Women's shoes soothe prison blues

Moving away from the purportedly gender-neutral "an inmate is an inmate, so all inmates wear men's shoes" school of correctional management.

Published October 2, 2006 9:28PM (EDT)

Broadsheet has written about women in the prison system before, examining incarceration's effect on female inmates' families. We've focused less on how prison, as a male-dominated environment, affects the women themselves. The answer is pretty obvious: It stinks.

As reported in the Salt Lake City Tribune, however, the question of how to treat women in prison goes deeper than the standard issues of abuse and mistreatment in correctional facilities. According to Captain Robert Powell, an administrator at Utah's Draper Prison, women by and large are imprisoned for different reasons than men. By the time they land behind bars, most women have suffered from poverty and abuse, and are usually convicted of nonviolent drug-related offenses.

The Utah Department of Corrections has therefore taken measures to make these women feel safe and treat them respectfully. Innovations include training for officers, new, dark-colored prison outfits that don't show sanitary napkins, the option of ordering sports bras, and -- wonder of wonders -- women's shoes. In women's sizes. The list of small luxuries also includes cosmetics, which can now be bought at prison commissaries. Officers and inmates have voiced their relief, noting that the lack of appropriate apparel and feminine grooming options left prisoners feeling degraded.

With the number of women in prison rising -- according to the Trib, Utah's female population grew by 18 percent from 2004 to 2005, while the men's grew by 3.5 percent -- it's important that correctional facilities begin to address the different needs of their male and female inmates. And tailoring their amenities and communication styles to their prisoners pays off for prisons, too: Draper's women's units, which once had more disciplinary problems than the maximum-security ward, have seen disciplinary problems drop by a third. Turns out a little lipstick goes a long way.

By Adrienne So

Adrienne So is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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