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Women in prison: Even jailed, girls can be girls
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In prison, lipstick is more than a concoction of wax and oil that glides on a woman's full, shapely lips.

Ruby Rush, Latte Lush and Cocoa Delicious are shades of feminism, a woman's link to her inner self. Lipstick distinguishes her in a place that is otherwise drab and gray, making her feel human, even sexy, while she bides her time before she can rejoin the outside world.

Finally, men get it.

After more than a century of treating men and women the same, the male-dominated prison system is bucking its "an inmate is an inmate" ideology and acknowledging that men and women are, well, different.

From allowing women to dabble in cosmetics to redesigning their prison uniforms, the Utah Department of Corrections is changing its whole approach to how it treats the women.

Women can now wear lipstick - and foundation, powder, blush, eye shadow and mascara, all available through the commissary. They can even order women's shoes, in women's sizes, instead of having to stumble around in men's shoes.

For Julia Higbee, who is serving time for forging checks, it means the difference between feeling depressed and confident.

Without makeup, "I felt so ugly, so degraded," she said.

Sports bras - the commissary has them. And feminine products, once only available through the prison store, are now distributed to all of the inmates, on the state's dime.

A new burgundy uniform resembling medical scrubs likely will be distributed to the gals within the next couple of months. Right now, women wear the same white uniform as the men. Some have complained their feminine pads could be seen through the pants.

"A male's white uniform usually doesn't do a lot for their dignity and self-respect," said Corrections spokesman Jack Ford.

Even the prison's Corrections officers are being trained in how women think.

Lt. Chad Skinner, who works at the Draper prison, said this training has bettered his relationship with his wife.

"You're a better man, you're a better husband, a better dad," his wife told him. "You listen better."

Prison administrators say there are important reasons for the cultural change.

For one, there are more women in prison. While 570 are locked up in Utah - they make up about 9.5 percent of the inmate population - their numbers are growing. And fast.

The number of incarcerated women is growing at more than double the rate of men, a phenomenon that is mirroring trends nationally, said Deputy Warden Lee Liston. Between 2004 and 2005 alone, the women's population swelled by 18 percent, while the men's population grew by only 3.5 percent, he said.

"There are obviously still more men than women but it has caught everyone's attention," he said.

Women land behind bars for different reasons than do men, said Capt. Robert Powell. By the time they're convicted of a crime - typically a drug-related offense - most women have survived poverty and abuse, and struggled with a drug addiction.

Among women who use drugs, 30 percent to 59 percent of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the National Institute of Corrections.

As a result, Corrections officers are now focusing on making the women feel emotionally safe, as well as teaching them self-respect and dignity.

For some of the women, "This is the first time they've ever had respect shown towards them," Powell said.

Cindy Johnson, who is serving five years to life in prison for first-degree murder, has scars that stretch from her wrists to her elbows from self-inflicted wounds. The women, she said, have taken notice of the way Corrections officers are treating them.

"They take time to talk to us on a one-on-one basis," she said. "They know when to take off the badge and just be one-on-one with us. We choose to act differently to them because they treat us with respect."

Being gender-responsive entails Corrections officers explaining orders (women want to know why they're being told to do something) and not always using the same level of assertiveness.

Before a recent visit by members of a chamber of commerce, for example, Powell asked both the men and women inmates to tidy up their cells and living quarters. The men did as they were told. The women, however, wanted to know more about the chamber of commerce and the purpose of its visit.

Powell spent more than 20 hours putting together a PowerPoint presentation on the topic. The women, in turn, not only cleaned their cells, but took the initiative to organize a panel with whom the chamber members could interact.

"All I wanted was my floors waxed," Powell quipped.

Liston said there has been a noticeable decline in disciplinary problems. The women's units, which a year ago had the highest number of disciplinary problems - even more than maximum security - are down by a third.

"They never were harder, they were just different and we didn't know how to apply that," he said. "In the [outside] world, women have to learn how men communicate. In prison, it's the other way."

lrosetta@sltrib.com

Corrections culture shift: Female inmates stand to benefit from gender-focused approach
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