The Lives of Women Behind Bars

The story of incarceration is incomplete without the voices of incarcerated women. In the United States incarceration is dominated by the male view point, as men account for 90% of all those serving time. Yet, women play a significant role in this story.

I’m quickly discovering that the incarceration experience for women is very different than that of men. Yes, there are common similarities such as institutional programs and a day to day atmosphere akin to the ways of male inmate populations, but they end there.

Despite the length of my incarceration, I still know little about what it’s like for women who are serving time. I imagine this is true for most people reading this. It’s the result of a mostly male experience, and popular culture molded by Hollywood movies from similar viewpoints.

In each state, few facilities house women–in most, there’s only one facility–and unlike those housing men, these facilities confine a number of security levels beneath one roof. This in itself poses a set of different challenges, as most women serving long sentences remain at the same facility for all or most of their time. For men, there’s a step down process that involves a series of transfers from one facility to another over time. While this is often the case, there are exceptions. And, likewise, there are exceptions for women too.

Women entering into incarceration often have families of their own. Married or divorced, but often with children. Some enter pregnant and expecting, and this in itself presents a unique set of challenges to corrections in every state.

In Ohio, one of the female facilities actually has a nursery, where upon birth the baby is able to remain with mother for upwards of a year. It’s a compassonite option by the Department of Corrections. Yet, in many other states no such option exists. For women, incarceration is inconsistent across the country.

Their crimes tend to be similar to the convictions of my male peers, but it seems to me that there is a higher percentage of women serving time for long sentences than that of my male peers. Why is this? Is this the result of a general reluctance by the courts to sentence women to time unless the crime is of extraordinary nature? Of course, my observation isn’t scientific; it is merely an observation and I’m discovering that it changes the more I learn. I imagine one could cite many exceptions.

My guest writer today is J. Fetty. She’s serving a life sentence, and her incarceration has weighed heavily on her. Today she writes about her friend and mentor, a woman at her facility who has has been incarcerated for a mind boggling 40 years. She writes about rehabilitation and how one’s positive actions often seem blind to the eyes of the state parole board.

Sadly, her story isn’t unique. I’ve heard a thousand variations of it over the decades, all having a common theme that one’s rehabilitation is often dismissed out of hand by the state parole board. It’s not a claim without merit.

In 2016, Shirley Smith, then a state parole board member and former state senator, quit her position with explosive claims that the state board was biased and controlled by a handful of career appointees. I touched on this in the 2019 post The Director of Ohio Prisons, and then again in 2020 in An Unpopular Path, But The Right Thing To Do, about the current director’s efforts to reform the state parole board.

I’m very happy to introduce you to today’s new guest writer J. Fetty. She’s a courageous woman who chooses to view her time as positive opportunity, but it doesn’t come without challenge. For many women, long sentences become insurmountable in their lives, and she touches on this. Unfortunately, it’s a common theme here amongst men too, and I’ve written about it before in It Is What It Is and How We Choose to See The World.

The voices of incarcerated women are seldomly heard. They’re a suffering minority in the world of incarceration, and their experience is unique from that of their male counterparts. Without their voice, you will never know the true picture of incarceration in the United States. Read J. Fetty’s essay “How Is 40 Years Not Enough?” now.

*Her post is the first of several female voices to come. Please share this post with others.


5 thoughts on “The Lives of Women Behind Bars

  1. Rosina Keihl

    I was glad to see something about women in prison and look forward to the next writing. It was enlightening.

    1. Rosina, I agree with your comment. For me this posting opened my nearly blind eyes to the consequences of the “herd mentality.” It sounds as if Parole Board’s are as much the product of their own environment. That is, they are influenced by their constituents and/or peers and it just so happens that with this type of influence there may only be one degree of separation …. from the “mob.”
      Thus, change the public perception of incarceration, read: rehabilitation, and you change the PB.

  2. Ms. Fetty,

    Thanks so much for your essay. Your writing about your friend and the issues she and you are dealing with is powerful. During my career as a prison psychologist in Ohio I worked for the first 12 in the Department of Youth Services and dealt with a lot of female offenders. In general, they were a different group than the males, more approachable and more open to dealing with their issues and to treatment opportunities. There was also more drama. Adolescent girls are who they are. During the last nine years while I was in male facilities, I sometimes was called to a women’s institution to do what we called “suicide watch.” This involved assessing inmates to see if they seemed stable enough to be removed from watch. For me, walking onto the grounds seemed to be a different kind of atmosphere, with the women who were out and about being more friendly. All told, I would much prefer working with women than men.

    As with inmates like Christopher who are doing everything required, and sometimes a good deal more, to be get released yet are being denied, your friend’s story is sad and frustrating. Having even one person who really cares and is supportive is so important as you know well.

    Scott Quimby

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