Jen Reel

Women in Texas Prisons Denied Same Academic, Job Training Opportunities as Incarcerated Men

"Black holes of inattention" lead to stark gender disparities in the Texas prison system, according to a new report.


A gulf exists between educational opportunities and job certification programs offered to men and women in Texas prisons, according to a new report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Incarcerated men, who can choose from a list of 21 professions, have the option of walking out of prison a certified welder, cabinet maker or computer technologist. Women only get two career certification options in Texas prisons: “office administration” and “culinary arts/hospitality management,” according to the report, which also notes disparities in education, technical training and rehabilitation programs offered to incarcerated women.  

Lindsey Linder, a policy attorney with the criminal justice group behind the report, said the disparity shows how a male-dominated system ignores the needs of incarcerated women, who just so happen to be the country’s fastest-growing population behind bars. As I’ve written before, even as Texas has closed prisons and reduced the overall inmate population in recent years, the state prison population actually grew by more than 500 women between 2009 and 2016; during that same time, Texas prisons shed about 8,500 men, who comprise 91 percent of the population.

women, prison, criminal justice
Texas female prison population growth, 1980-2016.  Source: Texas Criminal Justice Coalition

Jeremy Desel, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) who initially refused to comment for this story despite repeated requests, said that the state prison system “has expanded female programming and continues striving to expand female access to programs.”

Desel disputed some of the report’s findings, which were based on information provided by TDCJ. For example, the report notes men can earn up to a master’s degree behind bars while women can only attain an associate’s degree. Desel said late Tuesday, after the TCJC report and this story were published, that women in a few facilities can obtain up to a bachelor’s degree.  He also said there are 14 job certification programs for women, though he couldn’t say how many were available to men.

“We’re even creating a position to oversee female programs,” Desel said. “Part of the issue is, the small number of female units makes a specific challenge in offering the same range of programming as male offenders have, because there’s so many more male-only institutions.”

In response, Linder said she worked with the agency “as closely as possible” and that they were provided with a copy of the report a month before it was published. Linder said she encountered several “black holes of inattention” in her research into prison conditions for Texas women, which included a detailed survey of more than 400 women incarcerated in the state. “It’s clear that in so many areas of the system, we just haven’t thought at all about women,” Linder told the Observer.

For instance, more than half of the women who responded to Linder’s survey said they don’t always have access to tampons and menstrual pads when they need them. Linder even conducted a “blue ink” test to show how much worse the prison-issued feminine hygiene fare compared to popular store-bought brands. While more than 10,000 of the 12,500 women imprisoned in Texas have children waiting for them at home, Linder says the majority of women who responded to her survey rarely if ever saw their children while in lockup. In addition to limited job certification and college degree programs, incarcerated women also have access to fewer technical education courses and rehab programs compared to men, according to Linder’s research.

“It’s clear that in so many areas of the system, we just haven’t thought at all about women.”

Beyond giving incarcerated women equal access to job and educational opportunities, Linder is also urging Texas officials to invest in other programs that address the kind of trauma women experience before entering lockup. The majority of women who responded to her survey reported being abused by an intimate partner. More than half of them reported having been sexually assaulted as children, while a quarter said they traded sex for food and shelter before prison.

“There are significant issues facing women who are incarcerated in Texas prisons and jails,” Linder said. “Not only are these women unsupported by the current system, but they are continually being re-victimized by policies and practices that fail to account for their needs.”


UPDATE: A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice responded to our questions after the initial version of this story was published. His comments have been added.

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