written by
Roy Harper

The Experience of Women in Maximum-Security Prisons in the United States

Women Empowerment 8 min read
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

The experience of being incarcerated in a maximum-security prison is always very hard, but in the case of women, problems affect them differently.

Most times, the conditions of women in prison are invisible to the public because the prison system was created fro men and in high-security prisons, the women's prison population is much smaller than that of men.

Furthermore, many of the women in prison have experienced abuse, and life in a maximum-security prison reminds them of these experiences. Conditions in maximum security prisons vary a lot because there are no standardized official rules defining maximum security. Still, the women live more isolated from each other in general and can only leave their cells for one or two hours a day.

Women in high-security prisons are also isolated from their families. Generally, women are the main caregivers of their children from whom they are separated upon entering prison. In addition to the fact that there are few maximum-security prisons for women and they are located in isolated places, it’s very costly for the women’s families to go visit them.

And if their families visit them, they face restrictions in bonding with them. For example, in some maximum-security prisons in the United States, girls and boys cannot sit on their mother's lap. Many prisons prohibit touching visitors and have physical plexiglass barriers. It is very sad to see your daughters and sons, but not being able to touch them.

Holly M. Harner and Suzanne Riley documented cases like these. In an investigation on the impact of maximum-security prisons on women's mental health, the researchers mention the case of a woman who saw her son for the first time six years old, and he was angry about this situation. Also, high-security prisons often have restrictive visiting hours that they can decrease them further as a form of punishment.

Women in prison have very high rates of mental health conditions, addictions, and have been victims of sexual abuse or other forms of violence, which are frequently related. So they need treatment and care to take care of their mental health.

In the United States, mental health medical assistance is often crisis-targeted to avoid suicidal or homicidal behavior care for which it is necessary to pay $5 per appointment. This may seem like a small price to pay, however these women are incarcerated being totally dependent on treatment from the prison staff and prison jobs pay around $0.50 per hour that must also cover phone calls to kids at home and feminine products in most cases, so that's a pretty big barrier.

For an investigation by Harner and Riley, women said that being in a maximum-security prison was bad for their mental health because they were very afraid of being in a cell alone with another woman, instead of being in an open bedroom, where "There are enough people who can hear your screams" if something happens.

For women with histories of sexual abuse, the lack of privacy and medical examinations, especially the check-ups where they are made to undress are very stressful. Several women said that they avoid visits from their families because they do not want to be subject to the humiliating experience of a strip search for visitations.

Furthermore, they are at risk of sexual abuse again, by other incarcerated women, or many times, by prison workers. At Julia Tutwiler Prison, a maximum-security prison in Alabama, for example, six employees of the facility were indicted for sexual misconduct or abuse between 2009 and 2011, as documented by the James Ridgeway and Jean Casella investigation of the ten worst prisons. Many times, being in a high-security prison continues the cycle of violence against women.

Attention needs to be brought on a legislation level over the dire state of incarcerated women in the country. One of the leading personalities advocating for rights, fair treatment, and end on violence against incarcerated women is Pamela Winn. A strong and inspiring woman who rose through a 78-month long federal sentence, resulting in miscarriage and revocation of her nursing license.

Winn currently practices as a leading activist. She is the Founder of the nonprofit organization, RestoreHER US.America. The organization is committed to voicing support and driving dialogues for the facilitation of incarcerated women, especially incarcerated pregnant women in federal prisons.

The activist’s major contributions have been her open support and campaigns for HB345 and First Step Act, which are based on improving confinement conditions, introducing regulated policies, better laws, ban solitary confinement and shackling, protection of women’s reproductive organs, and empowerment of incarcerated individuals.

For her monumental work, Pamela Winn is a highly revered activist in the country who continues to emerge as a beacon of hope for incarcerated women and their fight against humane policies and rights.The experience of being incarcerated in a maximum-security prison is always very hard, but in the case of women, problems affect them differently.

Most times, the conditions of women in prison are invisible to the public because the prison system was created fro men and in high-security prisons, the women's prison population is much smaller than that of men.

Furthermore, many of the women in prison have experienced abuse, and life in a maximum-security prison reminds them of these experiences. Conditions in maximum security prisons vary a lot because there are no standardized official rules defining maximum security. Still, the women live more isolated from each other in general and can only leave their cells for one or two hours a day.

Women in high-security prisons are also isolated from their families. Generally, women are the main caregivers of their children from whom they are separated upon entering prison. In addition to the fact that there are few maximum-security prisons for women and they are located in isolated places, it’s very costly for the women’s families to go visit them.

And if their families visit them, they face restrictions in bonding with them. For example, in some maximum-security prisons in the United States, girls and boys cannot sit on their mother's lap. Many prisons prohibit touching visitors and have physical plexiglass barriers. It is very sad to see your daughters and sons, but not being able to touch them.

Holly M. Harner and Suzanne Riley documented cases like these. In an investigation on the impact of maximum-security prisons on women's mental health, the researchers mention the case of a woman who saw her son for the first time six years old, and he was angry about this situation. Also, high-security prisons often have restrictive visiting hours that they can decrease them further as a form of punishment.

Women in prison have very high rates of mental health conditions, addictions, and have been victims of sexual abuse or other forms of violence, which are frequently related. So they need treatment and care to take care of their mental health.

In the United States, mental health medical assistance is often crisis-targeted to avoid suicidal or homicidal behavior care for which it is necessary to pay $5 per appointment. This may seem like a small price to pay, however these women are incarcerated being totally dependent on treatment from the prison staff and prison jobs pay around $0.50 per hour that must also cover phone calls to kids at home and feminine products in most cases, so that's a pretty big barrier.

For an investigation by Harner and Riley, women said that being in a maximum-security prison was bad for their mental health because they were very afraid of being in a cell alone with another woman, instead of being in an open bedroom, where "There are enough people who can hear your screams" if something happens.

For women with histories of sexual abuse, the lack of privacy and medical examinations, especially the check-ups where they are made to undress are very stressful. Several women said that they avoid visits from their families because they do not want to be subject to the humiliating experience of a strip search for visitations.

Furthermore, they are at risk of sexual abuse again, by other incarcerated women, or many times, by prison workers. At Julia Tutwiler Prison, a maximum-security prison in Alabama, for example, six employees of the facility were indicted for sexual misconduct or abuse between 2009 and 2011, as documented by the James Ridgeway and Jean Casella investigation of the ten worst prisons. Many times, being in a high-security prison continues the cycle of violence against women.

Attention needs to be brought on a legislation level over the dire state of incarcerated women in the country. One of the leading personalities advocating for rights, fair treatment, and end on violence against incarcerated women is Pamela Winn. A strong and inspiring woman who rose through a 78-month long federal sentence, resulting in miscarriage and revocation of her nursing license.

Winn currently practices as a leading activist. She is the Founder of the nonprofit organization, RestoreHER US.America. The organization is committed to voicing support and driving dialogues for the facilitation of incarcerated women, especially incarcerated pregnant women in federal prisons.

The activist’s major contributions have been her open support and campaigns for HB345 and First Step Act, which are based on improving confinement conditions, introducing regulated policies, better laws, ban solitary confinement and shackling, protection of women’s reproductive organs, and empowerment of incarcerated individuals.

For her monumental work, Pamela Winn is a highly revered activist in the country who continues to emerge as a beacon of hope for incarcerated women and their fight against humane policies and rights.

Maximum-Security Prisons United States Pamela Winn humane policies monumental work HB345 First Step Act