Women in Corrections


I invite you to join us in a discussion about women in corrections. According to Prison Policy.org, there are approximately 231,000 women currently involved in the judicial system in local, state, and federal prisons. Discover how to best serve incarcerated women and discuss strategies with guest experts Dr. Katheryn Whiteley and Dr. Karen Oliver-Rider.

To prepare for the conversation, I'd love to hear your questions. What are some of the key issues you would like to address? 

I'm looking forward to the discussion. 

Kathy Tracey



I would like to start this conversation by briefly sharing research results from my dissertation, “Teacher Perceptions of Trauma Informed Practices at the Female Correctional Education Setting”, 2018.  The research concluded teachers perceive and recognize that numerous factors impact trauma informed practices yet they may not fully be cognizant of what these supports look like in the classroom setting.  The teachers reported that the learners suffer from low self-esteem, anger, and low motivational initiative.  Conversely the teachers noted that when learners share out past trauma and share family information, both can motivate the learner to continue with her studies.  The current issue is that there is a lack of curriculum and supports for the learners and the teachers in this specific educational setting.  

Hello everyone,

I begin this conversation with a direct quote from a woman incarcerated for murder who is serving 21 years into her 23 years (maximum) in an Australia prison. The woman who was once the victim, like many women in our United States prison system, became the offender. I think her thoughts can resonate with many of us in this discussion.

“My crime should not define me … but it still does you know, years later in these prison walls. You know, my victimization before I came here shouldn’t define me, but it still does! Yeah, when I enter the classroom, I still carry the shame of being the woman with the mental illness and the drug user. How do we tell the staff who come here and are supposed to educate and help us … that we are more than this, even after 15 years? I want to know who educates them, if they haven’t walked in our shoes?”  (Permission granted. 2012).

Following on from Dr. Oliver-Rider’s discussion, universally speaking, when we discuss trauma-informed educational programming for incarcerated women, we can argue that the overall long-term objective, is to address the past and present impact of psychological and or physiological trauma, in order to support and transform women to adapt positive and healthy decision making, hence, their life choices.

Furthermore, acknowledged is that as more women become incarcerated in our United States jails and prisons, continuous national and or international research in the area of trauma-informed programming needs to be expanded upon. Not only for the benefit of the women but specifically for our prison educators.

Dr. Oliver-Rider’s research statement, “… that there is a lack of curriculum and support for the learners and the teacher’s in this specific educational setting,” reiterates what we no doubt acknowledge. However, we need to start with our core educators, and understand and reveal what inconsistency or lack there-of exists regarding the provision of suitable trauma-informed curriculum, hence, being implemented and further circulated; and second, continue to identify the much-needed “educator support.”

More clarification and discussion on what are deemed “educator support” within our various prison institutions is imperative. As educators, understandably the need of support may differ across institutions, and we should not essentialize that “one size fits all.” However, a broad-brush example would probably arrive at the same fundamental need of such educator support issues.

Therefore, in this discussion, I hope to hear from the LINCS community, more about how do correctional institutional administrators and educators acknowledge such need for more support, what are they uniquely contributing as an institution, and, in addition, moving beyond the fostering of current, deemed “normalized” curriculum and development that blends itself into the teaching of trauma-informed education.



A paradigm shift needs to occur.  Self-examination of feelings of inadequacy and lack of confidence provokes a critical assessment of assumptions by the educator and the learner!  To do this a “Culture of Caring” needs to prevail.  The teacher and the learner establish that female inmates inherently have developed strengths which have been acquired most likely by adverse events, they lay hidden until realized.  The learners and the educator assist one another in developing social and emotional skills that promote confidence, competency, and resiliency.  Ideally the classroom has predictable routines and structured pair and group learning.  Both which support student engagement.  The teacher becomes the facilitator, assisting in connecting the learning environment to real life application.  At the same time the teacher is cognizant of obstacles when overt behavior is observed.  The educator remains non-judgmental as a foundation of trust has been established to mitigate these occurrences.

A learning environment that is energizing, affirming, and focused on effort and assets is the foundation in which these learners may start to rebuild their lives.  It is essential for the educator to remain emotionally strong and healthy to meet the demands of a work culture which is only beginning to accept the importance of a trusting, holistic learning environment.  This growth mindset allows the learner to start to perceive herself as an individual which is deserving of a meaningful and fulfilling life, even while behind bars.

Good Morning All,

Thank you Kathy, Dr. Whiteley, and Dr. Oliver-Rider for initiating this discussion.  I was a correctional educator for eight years, and still have connections and contact with corrections in my current position.  While I spent most of my teaching career in male facilities, I had the opportunity to teach college classes at Delaware's only female level five facility for several years.  I learned quickly that working with women offenders is very different than working with males!  Their educational needs, their emotions, their backgrounds, their participation, their goals, among just a few, are (for the most part) unlike those of males.  I understood this well, even before I learned about trauma-informed practices and the unresolved and unsupported effects of trauma.  I truly enjoyed my time spent with these ladies and I learned much from them.  

So, this is an important discussion for both educators and the students (all, but especially female) with whom they work.  Facilitate is most definitely a better word for our interactions with our students, and we become much better facilitators when we understand trauma and design our classrooms, our curriculum, and our facilitations based on trauma-informed practices.

Any thoughts, ladies, on how to foster SEL and resiliency skills in the virtual environment in which we now teach?


Hello Jeri,

It’s great to have you join this conversation! What’s interesting is that you have had the opportunity to experience teaching in both female and male correctional facilities. As you mentioned, working with women compared to men is different, and needs to be continued to be approached with this philosophy in mind. You bring a wealth of knowledge from both perspectives!

As we understand, resilience within this context, can be recognized as the process whereby our female population attempt to acclimate in a more positive manner and, adjust when experiencing any adversity, trauma, stress, personal conflict, issues within relationships, and their physical and psychological well-being. The American Psychological Association (2017), identifies resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of the adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.”

We also note that Social-Emotional Learning Skills (SEL) can represent communication, responsibility, assertion, concentration, empathy, engagement and self-control. We understand that resilience can develop from one’s internal factors such as self-control, emotion regulation, problem solving, motivation and self-efficacy. Furthermore, skills that facilitate resilience such as self-respect, empathy, and relationship building all pertain to the overall success between the facilitator and the woman.  

I so appreciate Jeri’s discussion and question. Considering our current restrictions due to COVID, and our understanding of SEL and Resiliency Skills for our female population, what is the best approach to adopt for the virtual classroom? I would like to start with the transformation of “communication and engagement” for the facilitator and women while conducting a virtual classroom. As we acknowledge, a virtual classroom for some can be daunting and stressful. Hearing from our community about the application of these key issues would be valuable!  

I think building success and rewarding positive growth is the key to building this type of resiliency in our students.  This same skill has to be done in both the virtual and in person setting.  We need to use every word between us to build our students confidence as most things in the environment have torn down their confidence.  I take time to write personal notes on graded work etc before it goes back to students encouraging them to keep up good work.  


  • Decades ago, I read the book " A Woman's Way of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind." According to the authors Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule, there are gendered stages of intellectual development. 
  • Silence:  A woman of silence is totally dependent on those in authority, not questioning or voicing an opinion and lives in very concrete decision making - something is right or wrong with no middle ground.  
  • Received Knowledge: As a receiver of information, she will listen and pass knowledge on to others, shaping her thoughts to match those in authority. 
  • Subjective Knowledge: A women moves beyond received knolwege and she recognizes that she does not have to agree with the authority but is still cautious about voicing opinions.
  • Procedural Knowledge is divided into two areas, separate and connected knowing. 
  • Constructed Knowledge: A constructivist realizes that one must speak, listen, share ideas, explore, and question, analyzing who, why, and how. 

As we look into the gender differences in learning, is the work from Belenky et al still relevant? Or how has our understanding of women and learning grown? What does this mean for our women in corrections?

I look forward to the discussion. 



In gender scholarship, there is a good body of research that suggests women (and others, as well) are in a constant performance of gender expectations and they "try on" different approaches as they explore gender identity. This can include embracing gender expectations, or resisting them. In the gender regime, present even still, men's voices are given higher value than women's, creating a form of silencing throughout her life. 

I have not read the book, but I am not sure I could quickly agree that these stages are tied only to intellectual development. It seems they could be fluid, not linear, based on her life circumstances and events. For women in corrections, this would mean they may not be where they once were in their levels of knowledge. They may have experienced traumas leading them back to silence, or the inability to receive and pass on knowledge. I am not sure I would agree that these are biological in nature, at all (as intellect would suggest), but more of a socialization process that could be differential on so many factors. 

I found a (seemingly) dated article from OJDDP about development of voice/self for adolescents. The last paragraph may be of interest:


Juvenile justice practitioners must recognize the effects of this loss of self-esteem in the young women they serve so that they are able to develop effective treatment modalities to encourage strength in their clients. Furthermore, it is critical for staff to recognize the differences presented by culture and socioeconomic background, as this will enable them to assist young women in either developing their self-confidence through the exercise of their voices or to learn practical ways to resist social pressures in a manner that is liberating.

I hope this offers another lens for consideration for women experiencing trauma.

best, kelli

Karen and Kate, 

As we discuss gendered ideas for teaching and learning, along with social, emotional learning - what are the action steps that a teacher can implement in their classroom? 

And do these action steps differ for individuals with short versus long term sentences? 


Thanks, Kathy, for continuing the discussion!

We understand that any opportunity to better educate all of the women, no matter what sentence they are serving is critical. Acknowledged is the impact of education for these women, supports the overall goal towards rehabilitation and the woman’s social integration if and when released. Historically, and predominately speaking, such emphasis on providing educational opportunities is placed on women serving the shorter sentences. Education strongly increases a woman’s post release employment opportunity, and decreases the chances of her recidivism. However, this rate is specifically relevant if applied to the very small cohort of women, who have served long to life with parole sentences. It is not only noted for short termers.

Many of the women serving short and long to life terms, often select educational programs or other, for which they feel confident and or motivated towards. Such programs provide opportunities to relieve their boredom and isolation. Furthermore, they may choose educational programs because they know someone who has joined. As educators, one understands the benefits of creating a more humane institutional environment for the women as opposed to an institutional culture that underlying shares sediments of negativity and doubt towards the women being “more than their crime.”

I begin with thoughts on Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and such action steps implemented by prison educational facilitators. In addition, touch on comparative “action steps” introduced by educators applied in the classroom for women serving short and or long to life sentences.

Before such “action steps” are implemented, identified is the role and or responsibility of four key areas that are instrumental into the overall success of facilitating and better educating the women. These are the facilitator, the female student, the structural, institutional environment and the overall educational goals and outcomes (short verse long time offenders).  

This discussion focuses on the educator, whereby continued opportunities to provide them with more ownership (agency) within the overall support, implementation of curriculum development and innovation should be considered. More specifically, when implementing educational curriculum for the women, we should recognize the four-tier assembly (FTA), and continue to revisit discussion on what these specific cohorts of women are required to accomplish within their course goals. More consideration towards the understanding of the personal complexities (to include trauma), that women bring to or continue to endure (especially serving long sentences), while incarcerated, may need to be further examined when implementing courses hence, teaching strategies.   

Action steps however, are dependent upon the educator, the environmental structure, the course curriculum, goals and outcomes. However, to begin with, it could be deemed more conducive for the facilitator to be well versed (if possible), on the personal history of individual women (students), prior to the writing stages of course curriculum and the instruction.

One could argue that smaller classes designed to accommodate women serving differing sentences is more intellectually engaging, personally stimulating and motivating for not only the facilitator but the women themselves. Again, this is dependent upon what course is being taught and if the institution believes (for a number of reasons), that women should be separated into such smaller cohorts.

Reflecting upon personal discussions with many women lifers from around the United States, a number of them have expressed their sheer frustration and or disgust when present in a teaching environment with short termers. They state that this is due to their attitude, and often lack of respect towards others. They share they have found some of them to be most disruptive, and most vocal during classes. Important to this discussion, is this narrative resonates frequently when we have talked about educational choices (with short termers), and often, lack there-of. Women share that such behaviors impact their overall motivation to not participate.

Educators bring with them their personal and unique pedagogical approaches to integrate communication effectively, to allow openness of discussion, to better understand personal complexities of their students (the women), and encourage the building of new and or existing rapports. This positive approach to teaching therefore impacts the women not only in the classroom but beyond.

We understand action plans are about specific approaches that are made to reach various goals identified, in this instance, education within a women’s prison. Highlighted are matters that as an educator should continue to be considered. Being sensitive to the woman’s level of life experience, her background to include trauma; encourage mutual respect while in the classroom; and as a facilitator, share that every woman’s experience is important, why it is relevant and therefore should be recognized.

However, dependent upon the cohort of women, the course being taught and where facilitated, impacts the overall success of required learning outcomes. Action plans incorporated into the following issues such as a safe space (environment), supporting active participation, time and flexibility, and encouraging trustworthy relationships and dependability are imperative to the continuing personal and professional development of the woman. However, is a broad stroke action plan, sustainable for “all” sentenced women?

Fundamentally, one could assert that these approaches be considered as an educational platform in which to build upon for “all” incarcerated women. However, it could be further argued that it should “not” be the “norm prescribed educational dose” for all. Within the context of the legal narrative, women who enter the system have been found guilty of similar crimes. Emphasis often placed on the crime as opposed to the individuality of the woman.

Within the overall context of facilitating teachings within a women’s prison, to include SEL action steps, women who are serving short through to life without parole sentences (LWOP), such acknowledgement of differentiating but more specific and personalized action steps should be considered.  The mentoring of the woman in and out of the classroom given her psychological and physical needs for further rehabilitation and the length of her sentence, should be factored uniquely into the overall learning environments.


Welcome to the conversation Kelli, 

To add to our discussion, I'd love to learn more about the work and research you are currently doing that involves women and food - especially those in prison. 

Would you consider briefly sharing some of your research to help us get a better understanding of the role of food in prison?


Hi Kathy, thank you for the welcome. I am heavily involved in dissertation work, a study, and continuous learning about the food environment in prison. Women have gendered paths in society, and leading to the criminal justice system. Women also have a gendered path regarding food and foodways in society, prior to prison. Gender scholarship suggests that individuals "try on" gender and it is an interactive process between individuals and gender expectations (the gender regime) in any given society. In our society, women are the primary providers, gatherers, preparers, and servers of food in day-to-day life. Not all women accept this gendered role, but we know it is the social norm. Many women take this role seriously (no matter the quality of food) and it becomes part of their identity. 

In prison, women enter a foodway (everything related to food: culture, how it is prepared, what constitutes acceptable food, preferences, etc) that is coercive. It is highly controlled and there are consequences in most prisons related to the foodway expectations. This process upon entry to prison is directly impacting a portion of a woman's identity that may be difficult for them to accept. 

I am not sure how women respond to this, I do know the literature on how they FEEL about the coercive foodway. I know there are a variety of responses. In my current research, I think this stripping of identity could have far reaching effects, even perhaps unknown to the woman consciously. I think we can reasonably guess that women, especially who are mothers, struggle with aspects of their sudden change in food environments impacting a big part of their lives. I am currently looking at how this impacts parenting and how much women are thinking about their children in terms of their food intake while mom is incarcerated. 

I think this struggle for women could have impacts in the classroom, as well. It is important to note that I am not talking about nutritions. There is a body of literature that has considered the physical impacts of the nutritionally deficient diets served in prisons. We know, fairly well, that this is a grave concern for many reasons. My focus is only on food. The interaction women have with food and how they form identity around that interaction...then, what the impacts of removing that autonomy related to food has...and finally, how women respond.

I hope this helps.

best, kelli

I would like to take this opportunity to echo Dr. Whiteley's commentary describing the various needs of the female inmate. Every moment in the secured school environment is an opportunity to work on SEL.  It is true, combining the long-term inmate with the short-term inmate can be disruptive. Unfortunately, if protocols are not intertwined with the curriculum havoc can be commonplace.  To counter this, it is essential for the educator to provide a safe environment in which everyone is comfortable and familiar with the daily routines and structure of the classroom. Dr. Whiteley describes this need best, “More consideration towards the understanding of the personal complexities (to include trauma), that women bring to or continue to endure (especially serving long sentences), while incarcerated, may need to be further examined when implementing courses hence, teaching strategies.”

I believe the hard question needs to be asked.  What is the atmosphere in the classroom?  What does the educational environment tell us?  Where the atmosphere in a school is uncaring, unsupportive, and unrewarding, the mental health, as well as the work of pupils and teachers, can be adversely affected.  The impact of this unfriendly atmosphere is particularly damaging if it persists for many years. (World Health Organization, n.d.)  Carol Dweck reminds us of the importance and power of positivity.  In the secured school, be positive in the language we use, positive in our intent, and positive that each learner can have success in the classroom.


Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.