In Iowa, A Commitment To Make Prison Work Better For Women

Prison rules created to control men often don't work well for women, who come with different histories and experiences. "Gender-responsive corrections" aims to treat women based on these differences.
Mary Kathleen "Kathy" Tyler, an 82-year-old woman incarcerated at Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, was sentenced to life in prison in 1978. She is an avid reader, artist and pianist; is employed as a court reporter; and has accumulated a handful of degrees since she was incarcerated. Source: Jessica Earnshaw for NPR

The warden at the women's prison in Iowa recently instructed her corrections officers to stop giving out so many disciplinary tickets for minor violations of prison rules, like when a woman wears her sweatshirt inside out or rolls up her sleeves.

It's a small thing. But it's also part of a growing movement to reconsider the way women are treated in prison.

Called "gender-responsive corrections," the movement is built on a simple idea: that prison rules created to control men, particularly violent ones, often don't work well for women. That women come to prison with different histories from men — they're more likely to be victims of violence, for example — and they need different rules.

Something as trivial as an inside-out shirt? That could signify a gang affiliation in a men's prison. In a women's prison, the inmates might just like how it looks.

At the newly built Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, Warden Sheryl Dahm has endorsed the idea. Every corrections officer there is getting trained in these differences.

"Having someone be authoritarian, or for lack of a better word, in power and controlling, is not what we want in here," Dahm said.

Officers are being trained to listen to prisoners more, give them more freedom — about how they wear their clothing — and to discipline them less.

Discipline is a focus of the new thinking because punishment designed for men often gets applied to women in unequal and

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