AN inmate at New York's Bedford Hills prison, a maximum-security facility for women, laughs when she thinks of how little people really know about women in prison. B.J. Close recalls a phone call from a couple who are friends of hers. ``He's a university professor,'' she says, ``and he and his wife wanted to come and visit, take me out for dinner. They wanted me to just tell them where a nearby restaurant was and they'd be sure to get me back in on time.'' The visit took place inside the prison in the visitors' room.
The steel-bar doors in women's prisons clang just as loud as in men's. Concertina wire (a ribbon of looped, razor-blade steel) scrapes the tops of walls and fences and snakes along the ground at the outer perimeter of the facility. Electronic searches of visitors for weapons and contraband are just as thorough, just as impersonal. All movement is confined and controlled.
But differences are quickly apparent. Some are grounds for sex discrimination lawsuits, criminal-justice experts say. Others offer possibilities for change in the premises for which people are imprisoned.
Overcrowding is not the problem for women that it is for men. Fewer than 28,000 women are doing hard time in a state or federal prison, compared with 542,500 men in similar institutions.
But fewer women behind bars means the cost of rehabilitation per inmate is greater for women than men. ``You just don't have the economy of scale for women that you do for men,'' says Kay Monaco, a lawyer in Santa Fe, N.M., who is a former state deputy secretary for corrections. The result is fewer education programs and pre-release work opportunities for women, she says.
``Women get the short end of the stick when it comes to prison industries,'' Ms. Monaco says. ``Lots of resources go into men's programs. There's an inequality for women.'' The qualities that should be rewarded with more opportunities result in fewer, because in the competition for scarce resources men win out each time, she says.
``They didn't come in with high job skills,'' says Christine J. Herlinger, executive director of the Guilford County Women's Residential/Day Center, an alternative setting for incarceration of women. If they spend 10 years in prison, where education programs are limiteas and they'd be sure to get me back in on time.'' The visit took place inside the prison in the visitors' room.
The rate of increase in incarceration for women last year was 12.3 percent, more than double that for men. If this rate continues, a crisis in overcrowding will occur very quickly for women, and it will be difficult to manage, because state systems have far fewer options for shifting female populations among prisons.
Incarceration plays itself out differently for women in terms of self-respect, says Michael A. Millemann, a professor of law at the University of Maryland. Men inmates preserve an element of dignity that does not exist in women's prisons. The guards know how potentially violent men are, and there are sections (especially in the residential cellblocks) where ``treaties'' are reached between inmate and guard. Not so in women's facilities, he says.
``The biggest problem by far,'' says Mr. Millemann, ``is that our perception of women inmates is distorted in that we do not, and cannot, relate to the idea of a woman as inmate.'' Women's records suggest that more women offenders could be given alternative sentences or paroled, he says. But because society confuses them with male inmates, it is not willing to take what it considers risks in releasing them, he says.
This problem is endemic to modern corrections, says Anthony Travisono, executive director of the American Correction Association. ``We equate punishment with putting someone someplace,'' he says. This mentality limits alternative forms of sentencing better suited to the offense and the offender.
Few women in prison ever dreamed they would be incarcerated. Many men, especially the 60 percent who are repeat offenders, knew they faced such a possibility. And although the majority of women do their crime with a man, they do their time without one. Rarely, if ever, are there any men in the visiting room. Sisters, mothers, daughters, aunts - but seldom men.
In most cases, locking up a woman means locking up a family. ``When a woman does time, her entire family does time,'' says Bedford Hills inmate Karen Ely. Child custody reverts to the state except in the rare instance when a father is present.
This increases the potential ripple effect for children entering the criminal-justice cycle as offenders themselves, says Jo Ann Potter, an advocate for women's correctional issues at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York City.
It would take five to 10 years to verify, says Ms. Monaco, but she is convinced fewer kids would turn up in juvenile-justice court if fewer mothers were locked up.
Violence is less likely in women's prisons.
``The violence isn't there, so you don't have the same atmosphere in women's prisons,'' Mr. Travisono says. Although there's always a hard-core element intimidating other women, the smaller number of women prisoners allows prison officials to isolate these predators and maintain a (physically) violence-free facility, he says.
``Idle men often lead to trouble in prisons. Women bring less attention to themselves, in that they do not deal with idleness in a violent way,'' says John DiIulio of Princeton University's Wilson School of Government.
``Women are not going to riot,'' says Susan Hallett, an inmate at Bedford Hills. ``We'll just nest.'' It is common to see curtains in a cell, or find one inmate surprising another with a hot meal or a handcrafted gift.
In a perverse way this works against the best interests of women inmates, Ms. Potter says. Riots and court intervention have resulted in better rehabilitation programs for men. In contrast, the absence of violence in facilities for women has let state corrections departments be more responsive to male than to female inmates, she says.
Ironically, a little-known fact in the history of corrections is that many humanizing innovations originated in women's prisons at the turn of the century: These include education classes, libraries, art and music programs, work release, recreation, vocational training, and placement by age, offense, and length of sentence.
The high price tag on corrections (average annual cost of keeping an inmate in a state medium- or maximum-security prison is $17,500; in some industrialized states costs reach $30,000) is forcing many states to consider alternative modes of punishment and incarceration, Travisono says, adding they are much more likely to be adopted for women than for men, because women present less of a threat to others.
``One of the current catches of the criminal-justice system is that murderers of a spouse or lover are not a risk to you or me,'' says Monaco. ``We are talking about a serious crime, certainly,'' she says, ``but how many years is enough?'' ``Ten, 15, 25?'' If the risk is near zero that a 45- to 55-year-old inmate would injure anyone else or commit another crime, punishment becomes the only reason, not safety at all, she says.
A series on prison problems ran in the Monitor July 26, 27, and 28.