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Understanding Disrespectful Behavior Through a Gendered Lens: Race and Power in a Women’s Prison

Published onApr 20, 2021
Understanding Disrespectful Behavior Through a Gendered Lens: Race and Power in a Women’s Prison


Seventy-four incarcerated women in a Midwestern prison were interviewed to explore their experience with disrespect between inmates and staff in a prison setting. Non-white women experienced disrespect and conflict differently than their white peers. While the women generally described disrespect as staff members expressing their power inappropriately, non-white women were quick to describe disrespect as tied to racist behaviors. Further, African-American women in our study were more likely to believe that few people, inmates or employees, show respect to others on a regular basis in prison. White women tend to be more positive in their evaluations of interactions with staff themselves and critical of their socialization. When discussing staff failings, they focus on empathy training as opposed to training in cultural competence. Non-white women, experience what they perceive to be racially charged domination/abuses of power by the staff. This risks placing them at a distinct rehabilitative disadvantage compared to their white peers.


Respect is a salient issue in a prison atmosphere (Butler & Drake, 2007; Colwell, 2007). It is a complex concept, defined differently based on the people involved and the context in which they act (Butler & Drake, 2007; Moule & Wallace, 2016). To a large extent, incarcerated women in our study “accomplish” their gender (see West & Zimmerman, 1987) by using a relationship approach in explaining disrespectful behavior. Their narratives posit them as rational actors in this total institution. Disrespect is something to be ashamed of and they, as inmates, are the mature ones in this total institution. This differs from male inmates who use violence in the face of disrespect (Jenness et al., 2007: Butler and Maruna, 2009; Trammell, 2009: Mitchell, Fahmy, Pyrooz, & Decker, 2017). For incarcerated men, respect is a direct threat and violence is described as necessary to maintain their self-image. For example, Colwell (2007) discussed respect in a men’s California prison. Social life was structured around respect both within and between groups. A lack of respect could be dealt with via violence (Colwell, 2007). For the women in our study, conflict and disrespectful behavior hurts working relationships and should be addressed in a formal manner. This shows how conflict shapes the reality of these women and how they present themselves in a positive light when describing disrespectful behaviors. Their reality is shaped by the signs and symbols (Blumer, 1969) given off by mostly white male correctional officers who, from their perspective, are inept at working with a diverse prison population. We use this as a jumping off point to show how gender is expressed as women define conflict and power from their own subordinated status. From their perspective, staff members abuse their power in a way that damages interpersonal relationships.

To be sure, interactions with staff are a constant and important part of daily prison life. Staff members certainly have the potential to act as positive role models and impact the inmates’ chances of rehabilitation (Collica, 2010; Molleman & Leeuw, 2012). However, staff may also experience negative interactions with inmates and/or serve as a negative influence (de Viggiani, 2007). From a theoretical perspective, the women in our study discuss these issues in a way that highlights the interpretation of power from those living in a subordinated position. Social relationships are constructed around power and how it is interpreted by others (Dennis & Martin, 2005). We focus on the perspective of these women and how negative interactions influence the interpretation of social reality (Charon, 2001). Their narratives lift their own social standing as they present themselves as sophisticated.

Although we offer a small study of incarcerated women, we shed light on a widely under-studied aspect of race relations in women’s prisons. We hope to expand our current understanding of how women cope with the pains of incarceration and how race matters for women with regard to their interactions with prison employees. Studies that explore how women confront and work with the staff members are lacking, and our research helps fill this void. We hope to fill this gap by focusing on how women describe and understand their interactions with prison employees and how race becomes a salient issue for these incarcerated women.

For this research, we interviewed women inmates living in a Midwestern prison (n=74) about the underlying causes of conflict in prison. Our primary research question is: how do inmates describe disrespectful behaviors between the inmates and prison staff? Specifically, we asked women to tell us about disrespectful incidents they witnessed. To be clear, we did not give them any prompt or specific topic. We only asked about specific examples of disrespect. An additional research question is: Do descriptions of disrespect vary by race?

One interesting theme was that racism, as a defining issue, becomes central in how they interpret the meaning behind some of these actions. The literature on racial conflict in American prisons mostly focuses on racialized gangs in men’s prisons such as the Aryan Brotherhood, the Mexican Mafia, and the Black Guerilla Family (Fleisher & Decker, 2001; Irwin, 1980). In short, men often promote racial segregation in prison and gangs form along racial lines. Scholars have explored the many ways race can impact inmates’ adjustment to the prison setting (Adams, 1992), their relationships with other inmates as they are forced to desegregate (Trulson & Marquart, 2009), and conflict and violence in prison (Berg & DeLisi, 2006). They have also explored how race can impact correctional staff members’ interactions with each other and experiences on the job (Britton, 1997; Van Voorhis, Cullen, Link, & Wolfe, 1991). However, women in our study tie racialized conflict to power and control. Moreover, they attack social and cultural systems as creating a breeding ground for the prison staff to maintain cultural ignorance.

After coding their responses, two key themes emerged that are interconnected: race and power. Cutting through these issues was the issue of gender as the descriptions of their interactions are grounded in defining interpersonal relationships. They describe staff members as embarrassing themselves with their inappropriate and disrespectful actions. Moreover, they argue that more training is needed to improve the interpersonal skills of the prison staff. We find that these women use a gendered lens in deconstructing conflict. The focus is on how conflict is tied to culture and socialization. Disrespect is not necessarily described as an attack on their personal identity; instead, they believe that staff members are ignorant and in need of cultural training. Thus, the disrespectful behavior of correctional staff reflects poorly on their upbringing and intelligence. We argue that these women describe the lack of social skills as defining their own actions as positive in comparison. They are inmates but, they are the savvy and worldly agents surrounded by those who embarrass themselves with their ignorance.

Literature review

The “pains of imprisonment” have long been explored in correctional research (Adams, 1992; Douglas, Plugge, & Fitzpatrick, 2009; Sykes, 1958). The stressors experienced in prison can have a significant impact on inmates and their likelihood of successful rehabilitation and reentry to society. As a result, scholars have often explored the critical role of social support in the adjustment of inmates to prison and their eventual transition to the community (Jiang & Winfree, 2006). While inmates often seek the support of inmate peers (Biggam & Power, 1997; Wulf-Ludden, 2013) as well as family and friends on the outside (Jiang & Winfree, 2006), interactions with correctional staff play a crucial role in inmate adjustment as well (Collica, 2010). Staff can have a significant impact on the experiences and success, or failure, of inmates who progress through the correctional system (Biggam & Power, 1997; Brandon, Chard-Wierschem, & Mancini, 1999; Collica, 2010; de Viggiani, 2007; Molleman & Leeuw, 2012; Street, 1965; Vuolo & Kruttschnitt, 2008).

Motivated and well-trained staff can have a positive impact on inmates both during their incarceration and post-release (Biggam & Power, 1997; Blagden, Winder, & Hames, 2016; Brandon et al., 1999; Collica, 2010; Molleman & Leeuw, 2012; Parrotta & Thompson, 2011; Street, 1965). Brandon and colleagues (1999), for example, explored inmate and staff perceptions of a vocational training program. Not only did inmates report believing that the program could help them to obtain employment upon release, they also valued the social support and relationships built with staff, specifically, the program teachers. A majority of both inmates and staff reported that inmates significantly improved their interpersonal skills as a result of program participation (Brandon et al., 1999).

On the opposite end of the spectrum, staff can and do experience negative interactions with inmates, which can ultimately create poor outcomes for inmates (Calhoun & Coleman, 2002; de Viggiani, 2007; Hemmens & Marquart, 2000; Patrick, 1998; Worley, Marquart, & Mullings, 2003). Calhoun and Coleman (2002), for example, explored a very serious form of staff-inmate interaction: sexual abuse. In their study, incarcerated women described their perceptions of and experiences with sexual abuse between inmates and staff. Inmates discussed that a sexual relationship between staff and inmates was inappropriate and should be considered abusive by the staff, regardless of who “initiated” the interaction. Social relationships are constructed around power and how it is interpreted by others (Dennis & Martin 2005). There is a dramatic power imbalance between staff and incarcerated women which must be addressed.

The role of gender norms and expectations is relevant in the prison setting. Much of the research on male inmates focuses on how masculinity is tied to violence and dominance (Sabo, Kupers, & London, 2001). However, Ricciardelli, Maier, and Hannah-Moffat (2015) found that masculinity was not as cut and dry. The expression of masculinity was dependent on the level of risk in any prison situation and was more of a continuum. They found that, “risk and masculinity in prison are mutually constitutive insofar prisoners’ perceptions and experiences of risk are gendered and shape gender performances” (Ricciardelli et al., p. 509). If we start with the idea that sprouts from the theory of hegemonic masculinity (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005) where masculinity comes in different forms but serves to dominate women, it makes sense that prison masculinity is malleable. Also, with the dearth of women in prison, men will dominate men who are less masculine than others (Sabo et al., 2001). The question then is, how do these gender norms play out in women’s prisons? In these facilities, violence is not as serious as men’s prisons. Also, the expression of gender norms for female inmates may have less to do with dominance and more to do with successfully achieving a feminine identity in a traditionally masculine institution.

As pointed out in the sociological studies, gender is an accomplishment and is socially constructed (West & Zimmerman, 1987). In the prison setting, this is not an easy task. Simply being convicted of a crime and put in prison damages the identity of a “civilized” female. Bosworth (1999) goes so far as to argue that women are especially hurt in the criminal justice system as agents of this system punish them harshly for breaching gender norms by engaging in crime. Since women are supposed to behave and not break the law, criminal acts are viewed as especially problematic for incarcerated women. Others show how women interpret advice given to them by prison employees through a gendered lens where they learn to be quiet and “ladylike” (Trammell, Wulf-Ludden, Pyfer, Jakobitz, Mullins-Orcutt, & Nowakowski, 2018). While men discuss advice focusing on getting a job and going to college, women describe how prison staff remind them to reflect on what they have done and behave in a calm manner. Kolind and Bjonness (2019) found that gender roles infiltrate the programs women complete in prison, specifically drug programs. Women are encouraged to embrace a more feminine perspective and cooperate with others. Thus, the prison historically marginalized and discriminated against women as agents in this institution. They are labeled “good” and “bad” based on their behavior and labeling limits their power as incarcerated women are marginalized (Bosworth, 2000). For the women in their study, they are intelligent agents pointing out the racial ineptitude of prison staff who control their lives. The studies on race in men’s prisons mostly focus on gangs and violence (Fleisher & Decker, 2001; Irwin, 1980) or segregation (Trulson & Marquart, 2009). These studies show how race divides the inmates and promotes gang activity.

For incarcerated women, the study of race is quite different. Ross (1994), explored racial differences among incarcerated women in Montana. It is notable that among the research we were able to locate exploring inmate perceptions of staff, Ross (1994) was the only study to include incarcerated women. She examined how women experienced social control while in prison, and as part of her study, examined interpersonal relationships (sexual and platonic) with prison staff. Women mostly reported negative experiences with staff. However, the Native American women experienced racist behaviors that their white peers did not. To illustrate, the Native American women, faced with racism and negativity from staff and peers, socialized exclusively with other Native American women.

Women might not segregate or fight over race in the same manner as their male counterparts but, race remains a salient issue. Again, their social reality is built on their daily interactions with others and this includes authority figures who may express biased attitudes without understanding the negative outcomes this causes. If race is not a central cause of violence in women’s prison, staff members might not be concerned about offending the inmates.

Clearly, the perspective of the research subject is important. As Charon (2001) points out, social reality is viewed from the perspective of people interacting with each other. This can alter the “truth” in that the perspective of one person differs from another. Power plays a part in these interactions. Incarcerated women live in a subordinated position. Their reaction to the behavior of prison staff indicates that this is one way to gain the “moral” upper hand. We add to current research by exploring how women lift their own social status by pointing out the shortcomings of the prison staff with regard to racial equality in this total institution. This also highlights the intersection of how race and gender are comingled as connected by incarcerated women.


For this paper, we use data collected in 2011 with incarcerated women living in a Midwestern prison. This is the only prison in this state for women and houses minimum, medium, and maximum-security inmates. The prison administration gave us a roster of women eligible (not in medical or administrative segregation) for inclusion in the study. There was a total of 292 women on this roster. Using a random number generator, we selected our sample and conducted interviews with 74 incarcerated women (25% of the potential interviewees from the roster). We used this sampling technique to reduce bias in the selection process (Babbie, 1989). A total of three women who were selected refused to be interviewed. A breakdown of our interviews, by race, is shown in Table 1. We were not told the race of those who were in administrative segregation or in the medical facility. Although we have more white women in this study than non-white interviewees, we were able to interview 24% of the African-American, 41% of the Hispanic, and 32% of Native-American women from the roster (see Table 1). This gave us a diverse sample to work with. The prison has a category of “other” for race and we had one person who identified as biracial; therefore, she was put into this category.

Table 1. Race of interviewees in the sample and from the roster



Inmates in custody





















 Native American















The list of randomly selected names was given to the prison staff and they were responsible for locating inmates and bringing them to the interview. All interviews took place in the prison’s non-denominational chapel. In this chapel, there were separate rooms where one of three interviewers met with interviewees in private. Prison staff members were not in hearing distance of these interviews. The average age of the women in our study was 35 years old. The length of interviews ranged from 12 minutes to 67 minutes. The average length of the interviews was 36 minutes. Tape recording devices are not allowed in this prison, so researchers wrote down the inmates’ responses and transcribed all of these data shortly after the interviews took place. All researchers/interviewers were women. As per Institutional Review Board directives, an informed consent form was read to all potential participants and signed by the researcher and the interviewee before questions were asked. A copy of the consent form was provided for respondents’ records. Moreover, the prison roster was destroyed after the sample was collected and we use pseudonyms in this paper to protect the confidentiality of our interviewees.

All researchers asked the same questions to each interviewee. Researchers asked interviewees to give examples where staff members were respectful to them and others, and disrespectful to them and others. Interviewees were asked to provide the job titles of all staff members who would help them, if they were in trouble. Further, they were asked to describe their verbal arguments with staff members and the cause of verbal arguments between staff members and inmates.

Some interviewees described their physical fights or assaults with other inmates; however, no one in our sample stated that they assaulted a staff member. In fact, when asked about assaults on staff, most interviewees laughed or seemed stunned that anyone would ever do so. Clearly, the conflict between these women and the staff members involved verbal confrontations only. This is common in women’s prisons. Female inmates are much less likely to assault each other or the staff than their male counterparts (Owen, 1998; Trammell, Wulf-Ludden, & Mowder, 2015).

We use a qualitative data coding method to examine the lived reality of these women. This method is outlined by Strauss and Corbin (1990) is best described as an open coding qualitative method. The authors focused on themes (e.g., the staff needs training) that are found in at least 30% of the interviews. This coding method allowed us to individually examine the data and then compare our codes with each other. We only used codes in which we both agree that the quote/narrative fits the theme. This grounded approach allows us to categorize narratives in a way that formats a theoretical framework.

More importantly, this gives interviewees a voice and allows them to describe their day-to-day lives in prison. Once interviews were transcribed, the authors coded these data, line by line, in order to determine how women described their interactions and confrontations with the staff members (Charmaz, 2006). The authors coded for themes such as race and disrespect. After comparing our codes, we only use data/quotes in which we were in 100% agreement regarding the key theme of the data. Women of all races discussed positive and negative interactions with staff members. However, by comparing our codes between white and non-white women, we discovered that African-American interviewees were more likely to discuss a general culture of disrespect than other interviewees. They were more likely to discuss staff members as “useless” and unable to help the inmates. We tied these codes to theoretical memos (Miles & Huberman, 1984) focusing on conflict in prison.

From a gender perspective, it is important to understand how these women construct reality (Berger & Luckmann, 1967) in the prison system. Using a qualitative data coding method allows us to examine specific themes in how conflict is understood from the research subject. This allows us to create categories from our open codes (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) derived from issues where race and gender intersect. This method allows us to broaden the discussion about how race and power impacts interpersonal communication in this total institution.


We asked some general questions to examine how interviewees perceive respectful behavior among staff and inmates at this prison. Specifically, we asked whether or not people are respectful to each other. In Table 2, we see their responses. For our interviewees, they mostly thought that people were respectful or somewhat respectful. We asked these questions to better understand what these women thought about their fellow inmates and the staff and how people were basically treated.

Table 2. Are people generally respectful to each other in this prison?

Staff members are generally respectful to the inmates?





Native Am




25 (58.1%)

4 (33.3%)

7 (58.3%)

2 (33.3%)


38 (51.4%)


7 (16.3%)

7 (58.3%)

3 (25%)

2 (33.3%)

1 (100%)

20 (27.0%)


11 (25.6%)

1 (8.3%)

2 (16.7%)

2 (33.3%)


16 (21.6%)

Inmates are generally respectful to the staff members?





Native Am




17 (39.5%)

2 (16.7%)

6 (50%)

2 (33.3%)


27 (36.5%)


15 (34.9%)

6 (50%)

4 (33.3%)

3 (50%)

1 (100%)

29 (39.2%)


11 (25.6%)

4 (33.3%)

2 (16.7%)

1 (16.7%)


18 (24.3%)

None of the women we interviewed claimed to ever have a physical fight with a staff member. They did; however, describe verbal fights with staff members, and arguments. Then we asked them to describe specific cases of disrespect between inmates and staff members. To be clear, we gave them no prompts about specific topics. Instead, we asked, “Can you give an example when a staff member was disrespectful to you?”

Disrespect, race and staff training

African-Americans were more likely than white women to identify race as a cause of disrespect and verbal fights. For example, they discussed an incident where some correctional officers brought in pictures of animals and displayed them on a wall where inmates could see them. Then employees cut out pictures of the inmates and put them on the heads of the animals. African-Americans, along with one Native-American woman, were the only ones to discuss this incident as disrespectful. Alma, an African-American woman, talked about how this event demonstrated that staff members need better training:

Give them a class on reactive behavior. We have done something wrong, but that doesn’t mean we come here and you can treat us like we’re nobody, like we don’t have family or people who want to see us do better. They come in and talk about us. Last year, some staff took pictures of inmate’s faces and put them on pictures of animal bodies. A couple were fired and a couple others were reprimanded.

Isabelle, a Native-American woman, also discussed the photos and some general problems with staff members:

I was working in the kitchen and one guard said something to me. I know my temper so I told him not to bother me because he kept pushing me, so I yelled at him. He said, “Why don’t you shut your fucking mouth?” I said, “You can’t talk to me like that” so we started arguing. But I didn’t get an MR [misconduct report] or nothing.

QUESTION: How did you avoid violence?

I walked away. I went to another area of the kitchen to get away from him. Recently, one lieutenant put up pictures of us on animals. That’s a sign of disrespect. If they just leave their home life at home. If they have bad times at home, they usually take it out on us. Staff is very disrespectful, from what I see.

These stories highlight several key themes. First, the animal pictures created by the staff members unnerved these particular interviewees. They identify it as a clumsy attempt at humor that is grounded in racist beliefs. Moreover, as Isabel pointed out, verbal fights are described as inmates being picked on pushed around by staff. The correctional officer cursed at Isabel and she interpreted this as him taking out his anger on her. Aside from Isabelle, all the women who discussed animal/inmate photos were African-American. Betty, an African-American woman, explained the photos as one example how staff members disrespect the inmates:

A staff member called me a lazy bitch while I was sick at work. They wouldn’t let me leave and a friend said that she would take over the duty for me. The staff member just called me a lazy bitch. Some other staff members put pictures of our bodies of animals. I heard a staff member called, well a lot of staff members don’t know I’m black. It’s in my file. Black women have certain health problems that we’re more susceptible to as black women and they don’t even know what race I am. [They say] “Now I have to treat white people the same way I treat the black people.” Then they wonder why we don’t like them.

Although none of these women described violence between themselves and the staff members, they describe disrespectful name calling and abusive language. Moreover, these interactions posit the staff member as ignorant. For Isabelle, the correctional officer used abusive language and she walked away. For Betty, the staff member was extremely disrespectful, and this is why she does not like them. Staff are not described as causing fear but rather, getting in their way and having no idea what they are doing.

Carla, like Alma, believes that the staff needs more training and evaluations but worries about the blowback regarding complaints:

It’s all good to give them a set of books and tell them what they need to do. They need inmate-staff evaluations. Ask if we have problems. A lot of it feels like if you write a kite or a grievance, they’ll get retaliated. The guys who put our pictures on animals, they get suspension days to take anytime they want within the next year.

Deloris, an African-American woman, also discussed the fact that the people who put the pictures of animals on the wall were punished lightly:

He put our pictures on animals with racist comments and then he got to pick his suspension days. We notice when staff that’s been here for seven years. Like someone did something similar to the pictures and he got fired. If you’re different, decent to us, you get fired. Need to be more professional or you need to get a new job. Staff need to be held accountable too. Take grievances seriously. [Staff] bring home problems in here. It’s not what you say it’s how you say it.

Again, the staff have personal problems, need training, and are not punished for their bad behavior. In short, there are systematic reasons why staff act out in inappropriate ways. The solution is to fix the system in general and have better training.

In our study, African-American interviewees did not discuss overt racism. Nobody claimed that staff members called them racist names. Some, like Isabelle and Betty, give examples where staff members curse or call them names, but race was not specifically mentioned in these examples. Instead, these women discuss racial conflict as subtle and based on ignorance. However, direct discussions of race did appear when inmates discussed a common theme among all of our interviewees: staff training. Inmates explain that the staff do not know what they are doing and several linked this to problems to race. For example, Evelyn, an African-American woman, states that she is treated differently because of her race:

Some staff, you have to remember where we are [mentions the town which is in a rural area of this state]. Some people have never seen black people and this is their first job where they have to deal with blacks or Mexicans. Their parents and grandparents were probably born in corn fields, they think they’ll get over it, but they don’t. They try to talk to you, but you can tell they’re prejudiced. They treat Caucasian inmates different than they treat us.

Hellen, an African-American woman, stated:

They could use some cultural sensitivities classes. They know nothing about minorities here. These are people right off the farm who don’t have a clue about inner-city stuff.

She gave an example where a female staff member acted inappropriately with her:

A staff member told me they were going to hug me. I said, if you hug me, I was going to punch you in the face. That caused an argument the next day, she said, “I thought about what you said was really inappropriate.” I said, “Who was inappropriate first, me or you? You’re not allowed to touch me or hug me.” She tries to hang out with the inmates and be more like the inmates than the staff.

Grace, a Hispanic woman, stated said that she has a good relationship with the staff but, they need some help understanding issues about race.

The guards are real nice. When I got here, they guided me instead of writing me up for every little thing. If I did something wrong, they would tell me how to do things right and they didn’t have to do this. They could just write me up. They should take some parenting classes and maybe some cultural tolerance classes. I don’t think that a lot of staff ever met a black or Hispanic person before getting this job.

Of course, many of these incarcerated women come from the Midwest and this may make them more aware of the fact that some of the staff members are culturally insensitive about race because they live in predominantly white towns. It is certainly possible that, for some of these staff members, this is the first time they are exposed to anyone of another race. In any event, race and culture are discussed as problems of ignorance.

Judy, an African-American woman, also said that the problem is that staff members cannot communicate in an effective manner:

When you ask a question and they get real snotty and snappy with you. Treat you like you’re less than them. Teach them how to talk to people in a right manner. It’s not what you say it’s how you say it.

Karen, a Hispanic woman stated, “They could do dialog classes and learn to communicate better.” Laura, a Hispanic woman, stated:

I think they should take some psychology classes or something that teaches them how to deal with people. So many of these women have problems and the staff are not taught how to deal with it. I can’t really blame them for doing what they do. I don’t think they are trained very well.

Laura, like others in our study, believes the central problem is that they lack the training and understanding about how to do their job well. Again, problems regarding race center on structural issues such as training and racial segregation. No one made the argument that staff members are racist at heart. Instead, inmates suggest that staff do not know any better or have been improperly trained. The central issue is the fact that these people push them around, show inappropriate displays of power, and are culturally insensitive. Nancy, a white woman discussed a problem with an African-American inmate:

There was a black girl a few days ago accused of hitting a pregnant lady in line. It was just a tap, though. She was swinging her arms while she was walking and she accidentally hit her. The girl said something to the staff about it and they came and handcuffed her and interrogated her right in front of us. They said that they knew she did it on purpose. They were white guards. They stood over her and screamed at her, then dragged her off to segregation and brought her back like five minutes later. They were treating her like a slave, like black people in the inquisition back in the old days. Why are there no black or Mexican guards that work here? It’s only white men and women.

According to Nancy, the problem is the lack of diversity among the staff members. She was shocked and embarrassed about this event and blamed the conflict on racial intolerance. White women, unlike African-American and Hispanic women, did not discuss cultural sensitivity classes. Even when Nancy discussed the problem with race in the prison, she focused on diversity among the staff, rather than training. This could be explained by the fact that for African-American and Hispanic women, race is a salient and ongoing issue that white women do not experience. Problems with staff stem from the fact that staff members are not familiar with other cultures. Therefore, non-white women argue that they should be trained better. In Table 3, we show the percentage of interviewees who discussed key themes.

Table 3. Responses in themes


Percent of sample

Staff needs training


Race/cultural issues with staff


Staff upbringing or family life is a problem


Disrespect, power and staff training

For white women, problems with staff stem from individual staff dehumanizing them or being indifferent to their issues. Therefore, they argue that training should focus on building empathy. Indeed, when White women discussed training, they stated that staff members need empathy training. For example, Bernice, a white woman, told this story:

I got a migraine and the C.O. told me to get to work. I was very sick and I asked to see medical or get some aspirin or something. He told me that I’m not allowed to get any sick days and I need to get to work. He was mad because I said no to him. They could be nicer. They should be given some empathy training.

When asked what could be done to improve staff respect towards inmates Jessica also emphasized empathy training: “Take an empathy course. Spend a day in the life of an inmate. I worked in a nursing home. We had to take empathy training.” Jennie, a white woman, also emphasized empathy training:

Empathy— they can still be professional and do their job, but still have empathy. Empathy isn’t just about them not suffering the consequences. Maybe have them go listen to other people’s stories. Maybe not here, in another prison, even. Listen to people who’s changed their lives. If I was continually defined by my mistakes, I never would have changed. Those 3-5 people who shared their mistakes and saw me as a person who made a bad decision really helped me—they made me want to change. Anybody is capable of change. I don’t think a lot of staff realize that. It would help if staff understood us and help the inmates grow as well.

Olivia, an African-American woman, told this story about a correctional officer controlling the electronic doors:

I had to use the bathroom and needed the doors open. The woman waved me off, turned her back and kept talking on the phone. She was laughing and talking like it wasn’t important and I’m about to pee my pants. She finally got off the phone and buzzed me in and I ran to the bathroom. All she had to do was press a button. She couldn’t do that while laughing on the phone?

Paula, a white woman, stated:

Staff members get power trips. They tell you to go to your room or treat you like a dog because you’re an inmate and that’s it. A lot don’t argue because you can get written up or get in trouble. Some staff are cool, but a lot causes problems. Inmates get in trouble and don’t want the consequences.

Terri, a white woman, told this story:

I was in the dining room the other day. I came in with a group of people and stopped to talk to the major and then went to get in line with the people I came in with. The Lieutenant yelled, “GET to the back of the line‼” in a really angry tone in front of a group of people. It was the way in which he said it. I told him that I came in with that group and he said, “Well, you don’t get to get in line with that group because you stopped to talk to the major.” I came in with a group of people that I wanted to sit with – that’s all. But you never win if you argue with staff, ever. That happens a lot.

Tracy, a white woman, had this to say:

They are just rude. I don’t even know how to explain it. They throw their weight around and yell when they could just ask nicely. They don’t abuse us or anything and I know we give it back to them a lot but, they’re supposed to be better. They are supposed to be the ones in charge.

Stacy, a white woman, said:

Some of the guards just like the power. They like the fact that they can order people around. They will nitpick you over everything. We end up leaving them alone and never going to them with problems and I think that’s exactly what they want. … They need to be trained to talk and not be on a power trip. They pick on some of the girls in here and there’s nothing anyone can do. They should screen these people very carefully and train them well. Whoever is training these people should be fired.

Catherine, a white woman, states that staff members sometimes ignore the inmates:

An inmate tried to get a staff member’s attention. The staff member heard her say her name several times and just walked away like she hadn’t heard her name or anything. Some staff members gossip about other staff members to inmates. That’s inappropriate. Inmates should know very little about a staff member’s personal life unless they tell them themselves. I don’t need to know who’s having an affair, even if it is true. It makes me look on that staff member as something different, and I don’t need to do that.

QUESTION: What could we do to help staff members be respectful?

Hold more interacting classes, mood management, anger management, and self-help classes.

In short, when discussing their issues with prison staff, white women were concerned with abuses of power and non-white women were more aware of and concerned with racially and culturally based conflicts. Power is discussed by all women in different ways. The imbalance of power in a prison atmosphere is a crucial issue for incarcerated persons and has an impact on their likelihood of successful rehabilitation (Crewe, 2011). Many of the women in our study described a form of “hard power” utilized by prison staff (Crewe, 2011). This hard power contributes to a social distance between inmates and staff and limits rehabilitative potential (Crewe, 2011). Their subjugated position puts them in a position where they are cursed at, talked down to, and treated in an inferior manner because those in power are described as ignorant, uncaring, and culturally insensitive. Race becomes a salient issue, especially for women of color.

Discussion and conclusion

The women in our study discussed structural issues that lead to this inappropriate behavior, which is interesting. Even those who discussed racism among the staff blamed this on ignorance and a lack of training. Interviewees did not discuss racialized violence or gangs. Instead, their understanding of disrespect stemmed from a loss of control. By putting these prison employees in a category of poorly trained, poorly socialized, and ignorant, they gained some control back. The inmate is the bigger person while the staff members embarrassed themselves. In sum, our exploration of disrespectful behavior among staff and inmates demonstrated clear differences in how women understand power in this institution. While the women generally described disrespect as staff members expressing their power inappropriately, non-white women were quick to describe disrespect as tied to racist behaviors.

Further, African-American women in our study were more likely to believe that few people, inmates or employees, showed respect to others on a regular basis in prison. A majority of these women stated that staff members were generally not respectful to the inmates. African-American interviewees were more likely than their peers to blame staff members, as opposed to inmates, for the conflict that existed between inmates and prison employees. Again, this emphasized that the inmate is indeed the mature individual, and the staff member is in some way incompetent.

This highlights a racial divide between these women and the staff members tasked with helping them rehabilitate. This could impede their ability to program through the prison system if they believe that staff members are ignorant and incompetent, especially about issues regarding race. If they believe that some staff members lack empathy but others are competent, they just figure out who the “good” staff members are and work with them. In contrast, if a woman believes, as many do, that staff members simply do not know any better because they are a product of their environment, she might avoid them altogether. This deprives non-white women of any benefits that might come from positive interaction with staff members and potentially inhibits their rehabilitative opportunities. Again, reality is built on these interactions, and for some women, the staff are just plain useless.

We also posit that white interviewees might identify with the staff members due to their shared race. Unsurprisingly, white women do not think about race in the same way as their non-white counterparts. Some of them might be embarrassed about the treatment of African-American inmates. However, they did not blame an overtly racist and segregated society. Instead, they argued that the problem could be addressed with a more diverse staff and some empathy training. Not only did white women not mention the specific need for cultural education, it is possible they require similar “training” as the prison staff do. After all, non-white inmates blamed poor staff behavior on the culture in which most of the staff had been raised, a culture established in rural, predominately white, communities. These are the same communities from which many of the inmates themselves hail. It is possible that they did not “see” the problem of inmate-staff interactions in the same racially charged light that that non-white inmates did because they are part of a similar dynamic in their own interactions with their peers. In order to provide equitable opportunities for rehabilitation, it is crucial that such racial nuances be understood and addressed by all actors in the prison environment.

Ultimately, our findings indicate that disrespect and staff’s abuse of power is described differently for women, depending on their race. White women tended to be more positive in their evaluations of interactions with staff themselves and were critical of their socialization. This is not to say that white women saw prison as a conflict free space. They acknowledged that staff had their failings and that training practices could definitely be improved. However, they focused on empathy training as opposed to training in cultural competence. Non-white women, on the other hand experienced not only the subjugation that is inherent in a prison environment, but also what they perceived to be racially charged domination/abuses of power by the staff. This risks placing them at a distinct rehabilitative disadvantage compared to their white peers.

Our findings differ from others that focus on racial differences in the perception of force (Hemmens & Marquart, 2000), or reports of overt racism in a women’s prison (Ross, 1994), or institutional racism and segregation (Goodman, 2008). Instead, we focus on conflict as a nuanced issue. Racism was not tied to gang membership and violence for our interviewees. For women, those issues were less salient. The problem lies in the daily interactions and personal relationships that could help, or hinder, rehabilitation. By focusing on how interviewees describe and understand disrespect, we dig into racism as an interpersonal issue tied to larger social structures.


While our study addresses a neglected area of the extant literature, it suffers from its own limitations. Ours is a small sample and is not generalizable. It was collected in a rural, Midwestern state. The experiences of inmates and their perceptions of staff in larger, urban prisons in different geographical areas of the U.S. could be significantly different. Further, we rely only on inmates’ accounts of their prison experiences in this study. We were unable to observe inmate interactions with staff, and therefore cannot confirm our results with observational data.


This study highlights the need for additional research, both qualitative and quantitative in nature, to explore incarcerated women’s experiences with staff, conflict, and race. In short, this area of research has been neglected for far too long. Additional research is required to truly understand the needs and experiences of incarcerated women of all-races, across the nation. A deeper understanding of the inmates should help corrections and other criminal justice professionals to more appropriately and efficiently address the rehabilitative needs of incarcerated women. It is particularly important to note that the rehabilitative needs of non-white women may well be different than those of their white peers. Correctional authorities will want to explore the best options for providing all incarcerated women with the best chance of success, post-release, via programming in the prison, or even via staff training, as suggested by our interviewees. Training is important in order to begin to address inappropriate behavior based on race. While racism is deeply socially ingrained, change must start somewhere and training that addresses appropriate behavior between people of all races does that.


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Timbre Wulf, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Criminal Justice Department at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. She received her Ph.D. in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her research interests include corrections, broadly, but more specifically, gender and corrections, interpersonal relationships in institutions and youthful offenders.

Rebecca Trammell, Ph.D., is the interim dean for the College of Health and Applied Sciences at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  She received her Ph.D. in sociology at the University of California, at Irvine.  Her research interests include the study of prison violence and prison culture.  She is the author of Enforcing the Convict Code: Violence and Prison Culture. To date, she has interviewed 214 inmates in eight different prisons and conducted ethnographies and interviews with 73 former inmates.


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