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The Reality of Women’s Prisons

As “Orange is the New Black” returns for a third season, UNLV criminologist Emily Salisbury talks about women in prison and what they need to succeed afterwards.

Research  |  Jun 9, 2015  |  By Afsha Bawany
Emily Salisbury

Criminal justice professor Emily Salisbury (Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services)

Check your belongings with the guard. Hand over your wallet, your keys, cell phone, anything and everything. Walk through the metal detector. If you've sounded off an alarm, wait for the pat down.

Walking through a women's prison was once nerve-wracking for Emily Salisbury, but now the criminologist is used to the drill. She's been studying women's prisons systems for more than a decade. The guards allow her to keep a notebook and a pen; she's there to hear from women inmates.

"I hear similar narratives from women across the country," said Salisbury, a criminal justice professor in the UNLV Greenspun College of Urban Affairs.

The women talk about the reasons they ended up in prison, their substance abuse issues, and growing up unloved and harmed as children. They tell Salisbury of their tendency to recreate families with fellow inmates to replace the relationships they've lost. The women yearn for new lives outside the confines of barbed wire fences but those with children fear parenting when they return.

Salisbury recently delivered a TedX talk on these topics at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, where the audience included correctional officers, prison administrators, attorneys, judges and inmates. As one of a handful of experts studying gender-responsive approaches to reduce recidivism in the country, Salisbury has consulted for several prison systems across the U.S. The Washington State Department of Corrections and Oregon State Department of Corrections both will be using an assessment tool that she helped develop specifically for women to predict the chances of future criminal behavior.

She joined UNLV last year and has begun working closely with the Nevada Department of Corrections and Florence McClure Women's Correctional Center. She's developing volunteer opportunities and internships with the prison so UNLV students can begin to see the realities and rewards of working with this population.

Women make up seven percent of the 2.4 million total inmate population within the state and federal prison system -- that's nearly 170,000 women inmates. The rate of female incarceration is increasing because more women are being convicted for nonviolent crimes, such as drug use. Mandatory minimums and "get tough" crime legislation have put them in prison systems originally designed for men.

Paths to Prison Differ From Men

Women's pathways to prison differ from men's and as such, treatment and intervention strategies must be tailored to each gender, Salisbury said. Economic stress and addiction are often behind women's crimes. While women are capable of violence, it takes more provocation and instigation than men to become violent, and it's often motivated by intimate partner abuse, victimization, and acts of self-defense, Salisbury said.

"Women do not commit crime for the thrill of it," Salisbury said. Nevertheless, she says women offenders must learn appropriate life skills to lead more positive, prosocial lives, including how to have healthy intimate relationships, overcome addiction, and believe that they can succeed.

Salisbury said women in the prison system often struggle with a history of substance abuse, mental health issues, and unhealthy relationships. The convergence of all three make it even more vital for rehabilitation programs targeted specifically to women be provided in prisons.

"We can no longer have conversations about public safety without talking about rehabilitation and treatment," Salisbury said.

Women can be just as dangerous as men, so it's understandable correctional staff are trained to think "an inmate is an inmate is an inmate," Salisbury said. "This kind of custody approach makes sense -- if we treat every inmate the same way, we won't be caught off guard."

But this approach doesn't lead to the most effective policies and procedures, she said.

"We need to end the notion that equality means having the same exact policies and procedures for women as we do for men. It means understanding different sociological, psychological, and cultural differences that exist across gender. It means understanding that not all women's experiences are the same. A black woman's experience is not the same as a white woman's experience or a Latina's experience or a Native American woman's experience or even a transgendered woman's experience.

"As soon as we start to recognize the differences are not weaknesses but strengths the safer we will all be," Salisbury said.

Salisbury advises justice systems not to forget about the mothers among their prison population.

"When we send a man to prison for crimes, the mother takes care of kids who are left behind. When we send a woman, the unfortunate reality is that it's not the father who is taking care of the kids. Her kids will end up in the foster care system or with family if they are lucky.

"We can teach women how to adequately care for their kids when they come back to them and how to adequately handle parental stress that everyone experiences."

What Correctional Facilities Need to Understand

According to Salisbury, 77 to 90 percent of incarcerated women report histories of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. This is especially true for women of color and transgender women.

"There are things we can do to help create trauma-informed care even inside prisons," Salisbury said. "It means eliminating cross-gender pat downs and strip searches, training correctional staff on how their physical presence and tone of their voice affects people differently who have experienced and suffered trauma."

Salisbury has heard from correctional officers and staff who say women in prison may come across as needy and are hard to oversee. Here's why: women are rebuilding relationships in the prison system.

"Women need to connect with more people. Men don't care as much about other people liking them like as women do. It is not a weakness but strength. We need to start training women to have healthy relationships," she said.

The Nevada Correctional System

"Nevada is making some serious strides to implement best practices for female population," she said. "With the Nevada Department of Corrections, we have applied for two different grants, one of which is to understand the female population more effectively around co-occurring disorders like mental health and substance abuse issues that we see affect more women."

With executive leadership at Florence McClure Women's Correctional Center in Nevada, Salisbury is planning to deliver gender responsive training and discuss ways to enhance policies at Florence McClure.

"I'm not here to upend system. I am here to assess where Nevada is at and where I can help," Salisbury said.

TV Meets Reality

The experiences of women in prison gained attention after Netflix launched the show "Orange is the New Black." The show is adapted from the autobiographical book by Piper Kerman, a woman from a privileged background in her 30s, who was sentenced to 15 months in prison for a crime she committed on behalf of her drug-dealing girlfriend.

Salisbury applauds the show for bringing to the light issues that do occur in the women's prison system, including intimate partner abuse, self-segregation by race, and homosexuality. She cautions that while the show depicts correctional officers abusing their power, "most correctional officers do the job with professionalism and dignity," she said. But "it is a struggle to hire people who are appropriate for the profession and who won't abuse their power."

Salisbury would like to see the show portray treatment programs inside institutions. There's very little discussion on religious services, and not a lot on women dealing with the problems that will get them back in the system.

While the book and TV show are starting conversations about the justice system and inequality, Salisbury doesn't assign "Orange is the New Black" as required reading to her students. "It's a great book, but it doesn't portray the typical female inmate -- most justice-involved women come from poor, disadvantaged backgrounds, whereas Piper comes from a place of privilege. But I'm happy that Piper is using her privilege to give these women a voice."

Listen to Salisbury discuss her research on "Our Metropolis," on 91. 5 KUNV Radio, a broadcast service of UNLV Greenspun College of Urban Affairs.