Jennifer Eberhardt: This Research Shows Life Inside a Women’s Prison

March 25 - Sarah Ashlock


Have you ever thought what life would be like in prison? It can be isolating and traumatic and stressful. It’s no Shawshank or Orange is the New Black or whatever else you’ve thought about. Women prisoners must spend money on necessities like tampons, which takes away from funds that could be spent on bus fare for their kids to visit them. There’s a high likelihood that women in prison have experienced sexual abuse in their lifetimes, making it triggering to be guarded by men. There’s also greater risk for abuse within the prison, too.

Whew, that’s a lot to take in right? As we dive deeper into this subject, don’t succumb to feeling helpless. You can participate in supporting incarcerated women, from donating books to simply becoming a pen pal.


The United States is famous for having one of the highest prison populations on record. Women are more likely to be held in a local jail before a trial, and 80 percent of women in jail are moms. Every US state outranks most independent countries for the amount of women incarcerated, too. So it comes as no surprise that there are 2.2 million people in American prisons and jails, which is a 500 percent increase over the last four decades.

WOMAN TO WATCH: Jennifer Eberhardt, Social Psychologist & Associate Professor at Stanford University

We love a movie with a lawyer who frees an innocent man or, one where a woman uncovers the corruption at a state penitentiary. Rarely do we actually meet someone so heroic in real life, who is actually making a real difference. Enter: Jennifer Eberhardt, who is a social psychologist at Stanford University and a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” recipient.

Jennifer’s been researching racial bias and stereotyping within the criminal justice system. While Hollywood might make that a pretty glitzy gig (where, presumably, the character playing Jennifer would fall in love with the obnoxious-but-loveable prosecutor), real life is far from it. Not only does Jennifer do plenty of reading and writing and researching, but she also has to face some pretty hard truths about the gaps and prejudices in our system.

Jennifer’s father was a mailman with an eight-grade education, but he also ran a successful side hustle in antiques. When Jennifer and her family moved from a predominately African American neighborhood in Cleveland to a predominately white suburb, she quickly realized the discordance of race in this country.

What Jennifer has found as one of the most well regarded researchers in her field is that our judgments about race impact the rulings of law, and far more than you’d ever expect. Her research identifies that cops see African American faces as more criminal than white faces. Black juvenile defendants are often charged more as an adult for an offense, compared to a white juvenile defendant.

The list of the racial biases Jennifer has uncovered is staggering and heart wrenching. But it is, without a doubt, vital work that’s informing a culture all too ready to turn a blind eye to racism. Jennifer herself has begun working with law enforcement agencies to use technology to eliminate these prejudices.

In her new book, Biased, Jennifer explains that unconscious bias doesn’t just happen in a cop car. It affects everyone, whether the perpetrator or victim, whether in the office or at the movies. She has helped big businesses like Airbnb and Nextdoor to devise action-oriented initiatives that combat prejudices both employees and customers experience.

What Jennifer reminds us of is that no matter how big or small we are, we each have the ability to change our ways, as well as the practices of our friends, family and even companies.


Maya Angelou said:

"If you get, give. If you learn, teach."

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