The Psychological Needs of Women Prisoners: Implications for Rehabilitation and Management

By Byrne, Mitchell K.; Howells, Kevin | Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, April 2002 | Go to article overview

The Psychological Needs of Women Prisoners: Implications for Rehabilitation and Management


Byrne, Mitchell K., Howells, Kevin, Psychiatry, Psychology and Law


The rehabilitation and management of women offenders in prison ate topics which continue to elicit concern, controversy and, often, disillusionment based on the failure of previous policies and initiatives. In this paper we argue rehabilitation and management should be based on the established needs of women prisoners and, in particular, on the Responsivity principle (adapting programs and methods to the gender-specific needs and requirements of women). Our review of the literature indicates major problems of psychological and psychiatric morbidity, including psychiatric disorder (especially posttraumatic stress disorder, PTSD), substance abuse, personality disorders, sexual/physical abuse and self-harm. The implications of such findings for good practice are discussed.

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It is timely to re-evaluate the psychological and social aspects of the imprisonment of women. The increasing prevalence, internationally, of women in prison (Browne, Miller & Maguin, 1999; Carlen, 1998) and the perceived failure of governments and correctional systems to deliver the reforms and changes in the management of women prisoners that seem to be required (Howells, Day, Byrne, White, Hart & Nakos, 1999a) require that the problems of female imprisonment are considered anew.

These issues identified in the international literature are of no less relevance in Australia, where the number of female prisoners also appears to be on the increase--in 1983 women comprised 3.9% of the entire prison population, in 1990: 5.4% and in 1998: 6%. Easteal (1992) noted this increase as early as 1992 and suggested that a trend towards lengthier sentences, "truth in sentencing" legislation, a higher proportion of women on remand, and an increased frequency of drug offences were contributory factors to this rise.

The Needs of Female Prisoners

One of the most substantial reviews of the needs and problems of women in prison was conducted by the Prison Inspectorate for England and Wales (H.M. Chief Inspector of Prisons; HMCIP, 1997). Based on official statistics and interviews with 10% of the total population of female prisoners, this report identified a number of important features, including the high prevalence of:

* Sexual, physical and emotional abuse.

* Substance abuse, particularly poly-drug and heroin use.

* Self-harm and attempted suicide (40% of cases).

* Poor employment and poor educational histories.

* Severe emotional or mental problems.

Similarly in Canada, Motiuk (1997) has identified needs in a sample of 11,541 male and 182 female, federally sentenced prisoners using the Case Needs Identification and Analysis (CNIA) measure of criminogenic needs. While a greater proportion of males than females reported significant criminogenic needs, such needs were apparent in both sexes. Among Canadian female offenders, Blanchette (1997) has demonstrated that women convicted of violent offences in particular have very high levels of need. In Blanchette's study, violent female offenders had needs in the areas of substance abuse, unstable living arrangements, debt, poor problem recognition, low empathy and, particularly, mental disorder.

From this wide range of identified needs, only some have been shown to be criminogenic, in the sense of being statistically associated with recidivism. Although female offenders have many areas of risk and need in common with male offenders, some distinctive areas of need exist specifically for women. While there appears to be no published work on the needs of female offenders in Australia using formal measures (this clearly being ah important area for future research), Moth and Hudson (2000) have reported a small study with female offenders in New Zealand. Noteworthy, once again, are the high levels of psychiatric/ psychological problems reported. Mood problems, anxiety, drug misuse and chronic physical/ medical problems were common. …

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