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UNLV Criminologist Studies Realities For Incarcerated Women

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About 1,000 women are currently incarcerated in Nevada at the Florence McClure Womens

Millions of fans tuned into Netflix over the weekend to watch the latest “Orange is the New Black” episodes. For nearly one million American women, however, life behind bars is not a production, but their reality.

The United States has the highest prison population in the world, and the number of incarcerated women in prison has increased nearly 700 percent between 1980 and 2010, making women the fastest-growing population of prisoners.

According to one UNLV criminologist, the reason for this isn’t that women are committing more crimes, but that policy changes have created new and tougher laws. Emily Salisbury has devoted her research career to gender responsive strategies among incarcerated women – she’s one of only a handful of criminologists who do so in the country.

“It’s not that women are becoming more dangerous,” Salisbury said. “It’s about policy changes – for example, the war on drugs has in many ways been a war on women.”

About 1,000 of the country’s incarcerated women are located at the Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center in North Las Vegas. It is currently the only women’s correctional facility in Nevada, and with a capacity of 950, incarceration numbers indicate overcrowding to already be an issue.  

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According to the U.S. Department of Justice, only 7 percent of adult women in federal prisons are there for committing violent offenses. And because their pathways to prison are different than that of men, their intervention strategies need to be different to help reduce recidivism.

“What the data shows is that women really suffer more from mental health issues that are not easily detectable,” Salisbury said.

Mood disorders such as anxiety, depression and PTSD are seen more in women inmates than they are in men, Salisbury continued, and they also are predictive of their criminal behavior. And more often than not, a majority of the crimes women commit are more connected to the trauma and victimization they have endured in their lives.

But she’s not suggesting that women shouldn’t be held accountable for their crimes, and there’s a lot of “mythology” about treating women as if they are blameless.

“It’s not about coddling women,” Salisbury said. “Women need to be held accountable for the crimes they’ve committed, but there’s a way to do that that is trauma informed, relationally based and understands the confluence between victimization, mental health and substance abuse.”

Another difference in the male and female incarcerated populations include the fact that many of the women continue to be the primary caregivers for their children while behind bars.

As for the attention “Orange is the New Black” has gained for women in prison, certain scenarios Salisbury said sometimes do happen, but not necessarily in the way the show portrays.

“I think it’s really great they bring up things like the narratives and the stories of the pathways of how these women got involved in the correctional system,” Salisbury said. “Certainly the discussion around homosexual relationships in prisons do occur, but I feel like it’s really sensationalized.”

Salisbury said she has begun to work with the warden and correctional officers at Florence McClure to talk constructively about gender responsive strategies among the women inmates. Salisbury recently gave a TedX talk on these issues at the Washington Corrections Center for Women.

Click here for more information about Salisbury and her work at UNLV.

Guests

Emily Salisbury, criminologist, University of Nevada-Las Vegas

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