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Making a difference: Managing the female offender population

Female offenders are the fastest growing group in prisons. Between 1977 and 2004, the increase in female offenders in the United States grew by 757%3 — a trend we can’t afford to continue. Although women still represent only about 7% of the total inmate population nationally, female inmates present unique challenges to prison administrators, front-line personnel and community aftercare service providers.

The incarceration of women has “a destabilizing effect not only on the women’s immediate families, but on the social network of their communities.”3 Women continue to be the primary caregiver of minor children, which means their incarceration has a greater impact on family stability than that of their male counterparts.

Society must bear the social cost of incarcerating these women, which not only includes three hot meals and a place to sleep for the offender in prison, but often the same for her family during her incarceration, delivered through foster care and social services. Adding to the complexity of the issue “the U.S. disproportionately incarcerates women of color with few economic resources and many familial responsibilities.”3 This creates hardships in communities where resources may already be scarce, and where support systems are waning.

(AP Photo/Rogelio Solis)

Research tells us that women come to prison for different reasons than men — they also bring a unique sets of circumstances. Women are typically arrested for less serious offenses than men. The majority of women in the U.S. are incarcerated for drug or drug-related offenses.3 The National Institute of Corrections describes female offenders as disproportionately minority with low or limited educational skills, unmarried mothers of minor children, survivors of abuse or trauma, having multiple physical and mental health problems and coming from fragmented families with high involvement in the criminal justice system.

With the increased incarceration rates of women, state departments of corrections have been faced with new challenges. Women come to prison with high rates of substance abuse (often as a method of self-medication), and significant medical and mental health problems. The purpose of this writing is not to debate the right or wrong of the tremendous increase in the female offender population in this country, but to offer some first-hand insight into how we might better handle this group and better prepare them for release back into the community.

As early as 1986, the American Correctional Association (ACA) recognized the need for the implementation of a wide range of programs to expand economic and social roles for women in prison. The ACA advised that educational opportunities, traditional and non-traditional vocational programming, and life-skills training should be offered to female offenders both during and after release from commitment facilities in order to increase their chances of success.

More tools, more often
Although I argue that most inmates need the tools to become successful members of society when released, my firsthand experience has taught me that female offenders need more tools, more often to make it in the free world. With the numbers of incarcerated women increasing at unimaginable rates, we need to closely examine the services provided to this population and develop more appropriate methods of rehabilitation.2

In July of 2006, while working as deputy secretary for the Florida Department of Corrections, I volunteered to serve as warden at the largest female institution in Florida. I did so because of increased criticism about the operations of the facility from inmates and their families, advocacy groups and an outside consulting company contracted to review our system.3 Interestingly enough, I was the deputy secretary of the third largest correctional system in the country, but had little front-line experience in corrections other than six years at a county jail early in my career.

Lowell Correctional Institution houses close to 2,500 females committed in Florida. It serves as one of two intake centers for new female commitments. Most women sentenced in Florida come through Lowell C.I. and spend at least ninety days going through the department’s orientation process. Lowell C.I. houses elderly, pregnant, youthful offenders, boot camp cadets, close management women and squads of inmates who work at the Levy forestry camp, almost 45 minutes away from the main compound. There are also inmates with physical disabilities and those with mental illness who can be cared for through outpatient services.

A multifaceted mission
The staff is comprised of approximately 800 men and women who range from correctional officers to classification officers and professional staff like psychiatrists and physicians. The compound was originally built in the 1950s, and is not typical of the prototype prisons built today6. It is a hilly place with real character. Some of the dorms are older and the infrastructure has not kept up with the continued increase in bed space. It is located in central Florida surrounding by rolling hills and horse farms. Everything about Lowell makes it unique.

There are educational, vocational and treatment programs available including an Equine Tech program for women which is the only one of its kind in the country.4 On the main compound is the PRIDE5 garment factory which is the oldest female vocational program in the state. Ironically, the female inmates are trained to sew uniforms for correctional and law enforcement officers.

Even with this variety of programs, there are not enough spaces for the multitude of women needing services. About 47% of its population is on some type of psychotropic medication. the primary method of offender treatment for mild to moderate mental illness. To say the mission of this correctional institution is multifaceted would be an understatement.

Taking the lead
When I arrived as warden, I knew one key to my success was going to be getting out on the compound and spending time with both staff and inmates. I walked that prison compound daily visiting with the inmates and taking notes about their issues and concerns. I knew that women, regardless of whether they are free world or in prison, want to be listened to. This does not mean they need to be patronized or pitied, just listened to.

On most occasions, I would listen to their concerns and take the issue back to my office where I could gather information from the appropriate staff and try to rectify the problem. I learned that there not are usually more than two sides to every story. My rule was to always get back to the inmate – even if getting back to them meant I could not resolve their problem.

Communication is a strong component of effective leadership. Leaders need to communicate up, down and sideways in order to gather necessary information and successfully move any organization ahead. As warden, it was important for me to listen to staff. Front-line staff is often overlooked by management, but I’ve found they have great ideas on what works, and tremendous knowledge about the inner workings of the institution.

Although corrections functions as a paramilitary structure, as a leader it is important on occasion to go right the sources and gather information. Staff would, in fact, make or break my success as warden and I was well aware of that. I spent time during the day, in the evening and on the midnight shift walking around watching, listening and taking in the inner workings of the institution.

One thing that is easy to forget when working in a correctional institution is that this is their life. Staff goes home every day, but the inmates endure life inside the walls day in and day out. I don’t say this to elicit sympathy for them; most should be exactly where they are. I say it because, as staff, I think we often forget that point.

Making a difference
We come into their world, impose our expectations, then leave — only to come back the next shift and do the same. What may seem like a seemingly small issue to us is a huge issue for the inmate. For example, use of the inmate commissary was problematic when I arrived. Women like to shop, and the process in place was not adequate to allow them to shop at the volume they wanted.

In response to the inmates’ requests, we were able to open another commissary window, provide for specific dorm shopping hours and implement and express line during peak shopping hours. Immediately the number of inmate grievances concerning commissary declined.

Mental health issues were overwhelming at Lowell CI. Almost half of our population was on some type of medication. I surmised this probably due to adjustment issues about coming to prison. They needed some type of coping mechanism and all we had to offer was medication. In an attempt to reduce the use of psychotropic medications (while monitoring their progress), we asked mental health staff to implement group therapy sessions.

This was started on a small scale with the hope that groups could be increased later on. We also started programs which would help the women deal with external issues that might cause them anxiety. Women Helping Women, an abuse awareness group, meditation groups and movement programs so the inmates had other outlets in which to handle stress.

Fairness is an important aspect of working in corrections. The slogan for corrections professionals worldwide is be “firm and fair.” I found that to be true when serving as warden. Both staff and inmates expected rules and regulations; that’s, after all, the nature of our business. They expected these rules and regulations to be implemented consistently across shifts.

Keys to success
The three main keys to my success as warden were communication, sensitivity to the inmates’ needs, and fairness to staff and inmates. My time spent as warden, albeit short compared to others, was invaluable. It not only made me a better deputy secretary — because I understand the issues of the front line — but I think it also makes me a better person. I have learned who our incarcerated population is, and I have learned the issues that corrections professionals must deal with on a daily basis.

Today I am back on the front line, having served my time in government. I am the assistant warden for the nation’s largest private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America, and I am happily working at a female institution.

About the author
Dr. Laura E. Bedard began her work in corrections as a jail administrator in 1984. She has served on the administrative faculty for the College of Criminology at Florida State University for 17 years. During her tenure at the University, she ran a study abroad program in the Czech Republic lecturing on crime topics in an emerging democracy.
In 2005, she became the First female Deputy Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. There she was responsible for 27,000 state employees and over 200,000 offenders in the third largest correctional system in the country.

Dr. Bedard has published and lectured worldwide on a number of corrections-related topics, including women in prison, mental health issues and correctional leadership. Dr. Bedard is currently serving as the Assistant Warden of Programs for Corrections Corporation of America Gadsden Correctional Institution. There, she is responsible for education, vocational training, medical and mental health services at this 1,500 bed female facility.

1Belknap, J. (1996). “Access to Programs and healthcare for incarcerated women” Federal Probation. Vol. 60, 4.
2Braithwaite, R. Arriola, K. and Newkirk, C. (eds.) (2006). Health Issues Among Incarcerated Women. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
3Frost, N. Greene, K. and Pranis, K. (2006). Hard Hit: The Growth in the Imprisonment of Women, 1977-2004. Women’s Prison Association.
4National Institute of Corrections, Gender Responsive Strategies, 2007.
5Van Wormer, K. and Bartollas, C. (2000). Women and the Criminal Justice System. Needham Heights: Allyn and Bacon.

Laura E. Bedard began her work in corrections as a jail administrator in 1984. During her tenure as administrative faculty for the College of Criminology at Florida State University, she ran a study-abroad program in the Czech Republic lecturing on crime topics in an emerging democracy. In 2005, she became the first female Deputy Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. There she was responsible for 27,000 state employees and over 200,000 offenders in the third largest correctional system in the country. Dr. Bedard has published and lectured on a number of corrections-related topics including women in prison, mental health issues and correctional leadership. Dr. Bedard is currently serving as the Chief of Corrections for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office in Sanford, Florida.