Gender-responsive treatment and the need to examine female inmates' lives in prison and prior to prison.

Author:McDonald, Danielle

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the number of people with drug addictions entering the U.S. federal and state prison and local jail systems increased due to "get tough on crime" policies and changes in laws regarding illegal drugs. Women were particularly impacted as "the number of women entering the jail and prison systems in the United States escalated by 202 percent over the past decade" (Pomeroy, Kiam and Abel, 1999). As female offenders were brought into the system for drug-related crimes, they also brought with them issues related to their substance abuse. For example, approximately one-third of incarcerated American women self-reported that they were under the influence of a drug at the time of their offense, while one-half self reported using drugs on a daily basis (Morash, 1994).

For women, substance abuse is one outlet to deny or avoid problems in their lives, such as prior victimization (Bloom, Owen and Covington, 2003). In a 1997 survey, female inmates reported higher rates of physical and sexual abuse prior to their incarceration than male inmates. Forty-seven percent of female inmates reported experiencing physical abuse and 39 percent reported sexual abuse prior to their incarceration (Mauer, Potler and Wolf, 1999). Women who experience abuse and lack a social support system often turn to substances as a negative coping strategy in order to avoid the problem at hand. Therefore, due to policies and law changes stemming from the war on drugs, female offenders are entering the criminal justice system at an alarming rate.

It is important to better understand female inmates as the number of women incarcerated continues to increase. Women comprise a small percentage of the national prison population and are often ignored in corrections research. Historically, research has been predicated on the assumption that women have similar experiences to men (Bloom et al., 2003). Programs and policies that are effective with men are implemented in women's facilities with the assumption that they will work for women, too. But because they do not consider gender differences, these programs are often not effective (Bloom et al., 2003}. Researchers at the National Institute of Corrections have recommended that treatment within the correctional system be gender-responsive. This approach takes into consideration the need for "creating an environment ... that reflects an understanding of the realities of women's lives and addresses the issues of women" (Bloom et al., 2003). Giallombardo (1966) and Owen (1998) both concluded that in order to truly understand female inmates, researchers and policymakers need to examine women's lives not only in prison, but prior to prison as well. This knowledge will help to improve treatment programs and policies for women in prison by acknowledging gender differences and allowing for gender-specific needs to be met.

This study examines the lives of alcohol- and drug-addicted female inmates, prior to prison and once in prison, to better understand the behavior and needs of these women. By delving into their pre-prison lives, the root of their substance abuse can be identified for later treatment needs. It is important to examine the problems women face once in prison so treatment can address these issues as well. These problems can be used by treatment staff as a way to practice the skills learned in treatment and can serve as a practice for problems women will face after release.

Literature Review

In 1966, Rose Giallombardo conducted one of the first examinations of incarcerated women's lives. Giallombardo's study took place in the federal prison for women in Alderson, W.Va. At the time of this study, very little was known about female inmates. After observing the women, Giallombardo concluded that prison life for women mirrored women's lives and roles on the outside: "The culture that emerges within the prison structure may be seen to incorporate and reflect the total external social structure; that is, the way in which roles are defined in the external world influence the definitions made within the prison." Relationships, therefore, are central to women's prison lives. Female inmates in Giallombardo's study created pseudofamilies as a coping skill to adapt to prison life. These roles are similar to roles women play outside prison, such as mother, aunt or sister. A small minority of women in prison was found to take on male roles within the family such as father, uncle or brother.

Women in prison adapt to life in a similar manner as women adapt in the free world--by constructing relationships (Giallombardo, 1966). Giallombardo concludes her book by writing, "greater understanding of the prison communities, then, may best be accomplished by focusing attention on the relationship of the external and internal cultures, rather than by trying to understand the prison as an institution isolated from the larger society."

During the 1970s, James Fox conducted a study examining female inmates and their prison lives. This study took place during a five-year period in the Bedford Hills Prison, New York's maximum-security state prison for women. Fox found that women did form pseudofamilies or close relationships with other women, and that these relationships helped the inmates "deal with the impersonal nature of confinement." Fox concluded that women in prison formed relationships to meet social needs. However, there were problems that these relationships were unable to address such as "the interaction of accumulated tensions and situational influences" (Fox, 1988).

Fox (1988) documented three main problems that tended to cause stress for female inmates. The first problem was staff and rules, more specifically, conflicting rules and inconsistent application of the rules. A second problem that stressed female inmates was the perceived lack of respect from prison staff, which was especially felt by younger inmates. A third stress-inducing problem for female inmates was separation from their children. The women worried that their children were suffering from this separation and also about the care they were receiving in their absence. Fox reported that women dealt with these stresses through emotional outbursts or by requesting medication to deal with the stress to avoid an emotional outburst.

More recently, Barbara Owen (1998) conducted a study on female inmates and their lives during incarceration. Owen's research took place in the Central California Women's Facility, a maximum-security prison in Chowchilla. This facility is currently the largest female prison in the world. Owen was interested in two main questions: How do women do time and "how has the prison culture for women changed from the findings of earlier empirical research?" Owen's research took place over a three-year period during which she made observations and conducted individual and group interviews with a diverse group of women.

Owen (1998) argues that the women's lives before prison greatly influence their lives in prison: "In examining their lives before prison, three central issues specifically shape the study of prison culture for women: multiplicity of abuse in their pre-prison lives; family and personal relationships, particularly those relating to male partners and children; and spiraling marginality and subsequent criminality."

Prior to her interviews with the women in her study, Owen (1998) conducted a survey with a sample of female inmates from all the California women's facilities. This survey revealed...

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