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Women prisoners: Gender matters

Apr 24 2012

When a Los Angeles police car ran over and killed Susan Burton’s 5-year-old son, her sorrow led her to alcohol and drugs. Her poor black community did not have counseling services, but it was a hot spot for drugs.  Burton was eventually arrested for a drug offense and entered the criminal justice system in what would become a 20-year cycle of recidivism. Not once, she recalled, did the judge tell her she had a problem that could be addressed with treatment.

To help make sense of how the criminal justice system impacts women, on International Women’s Day 2012 Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research and the Women Donors Network invited Burton, human rights attorney Robin Levi and activist Hamdiya Cooks to a panel on incarcerated women. Co-Director of Stanford’s Criminal Justice Center Joan Petersilia facilitated the discussion.

Can women prisoners find a new way of life?

Burton kicked off the panel, recounting her cycle of chronic incarceration: “It was go to jail — get chained up and put on a bus in the dark of the morning. (It was) down the highway… chained along with a lot of other women just like me and go to prison,” Burton said. Prison was a way of life for Burton until 1997 when she finally got help with her addiction and grief. Through healing the root causes of her behavior, she broke the cycle of imprisonment.

“I thought this (approach) is so much more humane, so much more useful. Why didn’t it happen before and how can I help all the other women that I know?” Burton harnessed that attitude: she bought a house and started A New Way of Life, the first of what would become five community homes for women to support healing and mutual support during the re-entry process.

“It was beautiful,” she said of those early days inviting women into her home. But, she added, it was “beautifully naive” because she thought helping a handful of women would make a huge difference. Instead, she walked into a world where she realized the problems of America’s criminal justice system were deeply engrained in our society.

“The solution for (anything that goes wrong with a person) is to cage them up, incarcerate them, treat them like animals and then eject them back into community ill prepared…there’s something really wrong with our world that we allow this type of tool to be used in our communities,” Burton said. Burton has gone on to win accolades for her work (CNN named her a top 10 hero in 2010) and A New Way of Life has gone on to become a nationally recognized program.

Gender matters in prison

During the panel discussion in March, the panelists shared staggering statistics about the state of imprisoned women. In recent years, the number of incarcerated women in the United States has grown to more than 200,000. That’s eight times greater than the level in the 1980s and twice the rate of increase for men’s prison populations. According to Levi, the increase in incarcerated women stems from more prosecutions for drug-related and low-level crimes, the dismantling of the nation’s mental health care system, the absence of drug rehabilitation and a trend toward imposing long sentences.

While the numbers are increasing, women only account for roughly seven percent of all people in prisons nationwide. The low percentage of imprisoned women results in a double-edged sword, according to Petersilia.  Women make up such a small percentage of those incarcerated so consequently they don’t get adequate attention through government programs, policy, legislative action and advocacy. Petersilia, who has spent about 30 years studying criminal justice system, noted that only once every five years or so there’s a conference or workshop on women’s incarceration issues.  

Women are indeed different from men in that they tend to commit nonviolent crimes like drug possession and property crimes. In fact, 90 percent of women in California’s criminal justice system are considered low-risk for security threat.

Likewise, women’s needs are different: 60 percent of women in prison have been physically or mentally abused at some point in their lives.

“If we accept the notion that gender matters and women are different, programs for re-entry and in-prison care would have to be designed differently,” Petersilia said.

However, from a policy perspective, this issue is troubling. While chairing Gov. Schwarzenegger’s rehabilitation panel and testifying before the legislature, several staff member and legislators asked whether her panel was asking for different treatment for women. A provocative question emerged: while women have fought for equality for more than 100 years, should the criminal justice system treat men and women differently?

“In some ways that’s reverting,” Petersilia said. “However, treating (men and women the same) is how we’ve gotten to this huge rise of women in prison…When talking about advocacy, are we suggesting a different, two–track system and how might that align with different advocacy movements going on?”

Telling the stories from prison

While Petersilia uses the academy and policy to probe the prison system, in Levi’s work as director of Justice Now, a legal services organization for women inside California prisons, she leverages the legal system and storytelling. With Justice Now, Levi spearheaded a project to interview women at prisons across 14 states.

“We wanted to take this opportunity to give women a voice to share their whole lives,” Levi said. “What their lives were like before they came to prison, what brought them to prison, the human rights abuses they experienced in prison, and then where they came out the other side after prison or when they’re still inside.”

During this work, Levi found it incredibly difficult to reach women inside prisons and capture their stories. She says it’s because the prison system, “really doesn’t want you to know what’s going on inside.” She noted the challenges of getting into the prisons, even as an attorney, and the strict requirements that only permitted out-of-date recording devices when entering the prisons. Nonetheless, Levi worked with Justice Now to publish a collection of stories from women inside prison called “Inside this Place, Not of it: Narratives from Women’s Prisons.”

“When you reflect on this, remember the voices of the women and wonder, are we serving them, their families, their communities, best by locking them up and destroying their families and forcing them to experience further abuse or is there a better way?” she said. Instead, Levi suggested channeling money to communities and providing drug rehabilitation, therapy for sexual abuse and establishing real systems of support.

A community of sisters

Hamdiya Cooks knows better than most the value of support systems post jail. She spent 20 years in federal prison. All the while, she never lost her activist will. She recalled sitting in front of the warden’s office to protest toilet paper and sanitary napkins rationing. 

“I will be damages the rest of my life after spending 20 years in a cage,” Cooks said. She stressed the need for women to get unconditional love and support when they come out of jail.

At a federal halfway house Cooks found that support. When she got out of jail about 10 years ago, she struggled finding work because of her criminal history. A woman she’d done 10 years with in prison gave her a living-wage job that allowed her to leave the halfway house to “save (her) spirit from despair.”

“I have a community of sisters inside and a community of sisters who I am working with outside,” she said.

While the criminal justice system can seem far removed for some, Clayman Institute Associate Director Lori Mackenzie reminded the audience that even those who haven’t been incarcerated or known someone who has, “in a sense, all of us know somebody or have part of ourselves that has been imprisoned or has not had voice.”

The Stanford community takes action

Stanford Criminal Justice Center tries to get to the heart of criminal law and the criminal justice system. The center is tackling several initiatives to promote prison reform, including a study of recidivism, an analysis of the population of people serving life terms in California’s prison system and the Three Strikes Clinic, which advocates for the end of the three strikes law that gives life sentences upon three convictions.

Project ReMade, a newly launched program, promotes entrepreneurship among formerly incarcerated women. The project pairs women interested in starting businesses with a Stanford business student, a Stanford law student and a community business leader. The mentor teams work with the women to develop business plans in advance of an opportunity to secure loans and move along with funding through micro-enterprise organizations.


This event was organized by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and the Women Donors Network. Thanks to our co-sponsors, Bechtel International CenterJustice NowLegal Services for Prisoners with ChildrenA New Way of LifeSpark SF, and Voice of Witness.

Susan Burton, founder and Exectutive Director of A New Way of Life, cycled in and out of the criminal justice system for nearly fifteen years before gaining freedom and sobriety.  Susan is a recognized leader in the criminal justice reform and reentry rights movements.  Susan was recently nominated as a CNN Top 10 Hero in the category of “community crusader.” She was also awarded the Citizen Activist Award from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 2010.

Robin Levi is a consultant working in the field of human rights.  For eight years she was the human rights director at Justice Now. Levi has also worked as Advocacy Director for the Women's Institute for Leadership for Human Rights and staff attorney at the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, where she monitored and documented violence and discrimination against women worldwide.

Hamdiya Cooks, Administrative Director, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, has over 25 years of experience working on issues facing women in prison. Having served 20 years in the federal prison system, while incarcerated, Hamdiya led Muslim women prisoners in the struggle to honor their religious practices, including headgear and fasting. She is the former director of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.

Dr. Joan Petersilia, Adelbert H. Sweet Professor of Law at Stanford, has spent more than 25 years studying the performance of U.S. criminal justice agencies and has been instrumental in affecting sentencing and corrections reform in California and throughout the United States. She is the author of 11 books about crime and public policy. Dr. Petersilia is faculty co-director for the Stanford Criminal Justice Center (SCJC).

Lily Bixler, Public Relations Consultant to Stanford University’s Clayman Institute on Gender Research, is a Bay Area journalist and media specialist.

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.