Citing ''massive disparities'' in one state's treatment of female and male prisoners, a federal judge recently pointed to the following specifics:
* Women inmates had only two vocational training programs to choose from, leading to average annual salaries of $11,846. Men had access to training in 14 trades with average annual salaries of $16,726.
* Women inmates could earn up to $1.25 a day for prison maintenance jobs. Men regularly earned $2.25 a day.
* Thirty percent of women inmates were assigned to janitorial ''make-work.'' Only 5 to 8 percent of men had the same kinds of duties.
* Men at the most restrictive penal institutions had more access to outdoor recreation in one day than women inmates had in a normal week.
* Most women inmates could not wear their own clothes or decorate their rooms. Men were routinely entitled to these ''normal privileges.''
* Most women inmates were restricted to 15 minutes a month for phone calls. Men had virtually unlimited access to telephones during their free time.
* As a result of the ''behavior modification'' program imposed on women prisoners, between one-third and one-half of them were under prescription for some form of mood-altering medication. Nationwide, it's unusual for more than 10 to 15 percent of a prison population to be receiving these psychotropic drugs.
In his July, 1982 decision in a class-action suit brought against the Kentucky Department of Corrections by inmates at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women, and later joined by the US Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union, US District Court Judge Edward H. Johnstone found that ''The consequence of the gender classification in Kentucky prisons has been inferiority in the areas of vocational education and training, jobs, and pay for women inmates.''
The defendants in the case had not tried to show that the quality of courses offered to women inmates was comparable to those offered to men. Instead, they had claimed that the percentage of women inmates enrolled in courses was comparable to the percentage of men enrolled. But even those figures were misleading, Judge Johnstone noted, since the women's courses were offered only part-time and the men's courses were offered full time.
''Women have comprised only a small part of the prison population in Kentucky ,'' Judge Johnstone added, and ''this has made it easy to overlook their needs in many areas.'' However, he concluded, ''the discriminatory treatment which has resulted must be remedied.''
Women inmates and their attorneys in a number of states where similar suits are pending - including Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Texas - are hoping that the Kentucky decision will set some far-reaching precedents.
Between 1970 and 1980 the total number of suits brought by inmates of US prisons increased from 16,000 to more than 23,000. The growth in cases claiming a violation of civil rights within prisons jumped a dramatic 500 percent during this decade. Although most of these cases never reached an evidenciary hearing or trial, a small number have had a significant impact on the US prison system. Entire penal systems in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Tennessee have been declared unconstitutional, and penitentiaries in 12 states have been placed under court order as a result of these suits.
Findings in the recent Kentucky case about the composition of that state's prison population hold true for penal statistics nationwide. Women make up only 4 or 5 percent of the US prison population, numbering between 20,000 and 25,000 of an estimated 400,000 inmates.
''Because there are so few women, they're the last to get funds,'' says Nicole Hahn Rafter, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University. ''But the facts are indisputable - there is no institution which provides equal opportunities for women inmates. The question is whether the courts will care enough to do anything about it.''
Dr. Rafter is co-editor with Elizabeth A. Stanko of a recently published collection of analytical essays, ''Judge, Lawyer, Victim, Thief'' (Boston, Northeastern University Press, $22.95), which takes a penetrating look at a number of assumptions about women that have allegedly ''distorted'' criminal justice research for years. One of the issues they address is the attitude of courts toward women offenders. ''Until recently women in a number of states could receive longer sentences than men convicted of similar crimes,'' the editors write in the introduction. ''According to the theory on which such sentences were based, the state does women a favor by providing them with longer periods of rehabilitation.''
Many researchers say that as the length of sentences imposed on both men and women has increased in recent years, women have often been unfairly affected.
''Part of it may be a backlash to the women's movement,'' says Bertha Josephson, a lawyer. ''But I think there's the attitude in the judiciary that 'If women want to be treated equally, fine, we'll punish them equally.' Unfortunately, the punishment turns out to be more severe in certain respects.''
According to statistics compiled by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), the following profile of women in prison emerges: Eighty percent are black; between 80 and 90 percent are drug addicted; between 70 and 80 percent come from impoverished backgrounds; 50 percent are between the ages of 22 and 30; 24 percent are married; and between 60 and 70 percent have children.
The high percentage of inmates who are single mothers is particularly significant, since studies have shown that most women are in prison for crimes related to their inability to provide for their families. ''They have committed economic crimes such as forgery, counterfeiting, stolen property, gambling, and prostitution,'' says the NCCD's Marge Woods.
A lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in the recent Kentucky suit echoes the perceptions of a number of lawyers who have worked with women inmates. ''Most of the women we see in prison today are very traditional in their view of sex roles, and usually very passive,'' says Walker Smith of the Legal Aid Society of Louisville, Ky. ''Those attitudes often are taken advantage of by the state.''
Although women offenders may not have much say when it comes to sentencing, some of them are increasingly taking a more active interest in how they spend their time in prison and how that time will affect their reentry into society.
Instead of sitting through traditional classes in cosmetology and upholstery, which have limited value in today's competitive job market, these women want access to the kind of training that is routinely available to men in prison. They want to learn trades that will enable them to support their families once they've served their time and been released. As a result, many of the suits now being brought by women inmates against state corrections departments focus on two key issues: lack of equitable educational opportunities and vocational training.
The class-action suit now pending in Iowa is a good example. Like many other states, Iowa has only one women's prison. Until the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women moved to a new facility last month, it was some two hours northwest of Des Moines, far from schools and other potential community resources, and too far from the families of many inmates to permit regular visits.
The women who brought the suit contend that they are not being given the same opportunities for education and training as prisoners at Iowa's seven penal institutions for men.
''When a male offender comes into our system and he's in need of vocational training, he can be transferred to an institution where that training is available,'' says Susan Hunter, the superintendent. ''But we're the only women's prison. The only options any women offenders have are here. And there's no vocational training available here now.
''I don't particularly want to see the state lose a suit,'' Dr. Hunter adds, ''but the whole point is that equal opportunities should be provided. And I'm encouraged that the courts are finding that states do have to provide equal funding for equal opportunities.''
The Iowa suit was brought on behalf of several inmates with the help of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union. In many women's institutions, however, access to legal resources is grossly inadequate.
A recent year-long study prepared by the School for Social Work at Smith College, in Northampton, Mass., with funding provided by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC), found that although women prisoners have a wide range of concerns and legal needs, they tend to bring fewer suits than men prisoners because of a lack of legal resources in their institutions. This is despite a 1977 court decision that mandated such resources in prisons.
''We knew pretty much what women's issues were going to be when we went into prisons to interview them,'' says Katherine Gabel, dean of Smith's School of Social Work and former superintendent of women's prisons in Georgia and Arizona. ''What was surprising was that in every institution we visited there was some kind of block that kept women from being able to prepare writs and cases. If the prison had lawyers available for inmates, it didn't have legal textbooks or typewriters or copying facilities. In every instance, there was some kind of a bug in the system.''
In addition to disseminating the results of the NIC study to prison wardens across the United States, Dr. Gabel also hopes to set up a working legal facility in a selected women's prison that could be used as a model by other institutions.
''A number of administrators may not be too keen about having all of this go forward,'' she notes, ''but the courts have mandated equal treatment and equal legal resources, and we stand on that.''