There are currently 6.5 million people involved in the correctional system—2.1 million who are incarcerated (see Total Population in U.S. Adult Correctional Systems by Correctional Status). This population is increasingly female. While the overall incarcerated population is going down, the proportion of women is on the rise. Since 1978, women in the corrections system has grown 834%, more than double the pace of male prisoners (see The Gender Divide: Tracking Women’s State Prison Growth)
While the reasons for this increase aren’t universally agreed upon, drug offenses and violent offenses are often cited. In addition, states’ practices of “widening the net” of criminal justice involvement by criminalizing women’s responses to gender-based abuse and discrimination are also factors.
Many of the same issues that plague people in our correctional institutions, including higher rates of mental illness, addiction, HIV/AIDS, and multiple chronic conditions, are also big problems for women involved in the criminal justice system. But the female corrections population also has some unique characteristics. First, the rate of mental illness among male and female prisoners is quite different—15% of men and 30% of women have a serious mental health condition (see Jailing People With Mental Illness). Second, the corrections system wasn’t built with women in mind. Prisons either don’t provide reproductive health care, or charge for the basic necessities. While incarcerated, women face a greater likelihood of disciplinary action and more severe sanctions. In addition, there are fewer diversion programs available to women.
While there are few initiatives designed to address these inequities, one state—Illinois—has passed two laws that require gender-specific programming for female prisoners, and that mandate training for officers on how to better handle female prisoners. These laws come in response to a 2016 audit at Logan Correctional Center that found corrections officers were given no training in the differences between handling male and female officers, reported a chaotic environment with overwhelmed staff, and that female prisoners were being harmed by the conditions at the prison (for our complete story on this, see Illinois Implements Two Laws To Require Gender-Specific Programming For Female Prisoners).
But I was left with questions that I posed to my team—what would “gender specific” services look like in practice and why is this important? My colleague OPEN MINDS Chief Operating Officer Stacy DiStefano, pointed to the importance of trauma-informed care:
I’m encouraged by the mandate for trauma-informed prison programming. Long overdue is the recognition that not only direct trauma, but secondary and tertiary trauma, has a lifelong damaging psychological impact. Certainly, the simple fact of being imprisoned caused a level of trauma, but witnessing inmate violence, harassment, and sexual assault (and a state of constant fear of those issues) can heighten mental health symptoms and trigger emotional responses. It makes sense that any gender bias should be explored and addressed in a training program. Any trauma-informed encounter serves to foster understanding and avoidance of triggering interactions which ultimately reduces negative behaviors, serves to build rapport and trust, and stops the domino effects of trauma.
OPEN MINDS Senior Associate Sharon Hicks pointed to the need for specialty care and personal safety. She said:
There have been some horrific events in women’s prisons in the recent years. Women having to give birth while handcuffed, women and babies dying from lack of appropriate medical care during pregnancy and birth, and assault, rape, and abuse, by guards. The American prison system has not been based on rehabilitation, rather it is been focused on punishment. Therefore, legislation that requires trauma informed interactions and gender specific training is a positive move towards the future of corrections in our country. Some examples of gender-specific services are related to familial contact while in prison, coordination of services to assist with post release planning, appropriate gynecologic and obstetric care during the prison stay, and services for the children of the inmates. And there are more. This is just a first step and what is likely to be a very long road, but it is a step in the right direction.
One thing to keep in mind when we make that step, however, is that prison is not where these services should be provided. This was the observation of John Holton, Ph.D., OPEN MINDS Advisory Board member and currently Director of the Center for Gerontology at Concordia University Chicago. He wrote:
To no one’s surprise, Illinois treatment of female prisoners has been inadequate, shameful, and unnecessarily cruel. It has taken a federal court injunction to move the state to change its treatment of all incarcerated, particularly those with mental illness and other disabilities. While plans are written for implementation to change conditions and provide services in Illinois prisons, the reality of prisons being unsuitable environments for the provision of therapeutic care should not be lost.
While challenging, fledgling efforts at corrections reform bring opportunities for health and human service organizations. For more serving the justice-involved populations, check out these resources from the OPEN MINDS Industry Library:
- A New Opportunity To Serve Justice-Involved Consumers
- Are Medicaid Managed Care Plans Ready For The Justice-Involved Consumer?
- A “New” Justice Involved Population
- ‘Smart Justice’
- Judging, Not Judging: Trauma-Informed Courts
- New York Sued Over Practice Of Keeping Offenders With Mental Illness Incarcerated Past Their Release Dates
- Reincarceration Four Times Higher At Private Community Corrections Facilities In Pennsylvania
- Lane County, Oregon Launches Pay-For-Success Project For Forensic Housing & Re-Entry Services
- Virginia Department Of Corrections Launches The Building Family Bridges Project For Offenders With Minor Children
- Missouri Launches Justice Reinvestment Initiative
Not sure where to begin? Join me at The 2019 OPEN MINDS Strategy & Innovation Institute from June 3-6, 2019, in New Orleans, where we will take a deep dive into the strategies (and strategic planning) necessary to meet the challenges and opportunities in the market today.