top of page

How the Prison System Fails Vulnerable Women

By Beatrice Sexton

We live in an era of mass incarceration, with female imprisonment on the rise. The number of women and girls incarcerated worldwide has increased by half in the past seventeen years, reaching a current total of approximately 700,000.[1] This article will explore how the prison system fails vulnerable women, via an overly generalised theory and system of punishment which fails to adequately recognise their unique histories, experiences, and needs.


The acute vulnerability of female prisoners is a well-documented issue. Indeed, the quantity of available information highlights and challenges the failure of the government to take adequate steps to reconfigure the prison complex into a system which offers rehabilitation for at risk women, as opposed to solely punishment.

Poor mental health, manifesting particularly in substance misuse and post-traumatic stress disorder, are common amongst incarcerated women, alongside illiteracy, undiagnosed autism, and intellectual disability.[3] Female prisoners are more commonly and acutely impacted by mental health issues than their male counterparts. Whilst 65% of women in prison suffer from depression, compared to 37% of men, women in prison account for 23% of all prison self-harm incidents despite representing only 5% of the prison population.[4]

Mental health problems amongst female prisoners are both compounded and contributed to by histories of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. A 2005 US study by Green, Miranda, Daroowalla and Siddique found that 98% of surveyed women had been exposed to trauma, with 90% experiencing interpersonal trauma, and 71% domestic abuse.[5] In addition, most studies suggest that at least 40% of women prisoners have been sexually victimised as adults, and about 25% sexually assaulted as children.[6] Previous sexual assault, especially when experienced during childhood, has been associated with a variety of mental disorders, including psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder.[7]

Whilst greater state recognition of the mental health issues and traumatic histories experienced by incarcerated women is imminently required, it must be combined with an acknowledgement of how these issues interact with the social positions and roles typically fulfilled by women. As Bartlett and Hollins note, “prison healthcare is not delivered in a vacuum. Women prisoners' distinctive social worlds in prison mean they are more likely than men to maintain social contacts with children”.[8] Indeed, more than 75% of women in prison have children, and 80% were their child’s primary caregiver prior to incarceration.[9]

The relevance of the conventional social position of women, in this context, is two-fold. Firstly, familial separation (on both a geographical and emotional level) compounds the trauma faced by imprisoned women, particularly when they are forced to surrender their role as caregiver. Wooldredge and Masters note that one in four women in prison is either pregnant at entry or has given birth in the previous year.[10] The separation of mother from baby is clearly an intensely harrowing experience, intensifying the trauma of imprisonment.

Secondly, the conventional role of women as social-networkers and community-builders impacts their response to imprisonment, and thus the appropriate approach to their rehabilitation. As Martin and Hesselbrock state, “women’s resilience [as] demonstrated in social, cognitive and emotional realms should be fostered” by the prison system, in its approach to their rehabilitation and care. Martin and Hesselbrock report that surveyed female prisoners indicated they “had strong social support networks and … actively worked to provide support to other women, especially needy women, in prison”. As such, “these supports and women’s identified strengths can be more fully utilized in the prison setting to mitigate against the mental health challenges produced by prison life, as well as to remediate the long-term effects of violence, abuse and trauma the women have experienced”.[11] One way in which this could perhaps be achieved is by directing more resources towards mentoring schemes within female prisons.

The root cause of the prison system’s failure to adequately address and respond to the needs of vulnerable women is that the incarceration complex itself was created for, and continues to be primarily directed towards, male needs and male experiences. As O’Moore and Peden note, “historically, prisons have almost invariably been designed for the majority male prison population – from the architecture of prisons, to security procedures, to healthcare, family contact, work and training”.[12] As a result, the primary focus is on, for example, the prevention of instances of violence between (typically male) prisoners, as opposed to the complex mental health needs of incarcerated women.

Such an unbalanced approach to imprisonment cannot be allowed to persist, particularly whilst the rates of female incarceration continue to rise. Barlett and Hollins explain that women’s “social roles and often self-destructive ways of coping with demands and difficulties can combine to create gender-specific responses to imprisonment”.[13] In order to adequately respond to the needs of female prisoners, there must be a move away from the overly generalised approach to imprisonment which currently dominates, and which utilises tactics orientated towards a male experience to try and fulfil the needs of both male and female prisoners. Instead, a more gender-specific approach is required, with greater emphasis on the issues predominantly faced by incarcerated women, such as prior trauma and mental health problems. In addition, it is necessary to recognise how these issues inteact with the social roles which women conventionally fulfil within both the familial and social domains, and indeed within the prison context itself.

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] Ibid [8] [9] [10] Ibid [11] Ibid [12] [13]


Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page