From 2000 to 2019, the women’s prison population in Kansas rose by 60%. Over the same time period, the men’s population rose by only 14%.
That outpaces national trends over the past two decades, according to a new report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
“Women really remain an afterthought when it comes to corrections,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen of the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice. “And we see that in all different forms.”
Nationwide, training and rehabilitation programs are generally geared toward male prisoners. And policy changes intended to reduce the number of people in prison likely have had different effects on men and women. But it’s hard to definitively say why Kansas’ population grew more than other states.
Gloria Geither is the warden of the Topeka Correctional Facility, the state’s only women’s prison. As of Feb. 26, it held 909 inmates, six over its capacity. Geither said the prison is trying to manage overcrowding and improve the lives of the women inside.
“We also struggle with space and resources here and we’re trying to address that,” she said.
While men in Kansas’ overcrowded prison system can be moved between facilities, there’s little recourse for dealing with the packed women’s prison, according to George Ebo Browne, a senior research analyst at the Kansas Sentencing Commission.
“For the women,” said Browne, who’s also a doctoral student in sociology at Kansas State University, “it’s almost more pressing.”
Last year, 77% of women who entered Kansas prisons last year did so because they violated probation or parole, compared to 65% of men who went to prison. According to an unpublished paper co-authored by Browne using data from the Sentencing Commission, the number of women prisoners spiked from 739 to 833 a year after a 2013 law that reformed probation in the state.
That law introduced “graduated sanctions” for people on probation in Kansas. Instead of using personal discretion, judges now have a prescribed flowchart for sanctioning violators. The punishments could be as short as two days in jail, or as long as the full sentence for the person’s original crime.
Browne said judges can no longer choose to make exceptions for circumstances like a single mother who needed to take care of her children.
“It changed practice for everyone,” he said. “But how it was applied on the bench greatly impacted women.”
Keaira Brown has been incarcerated at the Topeka Correctional Facility since 2011. She’s watched it become more crowded over the years, partially due to people who violated probation and are using drugs, she told the Kansas News Service in an email.
“They’re here for such short sentences when the drugs are barely out of their systems, if at all,” Brown said.
Across the country, the population of women in state prisons rose by 26% from 2000 to 2016, while the men’s population rose by 8%.
According to data from the Kansas Sentencing Commission, women are more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related and nonviolent crimes than men are. In 2018, 47% of women’s crimes were related to drugs compared to 35% of men’s crimes.
Women in Kansas are also more likely to be convicted of forgery and theft, according to Sentencing Commission data. Nora Demleitner, a law professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, noted that nationally, women are also more likely to be convicted of crimes related to sex work.
Prison sentences impact women and men differently, she added. Women are more likely to be written up by guards for misbehavior, which can affect whether they’re released early. And because most women in prison are caregivers for children, they’re more likely to struggle with the repercussions of being separated from family.
Plus, because there are fewer women’s prisons, it’s less likely that an incarcerated woman will be close enough so her family can visit.
“Incarceration retraumatizes women worse than it retraumatizes men,” Demleitner said.
Already, women are more likely to show up with trauma or addiction in the first place. And judges often put women in prison in an attempt to treat them, she said.
Diversion programs intended to keep people out of prison are often geared toward men, as are programs that prepare people for life after release.
“The opportunities that are available to men don’t exist for women,” Demleitner said. “Women end up in state prisons for virtually the same violation just because there’s no other opportunity for them.”
Nowhere to put them
In the Topeka women’s prison, a few inmates are staying in a dayroom that’s supposed to be reserved for recreation only. Others spend weeks in the initial intake unit while they wait for another place to stay.
“It’s a short-term solution for the growth,” Geither, the warden, said. “We just don’t have anywhere to put the women.”
Inmates can work in maintenance, the kitchen and the yard, among other options, Geither said, but noted that many jobs were lost after the laundry building was destroyed in a fire a year ago.
She said the prison offers more programs to lower-security inmates because it wants to prioritize learning for women who are more likely to get out soon. Those women have the opportunity to work outside the prison or for private companies that contract with the Department of Corrections.
“That population that’s going to be re-entering into the community,” she said, “the efforts are most targeted towards them.”
Brown, incarcerated at the prison, said there just aren’t enough training and rehabilitation programs to serve all the inmates who need them. Most are available in the minimum and low-medium custody Central Unit, where more than half of the women reside, but not to other parts of the prison, which house high-medium and maximum custody units.
“If your custody or time doesn’t allow you to make it on that side,” she said, “you’re subject to no real programming or treatment.”
Brown also doesn’t think there isn’t enough to help inmates when they return to outside life and the situations that led them to prison in the first place.
“The belief is, once you return to the same areas or circumstances, you end up in the same illegal activities. Women are struggling trying to stay afloat,” she said. “If you don’t have solid family support, the odds are stacked against you.”