Female vs. male inmates: The rewards and challenges of managing both
Men and women function and think differently, and inmates are no exception
I once heard a colleague summarize the difference between working with male and female inmates as follows: "When you tell a male inmate to tuck his shirt in, he does it. But when you tell a female inmate to tuck her shirt in, first she asks why, then she tells you about a million other inmates who didn’t have to tuck their shirts in."
Men and women function and think differently, and inmates are no exception. These differences have been outlined in popular culture for millennia, but most people remember the 1992 book Men are From Mars, Women From Venus, in which the author, John Gray, Ph.D., asserts that the communication styles of men and women are so different, they might as well be from different planets.
Women tend to internalize stress, which may explain why female inmates engage in self-harming behavior such as cutting, carving and burning; women have more frequent suicide attempts and use medical and mental health services at more than twice the rate of male inmates.Gray and other scholars argue that men and women respond to stress differently as well. Men tend to externalize stress, which in prison produces more physical aggression and combative behavior.
Female inmates also form surrogate families while incarcerated. (These families are for social more than sexual contact, although sexual relations can be a part.) Such families are not seen in male facilities.
Males may bond as teams, which can manifest as gang activity either formal (Crypts, Bloods, MS13) or informal (by geographic location, racial or ethnic background or common criminal activity).
The logical question ensues: What observations have male and female staff members made about supervising cross-gendered populations? Is one population more challenging than another, or is an inmate an inmate, regardless?
I spoke with two seasoned corrections professionals to get their observations on working with male and female inmates.
Joyce Arnold is a 30-year corrections professional who currently serves as warden for Gadsden Correctional Facility in Florida. She has experience working as a deputy sheriff and attended to female inmates in a county jail setting prior to her promotion to warden.
Warden Arnold has worked in several southern states including Kentucky and Florida. The facility she currently runs is a 1,520 medium security women’s prison located in rural North Florida.
“I must admit I was a bit hesitant about working with women at first,” Arnold said during a recent interview. “I have found females to have intense personal issues. [The women] know they need to rehabilitate if they want to see their children again. This is a motivator for change.”
Arnold recognizes the emotional needs of female inmates as well. She recalls that through their incarceration, many female inmates find out who they are for the first time in their life because they are not being abused; they do not have a john or a pimp lurking around the corner waiting to use or abuse them.
Male inmates, on the other hand, have to prove themselves. They are hostile and often blame others for the situation in which they find themselves. And of course, Arnold said, they are rarely open to accepting help.
“The male ego often gets in the way with making progress in prison,” Arnold said. “Men view seeking change as an admission that something is wrong. That admission shows weakness, which is something you do not want to do in prison.”
The warden’s experience suggests that violence, hostility and drugs are more prevalent with the male population. She finds working with female inmates to be easier and more rewarding.
“Female inmates notice the little things you do,” she said. ”I do not pity them. I simply understand them.” In the end, Warden Arnold’s advice is simple: treat them as you wish to be treated and, for the most part, inmates will do as you ask.
It’s an adjustment
Shawn Gillis has 14 years working in the Georgia Department of Corrections and with Corrections Corporation of America. Although he had always said he would not work with female offenders, he is the new assistant warden of operations at a female facility.
Gillis has spent the last six months adjusting to some of the major differences between male and female inmates.
“I must say that my latest venture has been most rewarding,” Gillis told me recently.
Gillis explained that, unlike most male inmates, the majority of female inmates are very receptive to rehabilitation programs, and they take the initiative to get involved in programs, classes and other activities that will begin to pave the way for their future.
Gillis also remarked that male inmates are generally very reluctant to volunteer for programs that are rehabilitative in nature — not because they don’t feel that they need it, but because the male population operates based on peer pressure, male ego and reputation.
Despite the fact these programs could help them in the long run, their immediate dictate to be “hard” wins out.
Both Warden Arnold and Assistant Warden Gillis feel that, more often than not, female inmates will help each other out. They will work with one another to get through a crisis, and bond when one of them needs help, whereas men are less likely to signal that they’re hurting or share the particulars of their pain.
Both wardens are happy to have the experience of cross-gender supervision and have learned much about themselves through dealing with inmates.
I, too, have worked with both male and female offenders and have found that even though there are differences in populations, as long as I treat offenders the same way I want to treated, I manage to get them to comply with the rules and regulations.
I’ve also learned much about myself working in a prison setting and enjoy the excitement of a career in corrections.
Gray, John (1992). Men are From Mars, Women From Venus A Practical Guide for Improving Communication and Getting What You Want in Your Relationships. New York: Harper Collins Publisher.
Watterson, Kathryn. (1996). Women in Prison Inside the Concrete Womb. Revised. Northeastern University Press.