Why you should care
Because the female prison population has grown 600 times over in the past 30 years.
When a North Carolina women’s prison asked Stephanie Covington to design a trauma treatment program, she agreed on one condition: They let her try on the shackles for a few days. The psychologist wanted to understand personal freedom, and what it felt like to not have it. But one of the most memorable takeaways surprised even her. Toilet paper — specifically, how little of it she and her fellow inmates were given.
Decades and almost a dozen curricula later, Covington is credited as a pioneer of what’s known as gender-responsive treatment. “She was the first person to say it’s different for women,” says Carol Ackley, a treatment center director in Minnesota who began putting Covington’s ideas into action in the ’90s. But Covington hasn’t stopped there. At an age when most are packing for Florida, she has taken on the prison industrial complex. And with success here too: Covington’s approach to rehabilitating female prisoners, from more communal spaces to, yes, more toilet paper, is being embraced by corrections administrators around the world. The fundamental insight? Women and men have different needs in prison.
They’ll see immediately if you’re for real, or full of BS.
Covington’s theories are accruing a growing audience these days. The female prison population in the U.S. ballooned 646 percent between 1980 and 2010, at nearly 1.5 times the rate of men. And Covington, sporting a grayish-blond bob and chunky black jewelry, is jetting around to share those theories: She recently gave a talk to Parliament in the U.K.; Australian jailers have adopted her violence intervention approach; and the California Department of Corrections has hired her to help customize its system. But just as quickly as I can rattle off her accolades, she will likely dismiss them. For Covington, it’s about the women. “They’re the ones who keep you honest,” she says. “They’ll see immediately if you’re for real, or full of BS.”
In her airy La Jolla, California, office, Covington leans back in her chair, taking up far more space than you’d think possible for someone with her petite frame. She is an incredibly young-looking 73 years old and comes across as 100 percent badass. Fellow psychologists might drone on and on; Covington has a propensity to tell it like it is. “The rules were so inane,” she says, referring to the toilet paper, among other things. “It really ticked me off.” Especially considering that the crimes the two sexes commit differ too. Swains are more likely to get hauled away for violent offenses, while for dames it’s drug and property misdeeds. Female offenders are also more likely to be primary caretakers, have a history of abuse and suffer from mental illness. But only recently, with voices like Covington’s and shows like Orange Is the New Black, is the system beginning to reflect those differences.
Covington, straight-faced and steadfast, began focusing on gender-adapted addiction and trauma treatments in the ’80s, shortly after putting down the bottle herself. Her bid: Women and men get high for different reasons, so enough with unisex therapy. She even took on ever-pious Alcoholics Anonymous, rewriting a version of the Big Book that tells the stories of women and explores feminine spirituality. She found success and acclaim, with rehabs worldwide adopting her curricula, including the prominent Hazelden Betty Ford; but after that stint in the North Carolina prison, Covington, who is 37 years sober, knew she wanted to work with female prisoners.
For a while, she stuck with providing inmates addiction and trauma care. When a warden asked her to orchestrate a program to help violent offenders, she declined. The mother of two knows blackout bingeing, but growing up in an upper-middle-class East Coast suburb, she didn’t know violence. Then, several years ago, an inmate came to her and, with tears of desperation, asked if Covington was going to help her understand why she had murdered her best friend 19 years ago. Covington has since developed a violence intervention curriculum, which is currently being adapted for men.
So what might a female-friendly justice system look like? There would be more communal living spaces than individual cells — men accrue pride with autonomy, while women inherit it from strong relationships. Women simply don’t progress in isolation. Since a large portion of female crimes are economically driven, prisons might offer budgetting workshops. Most important, though, there would be an emphasis on creating a feeling of safety between incarcerees and staff. Women are seven times more likely than men to have histories of sexual abuse and four times more likely to have been physically abused. But in society, abuse against women is invisible. Men are attacked by their enemies, a rival gang member; women are betrayed by the very ones who are supposed to protect them.
Still, gender-responsive treatment is a niche. Most rehabs remain coed, and wardens are not rushing to redesign the penitentiary system. Preeta Saxena, a sociology researcher at College of the Canyons who authored a study last year on the therapy’s impact on prisoners (the results were promising), says more research needs to be done before it will become commonplace. Saxena also points out the matter of gender politics. Should officials allocate resources toward a narrow portion of the inmate population? “It’s far from becoming the standard,” she says.
In the meantime, Covington claims she wants to take more walks on the beach. Though it’s not long before she’s telling me how she’s working to bring her violence program to women in solitary confinement and wants to rewrite her trauma curriculum for adolescents and how she has just agreed to help conceptualize a re-entry detention center’s path forward.…