The explanation that many academics and think-tanks favour is that guards are less tolerant towards women. A 1994 study of Texan prisons found that wardens in female prisons demanded total compliance but those in male prisons did not. Ellie Butt at the Howard League, a prison-reform charity, thinks little has changed. Female inmates, she says, are considered doubly deviant—“a woman, and a criminal?” says one female ex-con, “You're practically Myra Hindley!” Guards may be more likely to write up and punish women's verbal assaults on staff than men's.
Government figures hint this is true. “Disobedience or disrespect” was the reason for 44% of punishments given to female prisoners in 2014 compared with 39% of those handed out to men. Farah Damji, who has spent time in prison, says male guards were particularly keen to put her in her place. “It was a sense of, you think you have some status in the outside world? I'll show you,” she says. Ms Butt reckons such treatment contributes to the disproportionate levels of self-harm committed by women—26% of the prison-system total in 2014. Punishments were designed for men, says Juliet Lyon at the Prison Reform Trust, a charity, and are often a bad fit for women.
There are some promising signs of change. Since 2006 the rates of female assaults on staff have more than halved whereas male assault rates have stayed roughly flat. The gap between male and female punishment rates has also narrowed. One reason, Ms Lyon says, is that staff are learning more about working with prisoners who have suffered trauma.
A different approach altogether might work better. Women fare worse than men after prison: they are more likely to reoffend after sentences shorter than 12 months, the type they most commonly receive. They do better on alternative measures, though. Around 95% complete community-service sentences, but only 76% of men do. If jail turns women into Walter White, the anti-hero of the television series “Breaking Bad”, there is a case for not putting them there in the first place.