Vengeful Equity: Sentencing Women to Prison

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This paper will address the issues surrounding the criminal incarceration of women in American society through the discussion of the views of Meda Chesney-Lind in her 1997 paper “Vengeful Equity: Sentencing Women to Prison.” It will present critical reasons of incarceration dealing with the onset of the “Rockefeller Laws,” problems with translation, and results. In the paper I will also present solutions of Chesney-Lind as well as my own opinion for possible options other then common prison sentencing as it is practiced today.

The United States in recent times has seen the sudden rise of females in our prison systems. This is most solely due to the introduction of the Rockefeller Laws and its guidelines of mandatory minimum sentencing of criminals for specified crimes. The law was designed to reduce bias in the ever volatile world of race relations and eliminate harsher sentencing for equal crimes based on color. In the female world, consideration of possible mitigating circumstances surrounding an individuals’ crime has been taken away from the presiding judge’s discretion. Important factors are not allowed to enter in the decision process such as why the crime was committed and by who.

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While the number of women behind bars has risen as of late, the number of violent offenders in these prisons has actually fallen quite drastically. The proportion of women in state prisons for violent offences declined from 48.9 percent in 1979 to 32.2 percent in 1991 (Chensey-Lind 1997). That would leave the remainder of the near tripling of incarcerated women since the 1980’s as nonviolent offenders. Some of these women are imprisoned for property crimes, such as stealing for their drug habit, or often these women have been busted for drug trafficking, often referred to as drug mules (individuals caught moving drugs for someone else). Because of the mandatory minimums, the courts can no longer take into consideration the reasons the offenders committed their crime and level sentences more appropriate such as probation with supervised counseling. Their hands are tied to levy mandatory sentences for even first time offenders. Most of the time, much too harsh for the crime, the perpetrator becomes the victim of the court and its attempt to fight the war on drugs.

As they stand now, women incarcerated are not having their needs met in regards to having their problems, often responsible for incarceration, addressed by the system. For the most part, limited funds are given by the government to fund the programs addressing these issues, whether they be drug addiction clinics within the walls, or therapy to help women avoid destructive relationships. Chesney-Lind states that every dollar spent locking up women could be better spent on services that would prevent women from resorting to crime. Thus, without the proper attention to these issues, a large portion of the inmates will most likely return to their old lifestyle and ultimately return to the prison system to be failed again.

Issues of gender differences in prisons from their male contemporaries are over-emphazied in my opinion. Some differences cited by Chesney-Lind are physical, childhood, motherhood, and the lack of ethical strip-searches.

Physical differences were highlighted in a paragraph discussing chain gangs. Individuals from male chain-gangs were initiating lawsuits of unfair treatment because women were not required or even allowed for that matter to participate in these excursions. The state this lawsuit was brought against was Alabama. They then created a women’s chain gang to eliminate the lawsuits. Chesney-Lind seemed to think this ridiculous. I believe it was the right choice by the state. Women do not need to match the work of the male inmate, but must do similar work in their own capacity, for example women should not be required to lift the same amount of weight, but should be required to exert comparable amounts of physical energy.

Physical abuse and early childhood abuse were debated by Chesney-Lind as a difference that is taken into consideration when comparing male versus female incarceration. According to her article, 43 percent of women surveyed reported they had been abused at least once before their current admission to prison. Males given the same survey resulted in only 12.2 percent reporting abuse. From my psychology background I can easily state that men are 45 percent less likely to admit sexual abuse, and a fair amount of those physically abused do not recognize it as abuse. I also present the question, “Are you not ultimately responsible for your own actions?” If you can not control these actions, regardless of the reason why, you are a threat to society, therefore in need of correction.

Motherhood for inmates is staggering. The question is what to do about it. A study by Bloom and Stienhart found that 38,000 women incarcerated mothered more than 56,000 children. Also uncovered in this study about two thirds of female prisoners had a child under the age of eighteen. No legislation can solve this problem, and I do not believe there is any right answer as far as it concerns inmates at the individual level. To attempt to regulate this dilemma overall, I would suggest that no contact of any child is to be given to the inmate during the term of the sentence. The state should adequate funds to support the child if no relative is willing or able to care for them properly. Infants born in prison should be nursed during the recommended duration and put up for adoption if the mother is serving the long end of a long term sentence or life in prison. If the mother were allowed a short-term private bonding experience occasionally with a child, I would hope the same courtesy would be extended to an incarcerated father.

Stripe searches are not an easily adaptable process for anyone at the receiving end. Stating the magnitude of women who are previously sexually abused and their inability to mentally manage a strip search is just silly. Men are just as likely to not enjoy an invasion of their orifices. I do not know of any man who goes to a doctors office hoping to get a hands on anal probe to check his prostate gland. A possible solution to this horrific event for women is to simply mandate a gynecological visit for new inmates giving the option for a female doctor to perform the procedure. This will insure a proper procedure as well as satisfy a feminine medical need just as important for women behind bars as for the free.

I do not believe any of these topics creates a stellar difference between male and female needs with correction. Women, for the most part, fall into crime for the same three reasons as men; Drugs, poverty, and greed. Women like men, do these things by choice. For the most part, no one forces a needle in their arm, forces them to court and sometimes marry an idiot, have children, drop out of school, or to spite their parents and run with the “bad” crowd. These are choices and I feel they are all avoidable. Just to clarify my thought pattern on this subject, here are a few examples of what I am referring too.

A women who runs drugs for a lover.Idiot!

A women who drops out of school.Idiot!

A women who has children before she can afford it. Idiot!

A women who has sex for drugs or money.Idiot!

Chesney-Lind’s paper has a theme built in that she seems to believe most women would be better served in monitored halfway houses or other such institutions giving them help and allowing limited freedom. I believe this to a point. Yes, more education and options to learn new skills are very necessary to provide an outlet for these women and men to escape going back to the same lifestyle. I believe more funds should be provided by the incarcerating party to support these programs behind bars. Perhaps the state and federal government should initiate these programs to everyone who is in danger of falling out of society and into crime before it happens. This all sounds great on paper, and I see tremendous potential in the actions she wishes to seek for women while resenting her lack of concern for men. Her title would be more clearly written as, “Save the world and start with the women because they are nicer after all!”

My main concern with the short comings of her proposal, besides the fact men are outcasted, is her lack of recognizing peoples inability to stop short of hitting rock bottom. Along with a concern not related directly to Chesney-Lind. A general indecisiveness at the government level to put forth a mission statement regarding the propose of incarceration to begin with.

Women, like men, follow the same laws of human nature. Whether it is a rebellious teen or a depressed adult, once the loop to disaster is fastened by addiction or the spiralling downward slope of easy money, it is up to the person to get better. Halfway houses, I do not believe, will break the cycle of these loops. Long stays in prisons with proper counseling and ample time to reflect on ones chosen path is sometimes the only answer. I can not remember the prisoners name at FCI (the last one to speak) brought this point up crystal clear when a student asked if any alternate form of corrections could have helped her. She spoke as quickly as she seemed sure, “No, [I believe this was the only option.]for me” I believe strongly that this women will not be coming back to prison. Her loop seems broken. She seemed to bottom out.

The ever annoying friction (at least in my head) between prison as correction or punishment, or both must be further addressed by the goevernments. Half of me thinks Chesney-Lind’s ideas of alternate corrections is the best way to go, and the other half tells me to punish this scum, they do not deserve to walk my street and sit in my parks. Which is it?

After many minutes of deep thought, I can only think of one compromise to the situation. Rewrite the law books to separate nonviolent and violent offenders when sentenced. Different prisons for different crimes and terms of sentence. Lifers, murders, and rapists are imprisoned in punishment type prisons to adequately terminate any social outlets they have, no contact with anything but agonizing free time to think when hard labor is not being served. Non-violent, and perhaps abusers (in the sense of child batters, wife beaters) could be better served in institutions that both provide education and mandate it to be released. They should also provide counseling for those with physically abusive natures and obviously drug addiction. Providing group therapy for those who abused relatives and/or their loved ones. Reinstating a self worth and skills to survive on when the sentence comes to the end, while providing a proper atmosphere for the inmate to fully understand what they have done and why they are there.

Limiting this not just to women, but to all men who qualify under the same crimes. I find it a terrible shame that men are lumped together with only the benefit of a few psychology behavioral surveys damning them. But I guess, what can you expect from a world still caught up with racial tension and sexual discrimination at the top of everyone’s thought process. If we were to actually punish those who score high on these surveys, you’d have to throw away the key twice on black men.

I don’t buy it, it is bull*censored*, and that is my personal view on Chesney-Lind and her paper, “Vengeful Equity: Sentencing Women to Prison.”

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Vengeful Equity: Sentencing Women to Prison. (2018, Jun 07). Retrieved from

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