Personality features of female offenders in prison family relationships.

Author:Fraser, Kathryn L.
 
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Female inmates represent the fastest-growing segment of the adult prison population (Islam-Zwart, Vik and Rawlins, 2007; Thompson and Loper, 2005). Unique to this population are intricate social networks, including the formation of surrogate families, sometimes referred to as "play families" or "prison families" (Huggins, Capeheart and Newman, 2006; Welch, 2004). Although surrogate families are more typically found in women's correctional settings, they may be similar to male prison gangs in that they equip the inmate with "friendship, respect, individuality and emotional support" (Huggins et al., 2006). Little research exists regarding the characteristics of women who are drawn to these social structures. In particular, to the authors' knowledge, no studies have examined whether particular interpersonal personality patterns are associated with inmates who seek such familial relationships in prison.

Surrogate Families in Women's Prisons

Surrogate families are referred to in the literature as "make-believe families," "fantasy families," "state families," "quasi families" and "fictive kin" (Shaffer, 2004). These social groups comprise inmates who mimic a stereotypical family, most often constituting mother, daughter and sister roles (Huggins et al., 2006; Severance, 2005; Shaffer, 2004). Estimates range from 25 percent to 80 percent of women reporting participation in surrogate families while in prison (Huggins et al., 2006; MacKenzie, Robinson and Campbell, 1989; Propper, 1982; Severance, 2005; Shaffer, 2004). This wide range may reflect the various ways that women define and label their unique relationships with other inmates. Inmates may use familial labels to describe their relationships with other inmates and yet not identify themselves as part, of an organized family.

Although some research suggests that a homosexual marriage unit is instrumental in surrogate family configuration (Shaffer, 2004), an emotional rather than physical bond between female inmates appears to be a central motivation for women who join these families (Huggins et al., 2006; Severance, 2005; Propper, 1982). Only 1 percent to 4 percent of women report implementing a spouse or male role within the surrogate family and lesbian or gay identification (Propper). Along similar lines, Huggins et al. (2006) reported that of the 61 female inmates who were members of play families, 92 percent reported that homosexuality was not expected as part of their relations with their surrogate family members.

Women who participate in these families may believe that the structure offers relief from institutional stress (Huggins et al., 2006; Shaffer, 2004). For example, younger and newly arrived inmates are statistically more likely to participate in a play family than older inmates or those who have been in prison longer (Huggins et al., 2006; MacKenzie et al., 1989: Severance, 2005), suggesting that surrogate families may ease the adjustment difficulties of transitioning to prison. However, a review of existing studies indicates that women who participate in surrogate families show greater emotional distress, poor adjustment problems, more severe institutional infractions and higher rates of victimization than women who do not participate in surrogate families (Huggins et al., 2006; Loper and Whitney-Gildea, 2004: Severance, 2005: Shaffer, 2004). Loper and Whitney-Gildea (2004) observed a relationship between perceived personal support from surrogate family membership and increased anger levels. Huggins et al. (2006) found that female inmates who were members of a surrogate family were more likely to be involved in institutional fights than nonsurrogate members (46 percent vs. 27 percent). Women in surrogate families often experience the abusive and/or exploitive relationships with their family members that imitate the abuse they experienced before incarceration (Severance, 2005; Shaffer, 2004).

This body of literature might appear counterintuitive. It is reasonable to predict that women who find support from family-like relationships with other women would have better adjustment, mediated by a supportive social network. One explanation for this surprising association between surrogate family participation and poor adjustment may be that women who suffer from long standing relational difficulties may be more attracted to the seeming stability of a family unit, leading to more intense association with other impaired women. Once involved in such a unit, they may repeat previous poor patterns of behavior. One likely marker for such longstanding patterns is the inmate's personality features, summarized by measures of personality disorder.

Like surrogate family membership, personality disorder among female inmates is associated with poor adjustment patterns (Kellogg and Young. 2006; Loper, Mahmoodzadegan and Warren, 2008; Muris, 2006). Moreover, women in prison as a group evidence high levels of personality disorder, particularly in the arenas of borderline personality disorder antisocial personality disorder (Black et al., 2007; Hurt and Oltmanns, 2002: Komarovskaya, Loper and Warren. 2007). Patterns of personality disorder are characterized by inflexible and maladaptive patterns that typically include marked deviations in interpersonal functioning (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). It is plausible that inmates with personality disorders that include longstanding relational patterns may find support for maintaining these patterns through surrogate family participation. These families may mirror their own previous maladaptive or abusive family histories (Kellogg and Young, 2006; Loper, Mahmoodzadegan and Warren, 2008; Muris, 2006; Young, 2005; Young et. al, 2003).

Young (1994) theorized that personality disorders are characterized by maladaptive schemas that are developed during childhood and confirmed by life expenences. As the schemas develop, they become cognitive patterns that drive an individual's behavior. The schemas are stable because individuals seek the familiarity of situations that fit with their maladaptive cognitive patterns, perpetuating adverse behaviors. Possibly, women in prison with personality disorders seek out relationships with other inmates that are based on their previously developed familial patterns. Once in this family unit, their interpersonal schemas, expressed as personality disorder, activate and recreate the dysfunctional relationships that...

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