Substance Abuse among Female Offenders

By Kerr, Donna | Corrections Today, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Substance Abuse among Female Offenders


Kerr, Donna, Corrections Today


Efforts to Treat Substance-Abusing Women Offenders Must Address Underlying Reasons for Use

This quote from an incarcerated Canadian woman sums up the experience of many women who have problems with substance abuse. Research has found that women who abuse substances tend to use drugs as a coping mechanism; in other words, as a solution. Any effective treatment program, therefore, must address those problems underlying the substance abuse - the problems for which drug and alcohol use are a solution.

Substance use is often thought of in black-and-white terms - one is either an addict or an alcoholic or one isn't. However, the reality is that substance use lies on a continuum ranging from no use to dependence (see Table 1) and people can move back and forth within it.

The continuum of substance use allows us to define substance abuse as follows: "Substance abuse is any use of a drug that causes a problem (other than some undesired but unavoidable side effects of certain medically used drugs). The problem can be physical, mental, social or economic, or any combination thereof."

Women and Substance Abuse

The topic of women and substance abuse is a new development in the substance abuse field. Between 1929 and 1970, of the thousands of research articles published on substance abuse, only 28 were about women. Since the 1980s, there has been an increase in the number of published research articles about women and it is now generally recognized in the field that women's use of drugs and their treatment needs are significantly different than those of men.

This wasn't always the case. Until recently, the treatment paradigm was "one program fits all." If a client did not fit the program, she was labeled "resistant," "in denial" or "hard to treat." This was further compounded by what could be called the "more ofs." Substance-abusing women differ from men and from nonsubstance-abusing women in that they have more physical problems, more abuse issues, etc. (see Table 2). Because of these "more ofs," there had been a perception in the field that women were harder to treat, when, in fact, they simply had different treatment needs. Since the late 1980s, women-specific programs have been much more successful in truly helping women make positive lifestyle changes.

Women in Corrections

Women in the correctional system who abuse drugs have the same characteristics as other substance-abusing women. The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) recently completed an intensive survey of 80 federally sentenced women and gathered the following information.

Levels of Use: Of the women surveyed, 12.5 percent had substantial-to-severe levels of alcohol use and 34.9 percent had similar levels of drug use. More than two-thirds of the women used multiple drugs.

Substance Use and Crime: Twenty-five percent of the women reported that their current incarceration was the result of a drug offense. Sixteen percent used alcohol on the day of their crimes, 22 percent used drugs and 20 percent used both alcohol and drugs. Of importance to the issue of recidivism is the extent to which alcohol or drugs affected the women's judgment on the day of their crimes. Eighty percent of the women who used drugs on the day of their crimes reported that their judgment was impaired; almost 60 percent reported that their judgment was seriously impaired.

Abuse: Only 14 percent of the women reported a history free from any abuse; 81.3 percent reported physical abuse, 82.5 percent reported emotional abuse and 76.2 percent reported sexual abuse. No cases of physical or sexual abuse occurred without some other type of abuse. Almost 70 percent reported all three forms of abuse.

Compared to men, incarcerated, substance-abusing women also were more likely to have eating disorders or major affective mood disorders; were more often parents; and were less likely to be working outside of the home before their incarceration. …

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