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Iowa Is Trying To Address The Disparity In How Men And Women Are Disciplined In Prison


Women in Prison are far more likely than men to get punished for lesser violations of prison rules. NPR's investigative team has been digging into this disparity this week. Today, NPR's Joseph Shapiro takes us to a state that is rewriting the rules for discipline in women's prisons.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Here's a sound we associate with prisons...


J. SHAPIRO: ...Heavy steel doors clanging shut.


J. SHAPIRO: These are the doors at the entrance to the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women. But once visitors like us walk through these doors and get inside the prison, that's it. There are no more heavy steel doors. For the women, that's not a sound they hear because this prison is new, and it's different. Inside the razor wire, this place looks kind of like a college campus with red brick buildings - they're new, just a few years old - connected by concrete pathways, lots of open space and landscaped gardens with flowers and picnic benches for the inmates.

SHERYL DAHM: They sit out here from dawn until dusk depending on what level they're in.

J. SHAPIRO: That's the warden, Sheryl Dahm, showing us around.

DAHM: And do what we do out in the community if we're in a park or outside in our yard - within reason, I guess.

J. SHAPIRO: It's still a prison. The warden is the first to point that out. And prisons are still harsh places. In some ways, women's prisons are especially harsh because across the country, women get disciplined at higher rates than men for smaller violations of prison rules. They're often two to three times more likely to get in trouble for things like insulins, disobedience, talking back to a corrections officer. That's what NPR and Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University found when we collected data from women's and men's prisons in 15 states.

Even small infractions can have big consequences. Women get time added to their prison stay, go to solitary confinement or lose visitation or phone privileges. That matters because more than half of women in prison are the mothers of children 18 or younger. This prison in Iowa is notable. It's trying to make change. But it's not easy partly because there are so many rules.

DAHM: Even today they could get tickets about wearing their sweatshirt inside out. And we're like, why is that a security issue? That's really not a security issue. Maybe she had a coffee stain. I have one.

J. SHAPIRO: That's the warden, Sheryl Dahm. In 2016, our data found women at this prison compared to men at other Iowa prisons were three times more likely to get punished for the violation of being disruptive. Now Dahm tells her corrections officers give out fewer tickets, like for breaking the rule that a prisoner can't alter their uniform. It was written for a men's prison where a shirt inside out or sleeves rolled up might signal a gang affiliation.

DAHM: But this isn't gang-related. It's just - women want to have some control over how they look, about how they present themselves.

J. SHAPIRO: Dahm is putting in place a practice called gender-responsive corrections. It's the idea that there are important differences between men and women in prison. Every corrections officer is being trained that women take different paths to prison. They're less likely than men to commit violent crimes. In prison, they're less likely to be violent - and that women do better when prison is less punitive. So Dahm is changing rules especially about clothing and telling corrections officers to listen to the women more and to demand compliance less.

STACEY GRUNDER: Tell me about it, Bella. What's up?


GRUNDER: Who's a good dog?


GRUNDER: (Laughter). She's the best dog ever.

J. SHAPIRO: On the mental health ward, Stacey Grunder is in charge of Bella, a therapy dog, a towering Great Dane with a slate-gray coat. Grunder's an inmate. She came to this prison 22 years ago.

GRUNDER: It was really hard not to get in trouble back then. You had to be careful of everything you did. It felt like everything was - it was just meant to be punished.

J. SHAPIRO: Once she was sick and stayed in her cell through breakfast. Another prisoner brought a banana from the dining hall and put it by her pillow.

GRUNDER: So I was asleep when this crime happened (laughter).

J. SHAPIRO: Grunder got punished for that banana.

GRUNDER: Possession of stolen items. Yeah, that was pretty rough.

J. SHAPIRO: That wouldn't be a violation today. But back then, Grunder says she lost good-conduct credits. Those are days taken off her sentence for good behavior. And she lost privileges. She couldn't buy things from the commissary. Grunder is serving time for second-degree murder. Now she says the change in the way women are treated here helped her grow. She works on the mental health ward as a mentor to the other women.

GRUNDER: I'm trying to contribute as much as I can to this institution so I'm not so ashamed, you know? I mean, it's helped me with my own shame and my own regret.

J. SHAPIRO: This psychiatric unit in the newly built prison was designed to be different. Women are free to walk about the large common room with Bella and the therapy animals. There are large TVs, a garden and lots of natural light. There are still solitary confinement cells, although fewer women end up in them now. Dr. Jerome Greenfield has come to help show us around.

JEROME GREENFIELD: Two cells there, four cells here and then...

J. SHAPIRO: Right.

He runs health services for all of Iowa's prisons. Several years ago, he quit his psychiatry practice to work at this prison.

GREENFIELD: Through the years of my practice, I thought I was a seasoned psychiatrist. I thought I'd seen it all.

J. SHAPIRO: But he wasn't prepared for the level of trauma in the women who come to prison.

GREENFIELD: I mean, I saw patients that had been chained for months at a time in a basement sold as property, victims of satanic rituals. But it goes even beyond that because then in their homes, many of them were beaten to the point of having traumatic brain injuries.

J. SHAPIRO: Men in prison have long histories of being victims of violence, too. But research in gender-responsive corrections finds that women, before they get to prison, where the victims of even more trauma. Seventy-five to 90 percent were victims of sexual or physical violence. So one thing that's changed here - the end of the usual strip search. Now women can take off one piece of clothing at a time and then put it back on. Sheryl Dahm, the warden...

DAHM: We always say correctional officer, and really it's a human services worker. It's a customer service.

J. SHAPIRO: Some prison staff welcome the change in discipline policies. Others say there are bigger problems here, like not having enough corrections officers. I talked to one staffer who didn't want to go on tape for fear of getting in trouble. She complained that the warden's new approach meant that, in her words, the inmates are running the prison. The warden has heard that before recently from a newly hired corrections officer.

DAHM: And she brought forward some concerns. And what she said is, you know, warden, there are some people saying that the inmates are running the prison. And I'm like, well, they do. There's one of you to 96 women. So let's talk about how that looks. And how do we get the 96 to not cause problems?

J. SHAPIRO: Dahm wanted to show me one other place in the prison - the old mental health ward. It's the one building from the old prison that wasn't torn down.


J. SHAPIRO: And it's the one other place in the prison with heavy metal doors. The building is dark and deserted now. It closed four years ago. There are four pods of cells. A guard would watch separated from a station above. When women with mental illness lived here, they would often yell into the night. This is what prison cells today across the country usually look like for women or men.

DAHM: You dehumanize people. And we put people that live and breathe like us into a room that strips them of all their senses or dignity.

J. SHAPIRO: And that gets back to why giving out fewer disciplinary tickets matters - because those tickets, even for lesser infractions, often lead to ending up in a cellblock like this one. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.


A. SHAPIRO: Tomorrow - how women running prisons are making a difference in the way they are run. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.