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Prisons: Prisons for Women

Problems And Unmet Needs In The Contemporary Women's Prison

Women in the contemporary prison face many problems; some resulting from their lives prior to imprisonment, others resulting from their imprisonment itself. Women in prison have experienced victimization, unstable family life, school and work failure, and substance abuse and mental health problems. Social factors that marginalize their participation in mainstream society and contribute to the rising number of women in prison include poverty, minority group member, single motherhood, and homelessness. While in U.S. prisons, women, like prisoners throughout the world, face specific pains and deprivations arising directly from their imprisonment. Criminologists have argued that the prison system is ill-equipped to deal with these problems and that theses issues are better managed outside the punitive environment of the prison (Owen and Bloom; Owen). Without attention to these issues, women are often released from prison unprepared to manage their preexisting problems as well as those created by their imprisonment. There are several critical problems faced by women in prison; most are unmet in the prison environment.

Separation from children and significant others. National surveys of women prisoners find that three-fourths of them were mothers, with two-thirds having children under the age of eighteen. Bloom and Chesney-Lind argue that mothers in prison face multiple problems in maintaining relationships with their children and encounter obstacles created both by the correctional system and child welfare agencies. The distance between the prison and the children's homes, lack of transportation, and limited economic resources compromise a woman prisoner's ability to maintain these relationships. Children of women in prison experience many hardships. Children may be traumatized by the arrest of their mother and the sudden, forced separation imprisonment brings. Emotional reactions such as anger, anxiety, depression, and aggression have been found in the children of incarcerated mothers. While most children of imprisoned mothers live with relatives—typically grandparents—a small percentage of these children are placed in the child welfare system. These conditions compound the problem of maintaining contact with children. Over half of the women responding to Bloom and Steinhart's 1993 survey of imprisoned mothers reported never receiving visits from their children.

An estimated 4 to 9 percent of women come to prison pregnant. Women who give birth while incarcerated are rarely allowed to spend time with their child after birth. Mother-infant bonding is severely undermined by this lack of contact after birth. Bedford Hills, a women's prison in New York, is the only program in the U.S. that allows women to keep their newborns with them in a special prison program. This humane response is more common in Britain and other European nations.

Most correctional systems do not take into account the importance of the mother-child relationship in designing policy for women in prison. Some states, such as New York and California, have begun innovative programs to address these problems. Coordinating visits to the prison and support services with child welfare agencies, providing special visiting areas, developing effective parenting classes, and developing community corrections programs for mothers and their children are examples of these innovations. Termination of parental rights also affect prison mothers. About half the states have policies that address the termination of parental rights of incarcerated parents. Advocates of women in prison and their children argue that family reunification, rather than termination of the mother's parental rights, should be a priority of correctional policy for women prisoners.

Lack of substance abuse treatment. Although women offenders are very likely to have an extensive history of drug and alcohol use, a relatively small percentage of women receive any treatment within the justice system. Insufficient individual assessment, limited treatment for pregnant, mentally ill, and violent women offenders, and a lack of appropriate treatment and vocational training limit the effectiveness of the few programs that exist (Wellisch et al.). These findings are supported by a 1998 study released by the National Center on Addition and Substance Abuse. The report found that women substance abusers are more prone to intense emotional distress, psychosomatic symptoms, and low self-esteem than male inmates.

Physical and mental health care. In addition to requiring basic health care, women offenders often have specific health needs related to their risky sexual and drug-using behavior prior to imprisonment. Acoca has argued that the enormity of health care issues may in fact eclipse other correctional concerns as the female inmate population continues to grow. Women in prison are also at risk for infectious diseases, including HIV, tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases, and hepatitis B and C infections. Pregnancy and reproductive health needs are another neglected area of health care. Problems of pregnant inmates include lack of prenatal and postnatal care, inadequate education regarding childbirth and parenting, and little or no preparation for the mother's separation from the infant after delivery.

Mental health disorders are equally neglected in U.S. prisons. While the prevalence and incidence of these needs are still to be determined, estimates suggest that 25 percent to 60 percent of the female prison population require mental health services. Teplin, Abraham, and McClelland found that over 60 percent of female jail inmates had symptoms of drug abuse, over 30 percent had signs of alcohol dependence, and another third had post-traumatic stress disorder. Few prisons have adequate assessment or mental health treatment programs and often "overmedicate" women inmates in need of more intensive treatment.

The impact of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse found in the experience of women offenders also creates a significant need for counseling and therapy (Pollock). This abuse has implications for their emotional and physical well-being and may be tied to drug-abusing and offending behaviors.

Vocation and educational programs. In addition to insufficient substance abuse and mental health services, educational and vocational programs are also in short supply. Several studies (Pollock-Byrne; Morash, Haarr, and Rucker) found that female prisons offered fewer vocational and education program opportunities when compared to those offered in male institutions. In general, women across the country lack training needed to obtain jobs that pay a living wage. One aspect of this inadequacy is that, like the training offered in the reformatories of the early 1990s, many vocational programs for female inmates emphasize traditional roles for women and work.

Sexual abuse. The patterns of sexual abuse and coercion established in the early days of women's imprisonment continue in the contemporary era. Human Rights Watch examined this serious problem in their review of sexual abuse in selected U.S. prisons. The damage of the abuse itself is compounded by four specific issues: (1) the inability to escape one's abuser; (2) ineffectual or nonexistent investigative and grievance procedures; (3) lack of employee accountability (either criminally or administratively); and (4) little or no public concern. The report bluntly states that the "findings indicate that being a woman in U.S. state prisons can be a terrifying experience" (p. 1).

Disparate disciplinary practices. Although male prisons typically hold a much greater percentage of violent offenders, women tend to receive disciplinary action at a greater rate than men. Research has found that women prisoners were cited more frequently and punished more severely than males. These infractions committed by women in prison tend to be petty when compared to the more serious infractions committed by male prisoners (McClelland).

Gender-specific treatment. Bloom and Covington have charged that the criminal justice system often fails to develop a diversity of options for dealing with the gender and culturally specific problems of female offenders. Gender-specific services should incorporate physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and sociopolitical issues in addressing these needs. Gender-responsive supervision and program approaches must focus on issues such as cross-gender supervision, appropriate relationships between staff and offenders, parity in programming, and appropriate interventions for women offenders. There is also a need for gender-responsive (and culturally relevant) classification tools, assessment instruments, treatment plans, and aftercare. Based on the characteristics of women offenders, their pathways to crime, how they differ from male offenders, and how the system responds to them differently, the need for gender-responsive treatment and services seems clear.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPrisons: Prisons for Women - History, The Contemporary Prison, Co-corrections, Prison Subcultures, Population Increases, The Composition Of Women's Prisons