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

Oct 17, 2018
Originally published on October 19, 2018 8:52 am

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.


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.
Jessica Earnshaw for NPR

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 harsh ways. That's the finding of an investigation by NPR and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. We found that women in prison are punished at significantly higher rates — often two to three times more often than men — for things that prisons classify as more minor violations of prison rules.

We collected data from men's and women's prisons in 15 states and found that women are more likely than men to be punished for infractions like talking back to, disobeying or cursing at a corrections officer.

Even citations for minor infractions can lead to significant punishments for women. They can get time added to their sentence or go to solitary confinement. They can lose privileges, including permission to see visitors or to use the phone. Those matter: Because women in prison, far more than men, are the caregiving parent for a minor child.


Tyler curls her hair and puts on lipstick in the shared bathroom around the corner from her cell.
Jessica Earnshaw for NPR

"The punishment of women is more egregious than for men," says Kathy Tyler, a prisoner at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women. And punishment for minor violations, she says, makes it hard for women to think they can change while in prison. "If you get disciplined, it insinuates that you're a bad person or that you're a rule breaker or you are not honorable."

The policy about rolling up shirtsleeves or wearing a sweatshirt inside out is an example.

"It's not gang related," said Dahm. "Women want to have control over how they look, about how they present themselves. ... Maybe she had a coffee stain."


Tyler stays connected to what's happening in the world by reading The New Yorker. She also reads The New York Times and avidly watches CNN.
Jessica Earnshaw for NPR

'I Thought I'd Seen It All'

Gender-responsive corrections is a concept that grew out of research into the paths women take to prison, and how those are generally different than for men. Many women come to prison for property and drug crimes. They commit fewer violent crimes than men and are less likely to use a gun. Additionally, some 75 to 90 percent of women in prison have been the victims of previous sexual or physical violence.

Dr. Jerome Greenfield, who runs health services for all of Iowa's prisons, says prison officials often underestimate the level of abuse in the lives of women before they get to prison. He left a psychiatry practice in Des Moines several years ago to first work as a staff psychiatrist on the mental health ward at the women's prison.

"Through the years of my practice, I thought I was a seasoned psychiatrist. I thought I'd seen it all," he says.

But when he came to work at the women's prison, "that's when I really saw and heard traumatic stories that were just beyond belief," Greenfield says. "I saw patients that had been chained for months at a time in a basement. Sold as property. Victims of Satanic rituals. But it goes even beyond that, because then in their homes, they were, many of them, beaten to the point of having traumatic brain injuries."

Many women coped, he says, by "using drugs at an early age. Methamphetamine. Heroin. Anything to dampen the anguish." And many developed serious mental illnesses.

A large percentage of men in prison and jail have been diagnosed with mental health problems, but the percentage is even higher among incarcerated women. Still, in prison, women are less likely than men to be violent.

Becki Ney, a pioneer of gender-responsive corrections, says the survival skills that help women outside prison walls may get them in trouble inside prison. When a corrections officer — especially if it's a man — gives a command in a harsh voice, or even grabs a woman, women are apt to react in a way that leads to discipline.


Tyler learned to play piano as a child but did not practice. Forty years ago, the prison needed a pianist for Catholic Mass, so she started playing again. Now she teaches other women to play.
Jessica Earnshaw for NPR

"You may fight back. You may lash out. You may isolate. You may cut yourself," Ney said. "You may do a whole variety of things to survive, many of which are inappropriate behaviors inside prison."

The result is that women are disciplined for reacting in ways that most often are not violent, but break prison rules, like talking back or disobeying an order from an officer.

Iowa officials are changing some procedures to consider a woman's history of trauma. The prison has reduced the use of strip searches and changed the way searches are done, for instance. Now, a woman can choose to take off one garment, be searched and then put it back on. That allows her to avoid being completely naked in front of an officer.


Tyler has been incarcerated for almost half her life. She says reforms led by Warden Sheryl Dahm to reduce punishments for minor rule violations have improved her life in prison.
Jessica Earnshaw for NPR

'I'd Rather Work With 10 Men Than With One Woman'

Ney, who started the National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women, says women also get in trouble for the way they interact with prison staff. "Men, if you tell them no, they just curse you. Then they walk away," Ney said. "A woman will say, 'Why?' And she'll keep asking."

"That's a generalization," Ney acknowledges, but she adds that a corrections officer will say: 'I'd rather work with 10 men than with one woman.' "

Corrections officers not trained in those gender differences will often ticket a woman who talks back. That's a big reason NPR's data show that women are ticketed often at two to three times the rate of men for offenses like insolence, disrespect or disobeying an officer.

About 15 states are trying gender-responsive practices in prisons, according to Ney.

In many states, gender-responsive practice may amount to just a few hours of training for corrections officers. In Illinois, new officers go through a six-week training academy. Officers assigned to one of the state's two women's prisons spend one week focused on how to deal with female prisoners. Other officers get a four-hour training. In Vermont, new officers go through five weeks of training, including four hours on female prisoners.

A study in Massachusetts, by the warden at the women's prison there, showed that when gender-responsive and trauma-informed practices were put in place, there was a decline in the issues that can lead to discipline, including inmate assaults on other inmates and prison staff.

Today, women make up about 7 percent of the nation's prison population. But since 1980, their numbers have skyrocketed, by more than 750 percent, according to federal statistics. That's largely the result of drug laws and mandatory sentencing.

And as more women end up in prison, there has been more research on women in prison.

Gender-responsive corrections came out of decades of that work — some of it back to the 1990s — by a small number of feminist sociologists, historians and other academics. It was pushed, too, by a small number of female consultants, like Ney, who specialize in corrections.

Another important group of proponents has been women who have made a career in corrections. They have long been a minority of corrections officials. Many started as officers and worked their way up.

Jennifer Sprafke started as a corrections officer in Vermont 18 years ago. "There were no women's uniforms," she recalls. "There were only men's sizes and I had never worn men's clothes. I had no idea what size pants I was supposed to get."

Today, Sprafke is the assistant superintendent of Chittenden Regional Correctional Center, the women's prison in Vermont, and she teaches gender-responsive practices to new corrections officers.


Tyler found a passion for art 10 years ago. She donates her paintings for church fundraisers and sometimes sends her art out as gifts. Although she isn't fond of roosters she does enjoy drawing them.
Jessica Earnshaw for NPR

Any woman who made a career in corrections very likely has stories of facing resistance, or hostility, from her male co-workers and bosses. Many say they stayed with it, in part, because they liked working with female inmates and felt those women were overlooked in corrections systems where the vast majority of inmates are men.

One result is that, today, record numbers of women are now in leadership positions in prisons and corrections departments across the country. In 13 states, women now run state corrections departments, according to the Association of State Correctional Administrators. That's an all-time high.

Many of them understand the need for new approaches, says Heidi Washington, director of the Michigan Department of Corrections.

"We still have one rulebook, one set of responses to misconduct behavior for men and women," she says. "And yet we know that women respond differently. We know that women have different experiences that bring them to prison."

Designing Prisons Specifically For Women

Iowa has made one of the most ambitious commitments to gender-responsive practices.

Every new officer at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women is trained in gender-responsive practices that include lessons on how women respond to past trauma. All current staff, starting this month, are getting similar training.

Prisoners like Lucinda Gillam, who is serving time for robbery, are noticing the difference. Officers, particularly the new ones, Gillam says, "talk to us more; they interact with us more. They ask us how we're doing. Not trying to be our friend, but realize that we're people, although we've made mistakes to get ourselves here. You know, they're kinder."

Dahm, the warden, has a long history at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women. She was a counselor and then later the deputy warden. She grew up in Mitchellville, the small town where the prison is located. Her mother worked at the prison as the business manager. The oldest inmate remembers Dahm as a young teen, sometimes tagging along with her mother.

Now 54, she has a tattoo on her wrist that reads, "forgiveness, grace and mercy."

"We're all human," she says. "That's what it reminds me of."

It is too soon to measure results from Iowa's new approach to incarcerating women. In 2016 — just before the start of new training for staff at this medium- and maximum-security prison — women here were punished for low-level violations of prison rules at higher rates than men. Women were almost three times more likely to be given disciplinary tickets for the violation of being "disruptive."

Some prison staffers welcome the change to gender-responsive corrections. Others say they've got more important problems — like not having enough corrections officers.

One staffer, who asked for anonymity for fear of getting in trouble, complained that the warden's new approach meant that, in her words, "the inmates are running the prison."

Dahm has heard that before, recently from a newly hired corrections officer.

"What she said is, 'You know, Warden, there's some people saying that the inmates are running the prison.' And I'm like, 'Well, they do. There's one of you to 96 women. So let's talk about how that looks. And how do we get the 96 to not cause problems. And what does that look like,' " Dahm said.

Tyler keeps a tall stack of magazines — issues of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair — in her cell. That's permitted now, but years ago, she was given a disciplinary ticket for keeping too many of these magazines. In her 40 years in prison, she is proud that she has never been cited for a major disciplinary ticket. But there were many minor ones: once for a missing towel, and another when she forgot the exact time she signed up to use the phone and made her call 15 minutes early.


Tyler watches CNN daily in her room.
Jessica Earnshaw for NPR

Tyler, at 82 and in prison for a murder conviction, keeps her artwork — pastels of people, animals, birds' nests and landscapes — over her bed. In a box under her bed, she has a copy of her master's thesis, on characters in Shakespeare, that she completed from prison.

And while Tyler, Gillam and other female prisoners appreciate that they are more respected under the new system, it is sometimes hard for them, too, to sweep aside their notions of what prison life is supposed to be. Tyler wishes the women who keep talking during prison church services would get tickets. Gillam worries that other inmates, without stricter guidelines, are unmotivated and don't take advantage of education and work opportunities that could help them once they leave prison.

One thing that helps Iowa implement gender-responsive policies: The prison architecture itself is different, designed specifically for women. The result is a place that resembles a college campus. Inside the razor wire, there are airy buildings connected by concrete pathways. There are landscaped gardens, including a "children's garden" for women to bring their children when they visit. There's a visitation center, with a large play area with dolls, toys and books.


Tyler holds a small rosary in her cell. Raised Roman Catholic, she is an active member of the prison chapel.
Jessica Earnshaw for NPR


Tyler reads in her cell.
Jessica Earnshaw for NPR

The psychiatric unit, too, was designed to be different. There are still solitary confinement cells, but fewer women now end up in them. On the new unit, women are free to walk about the large common room with therapy dog Bella, a towering Great Dane, and cats. There are TVs, an elliptical machine facing a window, a garden and lots of natural light.

Gender-responsive corrections doesn't need a newly built prison like the one in Iowa to work, but it takes new thinking. The goal, says Dahm, is to make prison a place where women change and then are equipped to return to their communities.

"We really want to help build a woman up to be a strong woman," she says. "And to be able to guide her own way out into society."

This story was reported in collaboration with NPR, The Social Justice News Nexus at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and The Chicago Reporter. Additional reporting by Chicago-based freelance reporter Jessica Pupovac; Kari Lydersen and Sydney Boles of Medill University School of Journalism; and Barbara van Woerkom of NPR. Data analysis by Pupovac, Robert Benincasa of NPR and Matt Kiefer of The Chicago Reporter.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit


All this week, we've shown you how women in prison are more likely than men to be disciplined for minor violations of prison rules. We end our investigation with a look at leadership - prison reform created by women for women. NPR's Joseph Shapiro explains.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Jennifer Sprafke is assistant superintendent of the women's prison in Vermont. She started her career as a corrections officer, a guard, 18 years ago. And she got a quick reminder about how prisons are a world dominated by men.

JENNIFER SPRAFKE: I was first told that we'd get women's uniforms only to find out there were no women's uniforms. There were only men's sizes, and I had never worn men's clothes. I had no idea what size pants I was supposed to get.

J. SHAPIRO: A woman making a career in corrections likely has stories of facing resistance or hostility from her male co-workers and bosses. But as women slowly moved up the ranks, they've helped spark a movement called gender-responsive corrections.

SPRAFKE: OK. So let's get started. So I'm going to ask the first tough question

J. SHAPIRO: In a crowded classroom, Sprafke trains the most recently hired corrections officers in Vermont.

SPRAFKE: You guys have been taught you're supposed to treat offenders how?


SPRAFKE: Equally, fairly, consistent, right? So then tell me why do you have one unit on working with women?

J. SHAPIRO: These new officers get five weeks of training but just the four hours Sprafke teaches on how to deal with women prisoners.

SPRAFKE: If everyone's the same, we're supposed to treat everyone the same for fair and consistent, why is there a unit on working with women offenders?

J. SHAPIRO: Across the country, some 15 states are teaching new ways of treating women prisoners. Gender-responsive corrections is built around the understanding that women prisoners are different. They're less likely to come to prison for violent crimes. In prison, they're less likely than men to be violent. But the discipline system in prison is set up to control violent men, so those rules can treat women more harshly, more unfairly. It's an insight that came out of decades of academic research from feminist historians, sociologists and other academics, from women consultants who specialize in prisons and from that minority of women who've made a career in corrections, like Maggie Burke. She was the warden of a women's prison in Illinois. But she too started as a corrections officer at a men's prison.

MAGGIE BURKE: You do firearms your very first week of training, and then that screens everybody out. If you can't pass with a weapon, then you can't do the job. And I'm going to tell you that, you know, 29 years in the department and I've never had to use my gun.

J. SHAPIRO: The second thing she says corrections officers learn - how to use handcuffs.

BURKE: And so that kind of sets people up with an expectation that the work we're doing is physical, is aggressive, is law and order, is paramilitary. But the work we're doing is talking to people and changing lives. And you don't do that by barking orders. You don't do that by forcing people to do something.

J. SHAPIRO: About 75 to 90 percent of women in prison have been victims of sexual or physical violence. When a corrections officer, especially if it's a man, yells or barks an order, the woman's reaction is often defensive. She might just shut down, or she might yell back, and that can result in a ticket. She gets disciplined.

BURKE: Typically, when you tell a man to do something, a male inmate, he's either going to do it or he's not going to do it. But he's not going to lip off to you. He's not going to talk back. There isn't a whole lot of emotion to it.

J. SHAPIRO: Burke worked in men's and women's prisons.

BURKE: Whereas with women, emotion is in there.

J. SHAPIRO: This sounds like a generalization, but we heard it over and over from experts on women's prisons.

BURKE: And when she's just like, go ahead, write me a ticket, it just fuels the fire. And so then it's an emotional ticket.

J. SHAPIRO: Prison guards are trained to keep inmates under control. Women in our society in general are expected to be compliant. And if they push back, which in prison they do more than men, officers use that tool they have for control. They hand out punishment.

BURKE: Now she's got some insolence because she's talking back at me, and maybe she said something that I can perceive as threatening, and I'm going to write, you know, that she threatened me.

J. SHAPIRO: NPR and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University collected data on prison discipline from 15 states. We estimated rates of punishment for men and women. And our numbers show that women typically get disciplined at higher rates for the more minor violations of prison rules - often at twice or three times the rate for men for those smaller things like disobeying a corrections officer or cursing or...

LUCINDA GILLAM: Talking back (laughter).

J. SHAPIRO: Lucinda Gillam is a prisoner at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, serving time for robbery. She remembers when not that long ago she'd get into a lot of trouble for talking back. Once, a corrections officer made an announcement on the overhead speaker for the women to be quiet, but Gillam says she was on another part of the cellblock and didn't hear it.

GILLAM: While I was coming from upstairs, and I caught the end of it and I said, what was that? And he said, hey, I said no talking or whatever. And I was like, well, you don't have to yell. I wasn't down here. And he made a comment, and I was like, well, this is America. I can say what I want (laughter). And he wrote me up for it. So my response was smart alecky (ph) and I got a major report.

J. SHAPIRO: Typically, when women prisoners violate rules - even a lesser violation - they can lose privileges, like getting visits or using the phone. They can go to solitary confinement or have days added to their time in prison. Now the prison in Iowa trains officers that if it's not a security issue, let's some of those things go. De-escalate situations that lead to tickets.

GILLAM: Because the officers, the new ones that I've noticed, they talk to us more. They interact with us more. They ask us how we doing - not trying to be our friend but realize that we're people although we've made mistakes to get ourselves here. You know, they - they're kinder.

J. SHAPIRO: And Gillam says that change in the way corrections officers responded to her helped her mature. She's been taking college classes, and when she leaves prison next year, she wants to complete her degree and get a job counseling people recovering from substance abuse. As states start implementing these new ways of treating women, there's a small amount of research that shows women like Lucinda Gillam then do better when they leave prison. So are there lessons in this women's reform to make prison work better for men, too? Becki Ney thinks so.

BECKI NEY: Women lead the way - yes.

J. SHAPIRO: She's a pioneer of gender-responsive corrections. She started the National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women.

NEY: Men probably have trauma in their lives. Men probably have been victimized in their lives. Men have lots of discipline issues.

J. SHAPIRO: And men make up 93 percent of people in prison.

NEY: So maybe we will find some opportunities to take the work we know about trauma and give it a male spin and have that be very helpful to them as well.

J. SHAPIRO: Just like women's prisons learned from studying what's specific about the trauma of women, Ney says men's prisons can learn by studying what's specific about the lives of men. She says there's already an example. More men's prisons are training corrections officers how to de-escalate conflict to figure out what it is about men that causes them to act up and to use that gender-based knowledge to avoid situations that lead to getting disciplined for violating prison rules. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.