Voices From Underneath the Earth: Women and Solitary Confinement

Karen Bond, Federal Prison Policy Project
Annette Kuhlmann, University of Wisconsin College

Every aspect of the criminal justice system affects women differently than it does men. For the most part, the penal industry is still controlled by a male hierarchy. In this paper we will particularly address solitary confinement in women's prisons. Reasons for being placed into SHU are for women even more characterized by arbitrariness and power differential. The experiences in solitary confinement, especially over extended periods, are not only traumatic but intensely humiliating. Often the impact is long lasting and psychologically debilitating. By examining the accounts of women who have spent time in the SHU, it appears that in particular a higher percentage of incarcerated white collar professional women and women with mental illnesses are targeted by the prison administrations for confinement in the SHU. While Cauasian women typically make up the largest number of women confined in the SHU, a higher percentage of African American women are targeted for disciplinary confinement. Examination of the punitive nature of confinement in SHU, and the conditions under which women are held there, reveals that there are both short and long term psychological ramifications for women held either in protective custody or disciplinary segregation of our nation's prisons. For women, it appears that pre-prison social status, acute mental illness and racial discrimination are all significant factors that have resulted in the SHU's use by prison officials as a punitive measure.

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Updated 05/20/2006