Surveying Social Stigmas


By Casey Coughlin

In June 2011, I walked into a job as a reporter for RELEASE. I considered myself open minded and well adapted in diverse situations, but really wasn’t concerned with social justice or criminal reform. In fact, I didn’t think they affected my life in the slightest. I had never been in jail, suffered from negative social stigmas or experienced a financial life or death situation.

But since that first month, I have interviewed people who have spent multiple years in jail, providers who try to enhance people’s lives, and advocates struggling to change policies. I’ve walked through prisons, neighborhoods in economic crisis, halfway houses and treatment centers. The stigmas I unknowingly held were challenged and broken.

I decided to give a survey to a class here at CCSU to expose stigmas they held about incarcerated women. They were enrolled in a State and Local Government class taught by Professor William Dyson. Of the diverse group of 29 students, three had been arrested, but none had served anytime in prison. I also gave the questions to a group of previously incarcerated women. Their identities were all anonymous.

I expected to see a dramatic difference in the answers of the two group due to opposing backgrounds and life experiences. The 14 question survey asked a wide range of questions. Starting out with personal ideas around what a “criminal” looks like, moving on to identification of statistical evidence and closing with personal judgments.





Topic 1: Who Do You See as a Criminal- Gender


  • Their Answers:
    • Students: 93% envisioned a man as their “criminal’s” gender;
    • Previously incarcerated women: 38% woman, 62% man.
  • The Fact:
    • As of July 2011, women make up just 6% of the state’s incarcerated population
  • The Outcomes:
  • This topic exposed the widest gap between how the two groups perceive criminals in the U.S.
  • Exposes the student’s dominant idea of criminals being men


Topic 2: Who Do You See as a Criminal-Ethnicity


  • Their Answers:
    • Both groups answered black as the ethnicity of their criminals
  • The Fact:
    • White females hold the majority of incarcerated women in CT at 53%
    • Black males hold majority in CT at 43%
  • The Outcome:
  • One student, an 18-year-old male, circled the entire list of gender, ethnicities, and ages as his imaginary criminal.

Topic 3: Identifying Statistics


  • Fact 1: In the past 30 years which gender population do you think has increased by over 800%?
    • Both groups where split identically 48% said women, 52% said men
    • The answer: women
  • Fact 2: 35% of all women are in prison for what kind of charge?
    • 75% of the students answered- drug
    • 57% of the women answered drug
    • The answer: violent (9% of students and 25% of the women answered correctly)
  • Fact 3: What percentage of women in prisons are mothers?
  • 80% of the students answered 60%
  • The women split 45% said 60% and 45% guessed 90%
  • The answer: 60% of women in prison are mothers


Topic 4: Exploring Our Stigmas

  • Question: For the exact same charge, who do you think receives a shorter sentence?
    • 80% of the students circled women
    • The previously incarcerated women split 39% men, 39% women, 21% no difference
    • One woman refuses to circle an option and ops instead to just write “white people”


Perhaps she is correct. Villanova University’s Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice conducted a study from 1995 to 2009 in North Carolina Correctional Institutes. They found an 11% decrease in sentence time for black women who had a lighter skin tone. (


  • Question: When hiring someone would you consider an applicant with a criminal record equally with one that does not
    • 68% of the students said “no”
    • 59% of the women said “yes”
    • One woman comments: “It would depend on the individual- I’ve met some really descent people in prison and I believe everyone has broken the law in some point of their life
    • One student comments: “other- because I have been in both shoes”
  • Question: Should pregnant women receive special treatment?
    • Over 80% of all participants said “yes”

Part two involves a list of “special treatment” options consisting of:

  • Access to a more comfortable bed
  • Climate controlled cell
  • Larger cell
  • Single cell- no roommate
  • Wider variety of food options
  • Excused from holding a job


  • There top 3 answers:
  • wider variety of food options
  • access to a more comfortable bed
  • no roommate
  • One woman answers, “yes- for the sake of the baby” and checks comfortable bed, no roommate, and variety of food.


The majority of the surveyed students answered just as I had predicted; full of judgment and social stigmas. But the real surprise was the divide amongst the previously incarcerated women. Even by experiencing life in prison and the struggles of reentry, they were divided over the majority of the answers. Half of them still held sides with the students and participated in the stereotypical ideas about themselves and their experiences; while the other half took strides against it. Want to take the survey and see where you fall? Click here and see how you stand up against the stigmas.



You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *