Women in prison California


People who are incarcerated tend to use a number of strategies to cope with life behind bars. In some cases, the strategies used by women tend to differ from the ones used by men. One of the strategies that women use entails the establishment of pseudo-families or play families. They create these role-play families in order to provide emotional support to one another. The superficial nature of pseudo-families is evident in the way the inmates tend to be tied primarily to the immediate experience. Few female inmates tend to express a lot of interest in forging long-term friendships despite belonging to the same pseudo-families.

The aim of this paper is to discuss the dynamics of pseudo-families involving women in prison. The paper investigates the different ways in which pseudo-families enable women cope with prison life as well as how these families influence relationships among female inmates. For purposes of illustration, the case of a local community resource in California is used. This paper also explores the question of why men do not use the adjustment behaviors that involve the creation of pseudo-families.

Adjustment behavior of women in prison

The origin of pseudo-families

The emergence of pseudo-families created by women in prison may be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century when female prisoners were housed in cottage-shaped prisons. In these prisons, women were taught appropriate domestic skills. In these prisons, women were being treated at best like wayward children. At worst, they were being treated with deep contempt, more or less like savages. This treatment continued to dominate these prisons throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century. Women who had broken the law were considered to have betrayed their gender. The notion of betrayal was particularly dominant in the early nineteenth century when women used to be accommodated in men’s penitentiaries.

The philosophy that continues to guide the way women are treated in prisons is based on the view of an ideal woman as someone who is honest, pure, and innocent on the one hand and susceptible to corruption and deceitful on the other. On this basis, women who committed crimes were considered to have not just violated the country’s legal norms but also crossed the boundaries of femininity. On the basis of this understanding, women-only prisons were created in the late nineteenth century. One of the aims of these prisons was to teach women their proper role in society. In this regard, they were taught various domestic skills. They were also encouraged to form pseudo-families to give them opportunities to act out their proper roles in the contemporary family setting.

The need for emotional support among women in prison

Women who languish in prison tend to be in dire need of emotional support. They express a strong desire to build emotional relationships with other imprisoned women. They also tend to be less criminalized compared to their male counterparts. This means that they normally tend to have committed less serious crimes than men. They also tend to be less involved in subcultures that are associated with criminal activities outside prison. In light of this situation, women who are put behind bars tend to be cut off from their families and children, leading to strong feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, despair, and dependency. This feeling of being cut off from families and children tends to be stronger compared to that of their male counterparts.

The feeling of dependency and helplessness greatly influences women to organize themselves into pseudo-families. The women tend to live by a strict inmate code. They also tend to stick to the different roles that they may have assigned themselves as a way of coping with prison life. In some ways, the roles tend to be similar to those of male prisoners. Some of the most common roles relate to the exercise of power, sexual relationships, and the delivery of different goods and services. In women’s prisons categories such as those involving outlaws and politicians tend to exist.

It is also common for women to develop categories such as snitches and squares. Conventionally, squares are women who happen to be situational offenders. They are typically religious women who sincerely feel that they need to rectify the mistakes that led to their incarceration through clean living. However, other women tend to be leading the same anti-social lives in prison that they used to lead on the streets. For such women, it is evident that prison may not bring about a change in their behavior. They tend to adopt a hard-core personality that is anti-authoritarian. They also tend to be opposed to the guidelines being presented to the by the correctional facility. Mays & Winfree (2004) observe that there is also a category of female inmates referred to as “cools”. Cools manipulate other inmates with a view to make their own lives in prison easier and more bearable. According to Mays & Winfree (2004), pseudo-family roles are a reflection of the pre-prison roles of female prisoners.

The dynamics of prison subculture: The role of pseudo-families among female inmates

Recent studies on the way women lead their lives in prison have provided contradictory findings. The contradictions create the impression that the researchers may not have been investigating the same phenomenon. For instance, Greer (2000) conducted interviews on thirty five women whose comments suggested some changes may have started occurring as far as the subculture of women’s prisons is concerned. Nevertheless, the findings support the convention view that women who are imprisoned tend to be less violent, are have less involvement in gang activity, and are less keen to propagate racial tensions than their male counterparts. Geer (2000) observed that the degree of mistrust among female inmates tended to be high. Most significantly, respondents tended to create the impression that they were not preoccupied with efforts to enact familial networks (Geer, 2000).

Collica (2010) supports Geer’s (2000) observation that although pseudo-families are important for female inmates in the US, they may have been diminishing in importance in recent years. Nevertheless, it remains a critical strategy that female inmates use to mould a subculture that enables them survive the harsh realities of imprisonment. Pseudo-families are important because they enable women bear the pain of being separated from their children and families. This pain is normally assumed to affect women more than it does men. To ameliorate the pain that comes with this separation, the women are forced by circumstances to reestablish a new family in prison.

In some cases, efforts have been made to replace pseudo-families with peer programs that not only enable women deal with the pain of incarceration but also help them achieve post-release success. These peer programs also help the women achieve the goal of institutional adjustment. Such programs may also enable the inmates get exposure to guidance, support, and leadership, thereby creating a pro-social environment. The program may also be helpful in efforts by the female inmates to create a community that can continue to exist even after they have been released from prison. While outside prison, the women can rely on it for emotional support and institutional adjustment. These efforts, if successful, would translate into far-reaching changes in the initiatives relating to rehabilitation are undertaken.

Literature on pseudo-families has in recent years put a lot of emphasis on the use of alternative adaptive behavior for female inmates. This creates the impression that play families may not always have a positive impact with regard to rehabilitation and reintegration. Emphasis is on the creation of new conventional roles as a replacement to pseudo-families. This way, it is assumed that female inmates will achieve greater success in their efforts to deal with the pain of incarceration, undergo institutional adjustment, and to achieve success in the post-release phase.

One of the weaknesses of play families among female inmates manifests themselves through sexual relationships. Engagement in homosexual relations among female inmates is  reality in US prisons. These relationships tend to be based on control and power rather than compatibility among the inmates. Today, fewer women are willing to admit that they engage in such relationships. This is perhaps because of the stigma that such disclosure is likely to bring about. The objective of forging such relationships is normally to lessen the pain of life in prison. In many cases, women engage in sexual relationships in prison for economic reasons. It is also common for them to engage in this adjustment behavior simply as a way of looking for affection as well as new ways of fitting into the prison culture.

Mays & Winfree (2004) observe that it is not clear why the play families that were reported some years back are not being reported today. Where such families exist, they tend not to be highly structured. They also tend not to constitute one of the primary adjustment behaviors exhibited by female inmates. According to Mays & Winfree (2004), this change in adjustment behavior can best be explained through the cultural-importation model. Using this model, Mays & Winfree (2004) argue that just like streets, the prisons of today are much more complex than they used to be half a century ago. This also happens to be the time must of the research that supported the existence of pseudo-families was carried out.

In the view of Mays & Winfree (2004), the prisons of today are more open to the outside world than those of the 1950s. The prisons of the 1950s and 1960s used to be highly totalitarian, such that survival for female inmates called for numerous adjustment behaviors, one of them being the re-creation of pseudo-families. Today, unlike during the 1950s, inmates are continually being exposed to outside influences, both good and bad. Mays & Winfree (2004) predict that as prisons continue to evolve, the emotional needs of female inmates will also continue changing. Therefore, policymakers will continue to be called upon to introduce new policies, programs, and environments that address the unique socio-cultural and gender of female inmates.

Why men do not use the adjustment behavior of creating pseudo-families

There are many reasons why male inmates do not use the adjustment behavior of establishing pseudo-families. First, men tend not to be affected as severely by the life of being away from their families and children as women. Therefore, it is common for women to create a subculture whose role is different from that of men. For men, the main role of prison subculture is to protect them from one another. It also enables men neutralize the rejection society associates with incarceration. The subculture also serves the important role of providing a buffer between the men and prison staff. In women’s prisons, all these roles are served by subculture; plus an additional one –that of providing emotional support.

Since men are not overly inclined towards the quest for emotional support, they tend not to engage in the creation of play families. It would be awkward for a male inmate to assume the role of a parent, spouse, child, or grandparent for another male inmate. Yet for women, the role-play at time becomes so serious that they prepare “official” documents approving a wedding, adoption, and even a divorce. The creation of pseudo-families also has a lot to do with the need by women to create a satisfying, productive routine as one of the ways through which they learn to do their time in prison. Such a routine becomes “believable” when it is undertaken in the context of stable relationships with other inmates. Men do not see the need for such adjustment behaviors whose objective is to provide emotional support.

The tendency by male inmates to avoid engaging in pseudo-families creates the impression that male and female subcultures are increasingly drifting towards different lines of development. According to Mays & Winfree (2004), it is not true that the subcultures of female prisons have in recent years been gaining semblance with those of male prisons. The tendency by men to refrain from efforts to create play families may well be one of the numerous manifestations of gender differences. Men may feel that such an adjustment behavior portrays them as weaklings who are unable to withstand the harsh realities of prison life.

In essence, the formation of pseudo-families is the only realm in which the subcultures of male female inmates differ substantially. Men, it seems, prefer other adjustment behaviors through which they can acquire interpersonal support and lead a meaningful social life. Mays & Winfree (2004) argue that the fact that the men have been deprived of contact with female members of society means that they have correspondingly been deprived of heterosexual love. Perhaps the men feel that they would be living in a sense of denial by creating play families in which some of them must act as members of opposite sex.

Some researchers argue that women naturally tend to be more social than men. This means that incarceration often creates more devastation on their mental health (Collica, 2010; Huggins, 2006). To deal with this devastation, the women are compelled to establish a family that can act as a social support system within the correctional facility. By talking to different family members, the female inmates acquire crucial information and ideas on how to survive in the harsh prison environment. The notion of men being less social than women in prison settings may be supported by the finding that although men engage a lot in actual sexual contact, they do not exhibit a great deal of homosexual love. In contrast, women tend to put emphasis on love at the expense of physical sex. For instance, female prisoners will spend a lot of time sending love messages back and forth to one another without any intention of engaging in sexual behavior. This is a good indication that the desire for sustained interpersonal support tends to be higher among female inmates than among their male counterparts. Mays & Winfree (2004)observe that men’s prisons, the systems put in place within the existing subculture to establish substitute gender roles are so elaborate that they make those of their female counterparts look primitive.

It may be argued that since female inmates tend to prioritize on love over sex, they have no problem with efforts to create pseudo-families. Conversely, male inmates have difficulties forming pseudo-families because they are primarily because one of their main areas of focus is sexual relationships. Sexual relationships cannot thrive in an environment where one’s closest confident happens to be playing the role of a sister, mother, cousin, uncle, or nephew. On this basis, the argument would therefore be that pseudo-families would be a hindrance to the pursuit of sexual relationships among male inmates.



Collica, K. (2010). Surviving Incarceration: Two Prison-Based Peer Programs Build Communities of Support for Female Offenders. Deviant Behavior,31(4), pp. 314-347.

Collica, K. (2013). Female Offenders and the Inmate Subculture. London: Routledge.

Greer, K. (2000). The Changing Nature of Interpersonal Relationships in a Women’s Prison. The Prison Journal, 80(4), 442-468.

Huggins, D. (2006). Deviants or Scapegoats: An Examination of Pseudofamily Groups and Dyads in Two Texas Prisons. The Prison Journal, 86(1), 114-139.

Mays, G. & Winfree, L. (2004). Essentials of corrections. Los Angeles: Thomson Wadsworth.

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