For Female Inmates, Talking Back is More Likely to End in a Trip to Solitary

Women prisoners are more likely to receive solitary confinement and other harsh punishments for minor infractions like "reckless eye-balling."


|||Karen Foley/
Karen Foley/

Prisons are more likely to give women serious punishments for minor infractions, according to a new collaborative report from NPR, The Social Justice News Nexus, and The Chicago Reporter.

In California, Vermont, and Rhode Island, for example, women were anywhere from two to three times as likely to receive disciplinary action for such infractions as "disrespect," "disobedience," and "derogatory comments" against corrections officers and inmates. Depending on the state, such infractions meant longer prison time, restrictions in family visits, loss of shopping privileges at the prison commissary for items such as food and women's hygiene products, or even solitary confinement.

One former inmate, Celia Colon, told NPR that she received a disciplinary ticket for "reckless eye-balling" after she made a face when an officer gave an order. This led to an unspecified amount of time in solitary confinement.

Maggie Burke, a former warden at Illinois' Logan Correctional Center, told investigators that corrections officers tend to "discipline based on emotion rather than on safety and security." Are facilities truly being made safer, she asked, if women who "talked back" are being put in solitary? A November 2016 audit of her old facility found that an overuse of solitary confinement helped exacerbate poor mental health conditions among the prisoners. Suicide attempts at the prison had increased from one a month to 10.

About 61,000 people were kept in solitary confinement in 2017 for up to 22 hours a day. Though the number has declined over the past five years, mental health professionals argue that those unfortunate enough to experience this punishment are essentially victims of torture. Many prison reformers argue that it violates the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits "cruel and unusual punishments."