Dealing with the unique needs of women in the prison system
The number of female prison inmates in America and internationally is growing. Although men still outnumber women in the prison population, the rates of female incarceration, once considered relatively nominal, have skyrocketed. "In the U.S., where the prison and jail population reached two million in the year 2000, women's incarceration is also spiralling upwards at a greater pace than that of men. While the number of men in U.S. prisons and jails doubled between 1985 and 1995, women's imprisonment during the same period tripled" (Sudbury 2002). These escalating rates are surprising, given that women are far more likely to be the victims rather than the perpetrators of violent crimes. "While their relative proportions are small, the growing numbers of women being sent to prison is disproportionate to their involvement in serious crime. Women imprisoned in state and federal correctional institutions throughout the United States totaled 94,336 at mid-year 2001, representing 6.6% of the total prisoner population" (Zaitzow 2004).
The 'war on drugs' and laws such as 'three strikes and you are out' have increased incarceration rates for several categories of prisoners, such as substance abusers, and women often figure prominently in such cases. "Policies such as mandatory minimums, truth-in-sentencing and three strikes that cause more people to serve prison sentences, for longer terms, and leads to spiralling prison populations" (Sudbury 2004). This paper will argue that there has been an insufficiently swift paradigm swift within the corrections community to deal with the unique challenges of female prisoners, which include sexual victimization and economic dependence on male, criminal figures. A new, feminist paradigm is necessary that takes into consideration the social injustices perpetuated by patriarchal institutions is required for the justice system to adapt to the new reality, to fully address women's unique psychological and sociological needs, and to reduce incarceration rates and recidivism.
Statistics on women in prisons
According to the Bureau of Justice: "based on the self-reports of victims of violence, women account for about 14% of violent offenders…The rate of male violent offending translated into about 1 violent offender for every 9 males age 10 or older in the general population; the rate of female violent offending was equal to about 1 violent offender for every 56 females age 10 or older (Greenfield & Snell 2000:1-2). About 1 out of every 109 adult women in the U.S. population is involved in the prison system as an inmate. However, women are rarely the instigators of violent crimes alone. "About 8% of violent female offenders committed their offense together with at least one male offender; by contrast, about 1% of male violent offenders committed the offense in the company of a female offender" (Greenfield & Snell 2000:2). And although the rate of women who commit murder and other violent crimes has gone down since 1980, the rates of female incarceration have been increasing, particularly in the areas of drug-related crimes. "Violence and drug trafficking…account for 17% of women on probation, 24% of those sentenced to local jails, 46% of those incarcerated in State prisons, and 65% of those confined in Federal prisons" (Greenfield & Snell 2000:7). In addition to these demographic differences between women and men are other psychological differences that must be taken into account when prescribing a course of rehabilitative treatment for a female inmate. Treating populations 'the same' with profoundly different needs can be innately discriminatory.
Mental illness amongst women in prison
Mental illness is rife amongst both incarcerated men and women. Although the legal system has a specific definition of what it means to be legally 'insane,' merely because someone has been convicted of a crime does not mean that he or she is sane according to a DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) definition of sanity. For example, one recent study by Blitz (et al. 2005) of recently-released New Jersey special needs prison inmates found that 68% had more than one Axis I mental disorder, a personality disorder, an addiction problem or multiple illnesses. While this propensity was true both of women and men in the study population, men were more likely to exhibit antisocial behavior and addiction problems. In contrast, "women are more likely to have active disorders of somatization, depression, generalized anxiety, panic, and phobia" (Blitz et al. 2005). This suggests that programs specifically designed to help women reintegrate into society must offer psychological counseling with a different emphasis than programs designed for men. Social programs that take a less punitive attitude towards mental illness may be more beneficial for women given that individuals with mood-related complaints often complain of low self-esteem and turn their angry feelings against themselves and others.
That women tend to exhibit high rates of depression and a strong tendency to act violently against the self, not just society, than do men is supported by other research in this area, nationally and internationally. There is an extremely high rate of past suicide attempts among incarcerated females. In another study of 107 female inmates, 38.1% had attempted suicide in the past, reported symptoms of depression and other mood disorders or showed symptoms of borderline personality disorder (Chapman et al. 2005).
The connection between mental illness and women committing crimes also seems to be far stronger than in males: emotional distress rather than social reinforcement for aggression may be at the root of much of female criminal behavior. For example, women made up a much larger percentage of 'special needs' inmates. Of the New Jersey prisons study, 16% of males were classified as special needs compared with 37% of females (Blitz et al. 2005). The sources of these higher rates of mental illness may be both biological and sociological. A study of HIV-infected prisoners found that of women inmates "96% had neurological examination abnormalities involving either the central or peripheral nervous system, or both, with associated neurological histories predating their current crime conviction, regardless of current HIV serological status" (Brewer-Smyth et al. 2007). Blows to the head were one of the most commonly-attributed sources of this status, which could result from childhood abuse and victimization or domestic violence victimization later in life. Head traumas are associated with mental illness and violent and aggressive behaviors in both genders.
Perhaps most tellingly, women inmates are more likely to have been the victims of sexual assault. In California, 80% of incarcerated women were found to be the victims of sexual assault. As well as the threat of sexual violence from other prisoners, "women's experiences of sexual harassment and abuse, lack of privacy, and retaliation during incarceration may further increase women's risk for depression, anxiety, PTSD, and decreased overall well-being before release from prison" (Dirks 2004). There is an implied possible causal role between the aftereffects of being sexually assaulted and the sense of a lack of self-worth that leads to criminal behavior. Of course, it could be argued that this is correlation rather than causation: poor, nonwhite women are more likely to be convicted of crimes and the instability of their lives, housing situations, and precarious economic lives might lead them into situations where sexual assaults are more likely to take place. Still, it is a possible hypothesis that untreated sexual assault can cause the negative thinking and behavior patterns to persist which disempower women and discourage them from availing themselves of potential sources of rehabilitation while in prison.
Women have traditionally been seen as the 'less violent' gender and their relatively small numbers in the prison population has tended to generate social programs that emphasize aggression containment in men and reducing social factors that support such aggression such as anti-gang activities. But these programs are often less relevant to women's lives. For example, a survey of 4,204 respondents (3,986 males and 218 females) females found that a mental disorder was reported by 19.8% of male and 46.1% of female participants, "with 6.6% of males and 19.4% of females reporting a serious mental disorder." (Wolff et al. 2011:1485). While "the criminal thinking patterns of male and female inmates who reported mental disorders were consistent with those of inmates who reported no mental disorders…Inmates reporting mental disorders scored significantly higher on measures of aggression and hopelessness" (Wolff et al. 2011:1485). Untreated mental disorders may be more likely to leave the causes of female-instigated crime untreated as well because of the higher rates of women in need of such psychological counseling.
The treatment of women in prison often exacerbates this victim psychology and contributes to a sense that the woman's body and therefore the woman's life are worthless. Said one woman: "We were in orange jump suits, with no underwear. For some girls, it was that time of the month. One girl had to keep a pad on with a jump suit with no panties on. That's just the way it is. And they don't care" (Zaitzow 2004). PTSD, a common response of a sexual abuse survivor may be aggravated by the physical vulnerability…