Women in Prison

There used to be the perception that prison was primarily for men. even if this was once true, it is no longer the reality, especially in the united states. By 2004, American legislators had recognized that women were now entering prison in higher numbers than men. In addition, the crimes committed by women were just as horrific, including murder and drug trafficking.

Yet, there is another reality to the reason for the growing number of women in prison. Tuhus-Dubrow reports that many women commit minor crimes and often do so in response to a life of abuse and trauma.   “The far more typical female inmate is an addict who starts using drugs to deal with the trauma of childhood abuse and turns a few tricks to support her habit. Or the pawn who unwittingly gets caught serving as a ‘mule’ in a drug deal. Or the abused partner who fires the household gun in  desperation in a final fight” (2004, p. 7).  

Some of the astonishing and disturbing statistics she points out include the fact that between 1977 and 2003, in the State of New York alone, the female prison population increased by 500 percent. According to her research, a 1999 federal government released the data that “close to sixty percent of all women in state prisons nationwide suffered abusive histories” (Tuhus-Dubrow, 2004, p. 7). This leads to the unfortunate conclusion that many women commit crimes not necessarily for the interest in crime itself, or for the thrill of eluding the law but as a response to the social and psychological reality of their lives.  

Women in prison is a problematic issue not only for the fact of the increasing costs of incarceration and the loss of time in their lives, but because women are most often the primary caregiver in their families. Tamar Kraft-Stolar, Director of the Correctional Association of New York’s Women in Prison Project notes that approximately 75 percent of inmates are also mothers. This indicates a staggering number of children who are now losing their primary caregiver to the prison system. The social and psychological effects of women in prison are not only on the women themselves but on their families. Children must receive their primary care from either someone outside the family, or even an older relative. “This results in children being shuffled around to relatives or put into the foster care system, which wreaks havoc on a child’s development” ((Tuhus-Dubrow, 2004, p. 9).   This same author points out additional problems related to women in prison; the difficulties of arranging visits for children, the impact on children as they see their parent in prison, the economic impact on the family due to lost possible income and the emotional toll on everyone in the family.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a prominent organization that has turned its attention to the issues related to the incarceration of women. They have documented one of the most disturbing aspects of this growing phenomenon — that of the increasing number of women who are now either on death row or have already been executed for serious crimes. They refer to women in prison as The Forgotten Population, and actually produced a documentary with the same title.   Death row is now a reality for an increasing number of incarcerated women. As with incarceration itself, this was previously the domain of men. Yet, as the country toughens its stand on crime there is a growing population of women who live their lives waiting to be executed or die in the process. The ACLU reports that between 1984 and 2002, ten women were executed in the U.S. Their report (2004) found the following:

The report finds that women’s experiences on Death Row mirror many of the problems that have been documented in the cases of men condemned to death, such as inadequate defense counsel, official misconduct, poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, mental retardation and mental illness…A particularly disturbing finding of the report is the degree to which many of these women live in virtual isolation, which often leads to psychosis or exacerbates existing mental illnesses (para. 3).  

As indicated in the quote above, the ACLU research substantiates the research of   Tuhus-Dubrow (2004) and asserts that a majority of women in prison have coped with a long history of abuse. From a psychological perspective it is not surprising that this is so. Emotional, physical and sexual abuse leaves a trail of scars and trauma that are difficult to cope with. In addition, there is a distinct problem with access to good health care for people who are poor in America. Many of these women may not have received the proper treatment, or in fact any treatment for their experiences. The cycle of abuse and ultimate incarceration is a strong connection that may be hard to break if women cannot gain access to the necessary treatments. Yet, as the quote above also indicates there is a connection between the treatments of women in prison, particularly those on death row that is also abusive in nature.   The ACLU (2004) learned that “although more than half reported that they had been victims of physical or sexual abuse, fewer than half of the facilities offered any counseling for sexual, physical, or emotional abuse” (para. 7).

Women’s unique challenges in prison can include such issues as being pregnant at the time of incarceration, giving birth in prison, coping with menopause, and other health problems that are unique to women. There is an outstanding question however as to whether or not women are receiving the proper health care they require. Irrespective of whether they are in prison or not, they still deserve proper health care.  

Researcher, Sharon O’Brien reports on the experience of prison psychologist, Angela Browne. Browne has held this position for over twenty yeas. As such, she is in an excellent position to report on the experiences of incarcerated women. Browne’s research and in-depth interviews with these women also substantiate the fact that a primary problem of women in prison is that they have experienced a strong history of abuse in their lives. “Browne focuses on the woman’s history of exposure to violence, both her experience as a victim and as a witness. She starts with each woman’s earliest memories, and ends with her current incarceration” (O’Brien, 1999, para. 7). Furthermore, Browne describes the life of women in prison as a highly complex one in which like many men, they are there for life.  

Browne notes that women in prison live a complicated juxtaposition of pain and joy. For some, being on the ‘inside’ is a means to be away from their lives of abuse and trauma. At the prison where she works (Bedford Hills, maximum security), there are twenty women who have given birth. The prison now has a nursery with twenty babies. There is also a small program for women who will eventually leave. Some of them are learning to become trainers for seeing eye dogs. So, the prison has a puppy colony too. There are days that Browne sees real joy in the lives of these women. Then, there are the days of sheer torture — the knowledge that some of them will never leave.  

Browne’s research does not sugar coat the problem, however. She also notes that the prison now houses so many teenagers that they had to create a special group for them, to help them cope with the hard realities of their lives. While there is a nursery and some puppies, the truth is, prison is a rough environment. One of the most pervasive problems is the fact that many women suffer with psychiatric difficulties/mental illness. As such, their crimes dictated they are in prison, but the prison cannot possibly provide for their needs.   As O’Brien (1999) notes: “There are severely mentally ill women who should be hospitalized but instead are sentenced to prison, and physically ill women at lower security levels who need more intensive medical services than other prisons can provide” (para. 17). Browne’s research also documents that the environment for women in prison is also far less violent than it is for men’s prisons. She notes that there are far fewer violent incidents and women in prison rarely become physically violent.  

The United States General Accounting Office has published several reports on the subject of women in prison. Two of them are highly relevant to this research paper. The first (1999) is on the general issues and challenges faced by incarcerated women. First, the report substantiates the growth of the female prison population as documented by Tuhus-Dubrow (2004). “Since 1980, the number of female inmates under the jurisdiction of federal and state correctional authorities increased more than 500 percent–from about 13,400 in 1980 to about 84,400 at calendar year-end 1998, with the preponderance in state facilities” (Women in Prison: Issues, p. 2).   The report also verifies that a high percentage of women who go to prison have experienced either “physical or sexual abuse” (p. 4).   This report states that one of the key issues for women in prison that is often not generally known is that they are often incarcerated far from their actual home. Even though the numbers are on the rise on a federal basis, the number of women imprisoned in each state does not warrant building maximum security facilities in each state. Therefore, women are often imprisoned hundreds of miles away from their families. This makes it even harder for their children and other family members to visit them.  

This same report indicates that while the Bedford Hill prison that Angela Browne works in provides a nursery, many prisons do not. As a result, infants born in prison are often removed from the facility as soon as possible, breaking the bond between mother and baby. While California is another state that provides infant facilities, most do not p.6). A woman who has given birth in prison who cannot keep her baby faces the dual issues of coping with both her imprisonment and the loss of her child.   As stated earlier in this paper, women do not necessarily receive all the support services they need and it is possible that many of these women must cope with the psychological ramifications of their situation on their own. While health care is provided in prison, this report definitely questions the quality of that care and notes that not all federal jurisdictions offer such services and that “prior research and lawsuits in several states indicated that improvements in the delivery of services may be needed” (p. 6.)

In addition to female-specific health care issues, it is not surprising that this report reveals there is also a problem with substance abuse, untreated mental illness and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in women’s prisons. There may be a problem again with being able to provide the range of services such as health education, substance abuse treatment and psychiatric services in the federal prison system.  

This report goes on to assert that:  

Female inmates have higher rates of mental illness and HIV infection than male inmates. For example, according to BJS’ 1997 surveys of prison inmates, about 13 percent of female inmates in federal prisons and about24 percent of female inmates in state prisons reported a mental condition or an overnight stay in a mental hospital or treatment program, compared with 7 percent of male inmates in federal prisons and about 16 percent of  male inmates in state prisons. Also, at calendar year-end 1997, 3.5 percent of all female inmates in state prisons were known to be HIV infected, versus 2.2 percent of all male inmates in state prisons (p. 7).  


The reasons for women’s incarceration varied as it does with men, but this same report documents that the highest percentage of crimes is the area of drug offenses — 65.5% Next highest is property offenses — 16.5%, then public order offenses — 8.5% and violent offenses were low at 7.7% (p. 24). Women of color constitute the two highest groups of incarcerated women at 38.6% and 29.5% respectively (p. 23). Another interesting statistic is the fact that the majority of incarcerated women had never been married, although they may, or may not have been living with a common-law partner (p. 36). Additional patterns that were documented in this report included the fact of a high rate of substance abuse by the women inmates. Information on this issue was collected between 1986 and 1997. The report notes that as high as 57% of the women reported at least some level of substance abuse and although percentages varied, a minimum of 46% of the women were under the influence of some form of substance (alcohol or drugs) at the time of their offense (p.33).  

There are currently eight states that have women only federal correctional institutions. They are California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Arizona, West Virginia and Connecticut. The fact that there are only eight such institutions in the entire country underscore the problem mentioned earlier that women in prison are often hundreds of miles away from their families. This exacerbates their sense of familial isolation, sense of loss, depression and frustration already engendered by the very fact of being incarcerated. Yet, the problem continues to grow to such an extent that one of California’s prisons for women is now one of the largest of its kind in the world (p. 39).  

One of the most pervasive and serious problems for women in prison is that of sexual misconduct by prison staff. The United States General Accounting Office (1999) has also published an excellent and thorough report on this topic. Although there are stiff penalties for staff who are caught in sexual (or other forms of) misconduct, the unfortunate reality is that this continues to occur. Women are perhaps more vulnerable as they may be more willing to share their feelings and talk about themselves openly. As such, they are able to establish an emotional rapport with their guards (both male and female). From a psychological perspective, the fact of spending time in prison is a lonely and often debilitating experience. Although society labels prison as a ‘rehabilitative experience’, it is often anything but. For someone to have a prison record still carries a certain of stigma and no doubt a majority of inmates feel a sense of shame at having landed in prison. The environment itself is an unhealthy one with hundreds (sometimes thousands) of people forced to live together in a confined environment. Inmates know they are being observed and judged every minute they spend inside the prison and undoubtedly this creates a sense of fear and trepidation. It is therefore not surprising that unhealthy relationships should be one of the results.

There is also a power differential between guards and inmates. This power is a fundamental issue in the creation of dysfunctional and abusive relationships. As long as guards know they have this power then they will have the ability to coerce female inmates into sexual relationships.   In addition to the existence of an actual power differential there is the notion that there is the lack of any ability for inmates to negotiate their surroundings. For most people, there is a daily negotiation of our environment. We decide in what ways we will spend (at least some of) our time and the ways in which we do this. We also have (to some degree) the ability to negotiate the way our environment (our home, office) appears. Yet, these negotiations are not merely about appearances. They are a way for people to make themselves comfortable in the world. This is another thing that is taken away from inmates. Their environment is limited and their ability to make change in order to make themselves comfortable is also limited. The connection between this lack of negotiation ability and sexual misconduct is the fact that prisoners may give in to inappropriate sexual relationships in order to gain some ability to negotiate ways to deal with their time and space.

According to the report by the US General Accounting Office (1999), data collected between 1995 and 1998 indicate the following: “At least 92 allegations of staff sexual misconduct were sustained in the three largest U.S. correctional systems. That is, the allegations resulted in staff resignations,13 employment terminations, or other administrative sanctions” (p. 7). The report goes on to suggest that sexual misconduct is part of an overall continuum of abuse that occurs in prison.   As such, dysfunctional and abusive situations regularly occur in prisons. These range from unauthorized beatings, to verbal and physical threats and all the way towards sexual misconduct, or raping inmates. Thus, sexual misconduct is part of an overall way in which inmates are treated. It is merely the severest form of the abuse they are subjected to on a regular basis (p. 8).

Incarcerated women have the right to expect that, at the very least, they are going to be safe in prison. But, there is every indication that women are not safe and very much at risk for sexual violence. Another factor in sexual misconduct may be the sheer loneliness and the prospect of facing the rest of their life in prison. For many women, their sense of vulnerability, loneliness and the need to talk with someone other than fellow inmates, are some of the factors that may lead inmates and guards into a sexual relationship. Many inmates feel they have nothing to lose. Some of them are in prison for a second, third, or even fourth time and to them, the need for the sexual relationship outweighs any punishment they feel they might have to endure

The subject of women in prison is a highly complex one. There is most definitely a need for extensive research on this subject, particularly in the area of the connection between the cycle of abuse and eventual imprisonment. All the research cited in this paper indicates the abuse and imprisonment are interconnected for women. Another pattern that emerges is the connection between substance abuse and the nature of women’s crimes. Women tend to commit more serious crimes when they are either high or intoxicated. Beyond the actual crimes however, there is the reality of life in prison. Women have specific health care needs and there is every indication that not all of these needs are being addressed in every facility. Due to the fact that there are fewer federal prisons for women, they are often incarcerated far from their families. This leads to additional emotional isolation for both the women and their children. This sense of isolation no doubt has a serious effect on the children whose mothers are in prison. Another serious pattern that emerges is the vulnerability of women in prison. They are, no doubt at serious risk for being beaten and raped. This kind of violence is unfortunately symptomatic of prison life. Women in prison is a topic that is in need of serious and further research from those that can possibly affect positive change.


  1. Very informative, sickening to know this is. American justice, our government continues to fail, always making the wrong decisions. This is wrong, to punish mental illness, a large percentage of these women need help, harmless to society, their offspring adrift, potential prisoners of the future. Our justice system is so inhumane, and ignorant, and so unbalanced, the scales of justice never seem to balance, have you ever noticed the scales tip to one side or the other? God is the judge, but our dis-functional justice system is not American, as the framers of the constitution would intend it to be. This is such a frustrating situation, to know this is only getting worse. This is no longer America, unless those indesicive idiots, can make wise choices for whats best for this cancerous country. My name is Russ Hamby, and I don’t give a damn, which suit and tie, I my offend, you ass-kissing money hungry congressmen, do what is right.

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