Women, Too Delicate For Prison

What were the chances?  In retrospect, pretty darned good. I should have seen this coming a mile away, but I didn’t, and so it struck me as so utterly absurd at first.  As the gender-based approach to law, shifting from equity if not equality to flagrant gender preference, this is merely a natural step in the progression.

From the Washington Post, via Doug Berman, comes this “provocative” proposal by associate professor Patricia O’Brien of the Jane Addams College of Social Work at University of Illinois at Chicago:

It sounds like a radical idea: Stop incarcerating women, and close down women’s prisons. But in Britain, there is a growing movement, sponsored by a peer in the House of Lords, to do just that.

The argument is actually quite straightforward: There are far fewer women in prison than men to start with — women make up just 7 percent of the prison population. This means that these women are disproportionately affected by a system designed for men.

Are prisons a system designed for men?  One might have thought them to be designed for criminals, regardless of gender.  Granted, women are given disproportionately lighter sentences for the same offenses of conviction as men, an example of rank sexism in the courts, but we’re not inclined to beef about it as the notion is to bring men’s sentences down, not women’s up.  Perhaps we’re being too kind?

There are a laundry list of explanations as to why there are far more men than women in the prison system, ranging from crimes for which men, but not women, are arrested to sociological motivations of men to provide for their families, even if they turn to crime as the means. Jean Valjean, anyone?

But the wrongs committed against men in the prison system has not been used as a tool to cry that women should be treated more harshly.  Indeed, that’s not a solution at all, and no reasonable person would suggest such a ridiculous thing.  Why, then, would O’Brien genderize prisons as a man-thing, for the purpose of arguing that women should be given greater privileged?

What purpose is served by subjecting the most disempowered, abused and nonviolent women to the perpetually negative environment of prisons?

Efforts to make prison “work” for women have only perpetuated the growth of the prison industrial complex. These putative reforms have helped some individuals, and possibly brought the nature of mass warehousing of poor, black and brown bodies more into focus, but the number of incarcerated people still continues to rise.

This argument is unadulterated gibberish. O’Brien uses the word “women” where any non-gendered word would fit just as well.  The only nod to her genderized perspective is the word “abused,” which fits with the narrative that women are uniquely abused in our society.

More so than people of color?  More so than the poor? More so than the uneducated?  More so than the intellectually challenged? More so than the mentally ill? Perhaps not, but she’s using her soapbox for women, so the hope is no one will point out that her argument is simultaneously vapid and overtly sexist.

So what is the alternative to jailing women at the rate we do? In Britain, advocates propose community sentences for nonviolent offenders and housing violent offenders in small custodial centers near their families.

There is evidence that these approaches can work in the United States. Opportunities to test alternatives to prison are increasing across the states, and some have demonstrated beneficial results for the women who participated.

If we’re to close down women’s prisons, does that mean that the woman who murders her three children gets to hang out in small custodial centers near where their families used to live before she killed them?  Snarky as this is, why would she argue, no less limit, her point to nonviolent women?  Are nonviolent men unworthy?  Are they more evil?   Or are they just the gender that O’Brien doesn’t give a damn about?

The irony of O’Brien’s post dovetails with the very sensitive complaint of Dan Hull, that there is a group of women who are determined to take up arms against the Twitters for men who “harass” women.  Their issue isn’t with harassment, whatever that may mean, but harassment of women by men.  Or, if we remove the emotional myopia from the self-serving approach, one gender demands the right to silence the other gender should it hurt their feelings.

The rationale for this growing gender-based approach to the law and societal norms, which is shockingly going strong if not picking up steam, is the return to neo-Victorian themes that women are too delicate to withstand the harsh, vulgar words of men.  The claim is that male speech scares, intimidates and harasses women into silence, thus depriving them of their right.  And the extension of this neo-Victorian vision of women as delicate flowers follows them into the prison cell, because a child brutally murdered by a woman is somehow less dead than one murdered by a man?

Those who brave the nasty names hurled by women of dubious integrity for challenging their overt sexism are on the wrong side of this sexual divide. There seems to be no half-way house in this gender-based approach to law, where disagreement with those who promote flagrant sexism is the middle ground, rather than anti-women.  They’ve done a hell of a good job dictating the narrative, the language permitted and the wholesale death of critical thought when it comes to their self-interest.

On the bright side, should they no longer put women in prison, think of all the empty beds that will be available to be filled by men who harass women on twitter.  Or haven’t you noticed the push to criminalize male conduct that hurts their feelings?

10 thoughts on “Women, Too Delicate For Prison

  1. Richard G. Kopf


    Women are not too delicate for prisons. Moreover, in my experience, prisons frequently help women avoid further crime far more than prisons helps comparable men.

    As for women receiving lighter sentences than men who have engaged in comparable conduct, the data supports your assertion. But in drug cases, I believe there is an acceptable reason in some cases. Because the data supports the conclusion that women have suffered severe sexual abuse as children more frequently than men, those women are unusually susceptible to manipulation by higher ups in the trade. Therefore, those women are arguably less culpable than men who hold similar positions in the drug business.

    On a personal level, I have found that is particularly true for poor white rural women involved in the meth business. To a lesser degree, I have also found that is true for poor black urban women involved in the crack trade.

    All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      My experience is limited to those I’ve represented, and the stories I’ve heard from other criminal defense lawyers. Even among those who are “higher up” in the drug trade hierarchy, there are almost always explanations from childhood as to how they ended up where they are, and why their culpability is mitigated by their childhood. Very few came from sound homes, lack of poverty, good educations and loving, supportive families, regardless of gender.

      Ironically, a male client sentenced not too long ago spoke of his humiliating sexual abuse by his godmother as a child. The judge (female) was unmoved.

    2. The Real Peterman

      “The data supports the conclusion that women have suffered severe sexual abuse as children more frequently than men”

      Not the data I’ve seen. And if it’s so easy to get women with dysfunctional pasts to commit heinous acts, how does that argue for not incarcerating them?

      “prisons frequently help women avoid further crime far more than prisons helps comparable men”

      Then it is mens prisons that urgently need reform, not prisons for women.

  2. bmaz

    The case that women in prison should be abolished is asinine, but thanks for lending a voice to it “associate professor Patricia O’Brien of the Jane Addams College of Social Work at University of Illinois at Chicago”.


    Next time I have a sentencing issue, I simply must consult “The Jane Addams College of Social Work at University of Illinois at Chicago”. Go pro, or go home.

  3. ShelbyC

    So, we shouldn’t put women into the penal system, but create a separate vaginal system?

    (I’ll show myself out…)

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