Gender-Specific Therapy for Women Prisoners Research Question essay

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Gender-Specific Therapy for Women Prisoners


On average, women make up about 7% of the total federal and state incarcerated population in the United States. This has increased since the 1980s due to stricter and more severe laws that focus on recreational drug use, a lack of community programs, and fewer treatment centers available for outpatients (Zaitow and Thomas, eds., 2003). According to the National Women's Law Centers, women prisoners report a higher than statistically normal history of domestic violence in their immediate past, and the fastest growing prison population with a disproportionate number of non-Whites forming over 60% of the population. In fact, over 30% of women in prison are serving sentences for murder involving a spouse or partner. The incarceration of women presents far different cultural and sociological issues than those of men -- issues with children, family, sexual politics and more (NWLC, 2012).

The rapid increase of female prisoners in a male-dominated system has left fewer adequate resources available for women. In addition, most research shows that women's prison experiences differ drastically from those of men because their relationships inside and outside prison tend to shape the culture then enter into in prison.

Women tend to form differing structures than men, finding roles similar to that which they would undertake outside prison. In addition, over 60% of women in prison were the primary guardians for their children, causing women to experience a higher degree of trauma and separation anxiety as well as a differing view of the judicial system and their own roles (Women in the Criminal Justice System, 2012). What is true, however, is that there is a clear disconnect in being able to handle the issues surrounding criminal justice in the U.S. For example, while the total U.S. population rose about 25% from 1980 to 2006, roughly 25 years, the prison population rose almost 400%. Nearly one in four of all prisoners globally are in American prisons; one in nine African-Americans, and now our prison system and local jails have almost 2.5 million prisoners causing an extreme burden on the criminal justice system, public health and safety and the taxpayer (Gonnerman, 2008).

Because of these divergent issues, our research will ask: are women offenders more likely to be successful if they participate in a gender-response program vs. A traditional, non-gender specific program?


There is general consensus in both the academic and governmental fields that the American prison system is broken. At best, we might look at our prison system as a massive warehouse for humans -- but conditions likened to our meat industry; overcrowded conditions with understaffed personnel. Additionally, the public continues to criticize the high recidivism rate usually associated with the modern prison population. Due to these sociological issues, it is the exception rather than the rule for inmates to meld back into productive society. However, the more unhappy members of society become, and the more conservative politicians vote for harsher penalties, the problem exacerbates. Crowding increases, services decline, and even the most liberal minded criminologists realize there is almost no chance for rehabilitation. As late as 2009, in fact, the United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the entire world (West, 2010). It is important to note, though, that the United States does report all of its prisoners, and it is likely some countries do not. Still, there is an unbelievably high incarceration rate of 748/100,000 inmates in the U.S., or .75%, causing many global organizations to remark that the United States has 1% of its population in jail, and another 3% on parole, with another half a percent as juveniles, making it the wealthiest country in the world with 5% of its population tied up in the penal system (Total U.S. Correctional Population, 2010).

The actual number of women in the U.S. prison system is increasing nearly twice that of men. About 33% of these women are incarcerated due to drug offenses. More than 60% have histories of physical and sexual abuse, high rates of HIV infection, and substance issues. In addition to the sociological problems faced by incarcerating more women, there has been a clear increase in the number of children suffering from loss of family ties and stability (Women in the Justice System, 2012).

Because female incarceration is different, there are several rehabilitative programs and theories that may have special use for women: gender-responsive and/or cognitive based. We know that males and females develop cognitively in different ways, react to certain stimuli in divergent ways, and even communicate in slightly different fashions. It therefore stands to reason that any therapeutic or rehabilitative approach would also take into consideration gender as part of its paradigm. Correctional programs, in the past, have been based almost exclusively on research focused on male inmates. It is clear that gender-responsive programs, designed specifically for women of all ages, provide a better basis for success regardless of the underlying theoretical bias (Van Gundy).

Gender-Responsive Services -- address the needs of a gender group by allowing gender to affect and guide the types of services offered, creating a social and cultural environment in which content, staff, and material are more responsive to the gender at hand. These types of programs are designed to make the individual gender, in our case women, feel safe, sustain consistent and supportive relationships, and opportunities to heal from specific trauma and have some degree of success in moving from incarceration back into society. This is particularly valuable because females within corrections have differences in type and associated symptoms than males (four times the rate of depression and a higher incidence of severe mental health disorders) (Van Gundy-Yoder, 2010).

Cognitive based theory assumes that the reason for any disorder or dysfunction is based on cognitive reasons and seeks to use metacognitive strategies to help the client become more aware of problem solving skills, and learning how to monitor and control anger or other negative behaviors. This tends not to make any distinction between gender, but is based on the individual's own ability to understand and mitigate their particular situation (Seabrook and Brokett, 2010).

Which approach does one take? It certainly depends on whether one believes that the basic psychological make-up between genders differs. If we take the prison population of women, however, we do see that there are fundamental differences in race, education, and acculturation than that of the overall female population of the United States. Thus, it would make more sense to focus any therapy or rehabilitation philosophy specifically on the manner in which women approach incarceration, how we might engender more success and community, and ways that women can feel safer and adapt better to uncomfortable situations. Most scholars agree that women who are in the criminal justice system have different needs than their male counterparts (racism, sexism, economic oppression). When dealing with these larger issues, then, it is more desirable to use a framework in which the chance of success by focusing on specific issues is paramount (Bloom, 2001).

During the last two decades, there has been a rather profound change in the way in which women are treated within the criminal justice system. Thankfully, the system has listened to what sociologists have said, but more expansive law enforcement efforts, increased drug-related penalties, and post-conviction barriers to reentry into society sometimes uniquely affect women (Women in the Criminal Justice System, 2007). In general, when female prisoners are released, they have high rearrests rates, low employment, and almost no social service outlets. Much of this stems from not having appropriate services while incarcerated. It is interesting that overall drug use and criminal activity diminish the first year after release, but then grow if no opportunities for advancement present themselves. Post release employment and health insurance were significantly associated with lower rearrests rates and drug use. Housing, counseling, and other treatments will improve successful reentry into society, which suggests that new public policies are needed to improve issues regarding women and incarceration (Freudenberg,, 2005).


Hypothesis -- Gender-based psychological and rehabilitative programs are more effective for females who have been incarcerated that those that are more generic or based on total population data.

Basis - To define and analyze our research question, we will survey the literature as well as develop a qualitative instrument to administer to a sampling of prison psychologists and/or criminologists. Our primary theoretic base will focus on appropriate gender-response theory and programs that allow for gender differences within their structure. If there is time and permission can be gleaned, we will also submit a sample survey to a portion of a female prison population, as well as attempt to conduct at least a few face-to-face interviews.

We will attempt a "mixed" method research paradigm. This is a way to combine the best of both the qualitative approach and the quantitative paradigm so that both sides of the argument are adequately covered. In the case of the research, the qualitative defined strategies, while the quantitative measured actual results. If there…[continue]

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