designed to replicate the ideal middle-class home. Instead of male prison guards, prison matrons supervised the inmates; the matrons were meant to serve as models of respectability, domesticity, and femininity. These reformatories sought to rehabilitate their residents through training and education in cooking, cleaning, sewing, and other conventional domestic activities.

Women sent to the reformatories were usually those who had been convicted of moral or sexual crimes that transgressed the strict standards of middle-class sexual behavior and gender role expectations. They also tended to be white. Women of color continued to be sent to the more traditional custodial prisons, which lacked any programs or separate housing for them. Their different treatment was often justified by racist beliefs that they were morally inferior and would be immune to the treatment offered in the reformatories.

After the 1930s, the establishment of separate prisons for women became the norm. Some of these prisons were built specifically for women, whereas others were originally built as male or juvenile facilities. Several decades after the first reformatories, the cottage style gave way to “campus style,” which continued the use of small housing units and open green spaces. Also in this period, some jurisdictions experimented with “co-correctional” facilities. Co-correctional prisons confined women and men in the same institution and provided shared programming in education and job opportunities. Living quarters were separate, and interactions between female and male prisoners were formally controlled. This method sought to resolve some of the earlier problems faced by women in prisons by increasing their access to programs and services and promoting a more normal social environment. Critics of co-correctional facilities, however, asserted that women overall were disadvantaged by the presence of male inmates due to the increased surveillance required to control sexual activity, the tendency of male inmates to dominate desirable jobs and the informal social world of the inmates, and continued pressure for sexual arrangements. As a result, few systems today continue to use the co-correctional model.


Most U.S. states have a relatively small number of prisons for women. Larger states, such as California, Texas, and New York, may have four or five women’s facilities, whereas smaller states typically have one. Almost all women prisoners, however, are incarcerated far from their homes, friends, and families. They are typically distant from services that are more available in urban communities. In the 1980s and 1990s, as more women were sentenced to prison under the enhanced sanctions against drug offenders, women’s prisons became increasingly crowded. In response, some states began to build new facilities for women. In doing so, they usually used designs based on men’s prisons. These “New Generation” prisons typically have two types of housing: units intended to hold women who pose disciplinary problems and dormitories or rooms holding six to eight women. Rarely do women live alone in cells.

Unlike men’s prisons, the majority of women’s facilities in the United States encompass all classification and security levels. These institutions are often rated at an “administrative security level” and either mix women of all security levels or attempt to establish some internal housing categories, housing women of differing security levels in separate units. With the exception of newly arrived prisoners and the small numbers held in the more restrictive special housing units (also known as “administrative segregation” or “security housing units”), most women prisoners remain in the general population. Regardless of security level classification, these prisoners work, attend school, and participate in other programs in close contact with all other inmates, whose classifications may range from minimum to maximum custody. Lifers and short-termers mingle in housing units, in work or education assignments, and in recreational areas. Given the relative rarity violence in the women’s prisons, such group housing arrangements do not cause problems, as they might in men’s institutions.

The disproportionate sanctioning through disciplinary procedures and commingling of women of all custody levels within a few “general purpose” facilities often results in the “overclassification” of women prisoners. Few jurisdictions in the United States have developed classification instruments that adequately assess the custody and security needs of women. As women prisoners are typically housed in these administrative-level facilities, the majority are subjected to the relatively severe custody conditions required by the presence of a small number of high-risk women. Additionally, women who represent minimal risk to the community are often “overconfined” because of the lack of community corrections and “camp” facilities for women.

The small numbers of women who are housed in higher-security housing units are usually confined to their cells and experience the most restrictive custody. In their cells for an average of 23 hours a day, they eat their meals alone and are allowed very limited recreation and visiting privileges. Only a small percentage of the total female prison population is held in special housing units, but the conditions these prisoners face are often severe.

Privacy is a scarce commodity in women’s prisons. In addition to crowded conditions, shared housing units, and the need for surveillance, the presence of male staff undermines inmates’ abilities to attend privately to personal hygiene and grooming. Men make up from 50% to 80% of the custody staff in women’s prisons, supervising housing units and observing showers, toilets, and the rooms or cells where inmates dress. Although most prisons prohibit strip searches and body cavity searches of female inmates by male staff, Human Rights Watch has found that males have observed these procedures as they have been conducted by female staff.


Research indicates that women in prisons are often at risk of sexual abuse by prison staff. In a review of sexual abuse in selected U.S. prisons, Human Rights Watch (1996) investigators have identified four specific issues concerning sexual abuse of women prisoners: (1) the inmate’s inability to escape the abuser, (2) ineffectual or nonexistent investigative and grievance procedures, (3) lack of employee accountability (either criminally or administratively), and (4) little or no public concern. The investigators bluntly state that being a woman in a U.S. state prison can be a terrifying experience.

Sexual misconduct in prisons includes 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. It is this inherent difference in power between staff and inmates that makes any consensual relationship between a staff member and an inmate impossible. Misconduct can take many forms, including inappropriate language, verbal degradation, intrusive searches, sexual assault, unwarranted visual supervision, denying of goods and privileges, and the use or threat of force. It is also important to note that female officers have also been found to be involved in this serious misconduct, although the more publicized pattern appears to involve male staff with female inmates. In addition, some standard procedures in correctional settings (e.g., searches, restraints, and isolation) can have profound effects on women who have histories of trauma and abuse, often retraumatizing women who have posttraumatic stress disorder.


Prison sociologists look at how prisoners “do their time” in terms of prison culture. Prison culture includes the ways in which prisoners define their experience in prison, how they learn to live in prison, how they develop relationships with other prisoners and staff, and how they change the way they think about themselves and their place within the prison and the free world. The first studies of women’s prison culture found a social structure based on the family and traditional sex roles, and on same-sex relations. Researchers found that the world of women’s prisons was quite different from that of the male culture: prison culture among women was tied to gender role expectations of sexuality and family, and prison identities were at least partially based on outside identities and experiences.

Contemporary work examining women’s prison culture suggests that little has changed. The core of prison culture among women continues to be shaped by inmates’ personal relationships with other prisoners, which are both emotionally and physically intimate; by their connections to family and loved ones in the free community, or “on the street” in the language of the prison; and by their commitments to their pre-prison identities.

The prison family is one of the primary forms of social organization in the women’s prison. Although some of these families are based on intimate same-sex couple relationships, the majority of these complicated prison relationships provide emotional, practical, and social connections in the uncertain world of the prison. A key element in surviving prison life is negotiating an aspect of prison culture known as “the mix.” In its shortest definition, the mix is any behavior that can bring trouble and conflict, whether with staff or other prisoners. A variety of behaviors can put an inmate in the mix; research has found that the issues prisoners mention most frequently are related to “homo-secting,” involvement in drugs, fights, and “being messy”—that is, involvement in conflict and trouble.


Women who are members of minority groups are disproportionately represented in the U.S. prison population, with the percentage of African American women prisoners growing at increasing rates. In spite of this racial and ethnic composition, race relations and conflicts are not a primary feature of the social order of women’s prisons. Although racial and ethnic identity is a predominant factor in men’s prisons, in women’s prisons the issues of race and ethnicity form a minor subtext that mediates relations among women prisoners and between prison workers. Women in prisons typically live and work in integrated housing units and job assignments and often form personal relationships that cross racial lines.

Racial and ethnic gangs have not yet appeared in women’s prisons to the extent they are found in men’s prisons. Although some small number of women may enter prison with some street gang or clique affiliations, the subculture of the women’s prison offers little support for these pre-prison identities. Women seeking the personal and community ties found in street gangs are likely to find substitutes within prison families or other personal relationships. Unlike in some men’s prisons, housing assignments in women’s prisons are not routinely made based on inmates demographic or gang affiliations.


Given that men constitute more than 90% of the U.S. prison population, the majority of policies in most prison systems have been designed to manage the behavior of male prisoners. In spite of the increasing population of female prisoners, the male model of corrections continues to dominate. Women continue to be a correctional afterthought, as prison administrators focus on the problems presented by the male majority. Many systems lack any written policies concerning the management and supervision of female inmates or parolees. Policy areas that may affect female and male inmates differently include procedures for pat searches and strip searches; availability of commissary items, particularly health and beauty items; allowable personal property; and transportation and restraint policies for pregnant women.

The contemporary criminal justice system has placed a low priority on the gender-related treatment needs of female offenders. The lives of female offenders are shaped by socioeconomic status as well as by women’s experiences of trauma and substance abuse and their relationships with partners, children, and family. Most women prisoners have had economic and other social disadvantages that have been compounded by trauma and substance abuse histories. Women offenders are also typically under-educated and unskilled. Contemporary research has shown that these factors propel women into substance abuse, crime, and subsequent imprisonment.

Although many researchers and advocates argue that programs and services for women in prison should address such factors, rehabilitative programs for women offenders are typically based on generic programs that make few gender distinctions. In particular, there is evidence from academic research and litigation that women’s prisons lack adequate or appropriate services in several areas. For example, women’s prisons are deficient relative to men’s prisons in the educational and vocational programs they offer. Men’s prisons typically provide a greater variety of such programs and training for more skilled (and better-compensated) occupations. In contrast, women are offered a narrow range of training programs for stereotypically “female” occupations, such as cosmetology and low-level clerical work. Women in prison receive fewer institutional work assignments and lower rates of pay than do male inmates, and men have greater access to work-release programs.

Health care is similarly inadequate in many women’s prisons. With health care poorly funded, both the physical and the mental health needs of women prisoners are often neglected. In addition to needing basic health care, women prisoners often have specific health problems, such as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and other conditions related to their risky sexual and drug-using behavior prior to arrest. Pregnancy and women’s reproductive health are also neglected by most prison systems. It has been estimated that from 25% to more than 60% of the women in U.S. prisons today require mental health services. Many women prisoners are dually diagnosed with substance abuse and mental health problems. These conditions are usually not addressed adequately in the prison environment.

A lack of appropriate substance abuse treatment has also been documented in women’s prisons. The vast majority of women offenders need substance abuse services. Programs are often hampered by insufficient individual assessment; limited treatment for pregnant, mentally ill, and violent women; and the lack of appropriate treatment and vocational training. Finally, few prison programs address the high degree of violent victimization that many women prisoners have experienced, both as children and adults. This abuse has implications for their emotional and physical well-being and may be tied to drug abuse and other offending behaviors.


An understanding of contemporary women’s prisons requires knowledge of the history and evolution of these institutions, the impact of public policy on women’s sentencing, and the ways in which these prisons are different from those designed for male offenders. Recent research on women’s prison culture, the ways in which prison services can address women’s pathways to prison, and the importance of gender-responsive policy and parity in funding and program and service provision has increased attention to these often ignored institutions.

    See also
  • Alderson, Federal Prison Camp; Bedford Hills Correctional Facility; Campus Style; Co-correctional Facilities; Cottage System; Rose Giallombardo; History of Women’s Prisons; Lesbian Prisoners; Lesbian Relationships; Mothers in Prison; Prison Culture; Nicole Hahn Rafter; Resistance; Sex—Consensual; Mabel Walker Willebrandt; Women Prisoners; Women’s Health

Further Reading
  • Amnesty International. (1999). United States of America: “Not part of my sentence”: Violations of the human rights of women in custody. New York: Amnesty International.
  • Belknap, J. (2001). The invisible woman: Gender, crime, and justice. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  • Bloom, B.; Chesney-Lind, M.; Owen, B. (1994). Women in California prisons: Hidden victims of the war on drugs. San Francisco: Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
  • Bloom, B.; Owen, B.; Covington, S. (2002). Gender-responsive strategies: Research, practice and guiding principles for women offenders. Washington, DC: National Institute of Corrections.
  • Bureau of Justice Statistics. (1999). Women offenders (Special report). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
  • Chesney-Lind, M. (1997). The female offender: Girls, women, and crime. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Giallombardo, R. (1966). Society of women: A study of a women’s prison. New York: Wiley.
  • Heffernan, E. (1972). Making it in prison: The square, the cool, and the life. New York: Wiley.
  • Human Rights Watch, Women’s Rights Project. (1996). All too familiar: Sexual abuse of women in U.S. state prisons. New York: Ford Foundation.
  • Mauer, M.; Potler, C.; Wolf, R. (1999). Gender and justice: Women, drugs and sentencing policy. Washington, DC: Sentencing Project.
  • Owen, B. (1998). In the mix: Struggle and survival in a women’s prison. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Pollock, J. (2002). Women, prison and crime. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
  • Rafter, N. Hahn. (1985). Partial justice: Women in state prisons, 1800-1935. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
  • Ward, D.; Kassebaum, G. (1965). Women’s prisons: Sex and social structure. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton.
  • Watterson, K. (1996). Women in prison: Inside the concrete womb (rev. ed.). Boston: Northeastern University Press.
  • Barbara Owen
    Copyright © 2005 by Sage Publications, Inc.

    Related Articles

    Full text Article HISTORY OF WOMEN’S PRISONS
    Encyclopedia of Prisons and Correctional Facilities

    Women throughout history have been imprisoned with men in refuges, workhouses and houses of correction, jails, debtor’s prisons, chain gangs,...

    Full text Article Women in Prison
    The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America

    Women have always been considered an afterthought in prisons. When women have been taken into account, it has been in gendered ways where race and c

    Full text Article WOMEN IN PRISON
    Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment

    By the end of the twentieth century, there were more than one million women incarcerated, on probation, or on parole in the United States. There...

    See more from Credo