Treating incarcerated women: gender matters

Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2006 Sep;29(3):773-89. doi: 10.1016/j.psc.2006.04.013.


Research on incarcerated women has shown they have a high degree of comorbid psychopathology, including substance dependence, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), and major depression. Incarcerated women differ from their community peers by having more symptoms related to addiction, ASPD, and PTSD. At the same time, incarcerated women are every bit as likely as incarcerated men to be dependent on drugs and almost as likely to be dependent on alcohol. What emerges is a picture of the incarcerated woman far more likely to have had traumatic experiences, including early sexual and physical abuse, than her male peers but every bit as likely to have substance dependence and, in some correctional populations (eg, sentenced felons), antisocial personality disorder. Central to the discussion of how best to treat female offenders is the need to address how programs would best be structured for women with severe substance dependence, substantial trauma histories, and personality pathology, including ASPD. Incarcerated women are a population with complex medical and mental health needs and are likely to be high users of services within the correctional system. This poses challenges to a system already stretched thin in caring for these complex inmates. This article emphasizes that gender differences need to be appreciated, and that service delivery to male and female inmates needs to be structured with gender in mind. The article recommends case management, treatment in highly structured therapeutic communities, and emphasizing abstinence from substances and development of skill sets to engage in healthy relationships.A major future challenge lies in researching treatment interventions for women in the correctional system. There are few existing trials of treatment efficacy and, as previously noted, the incarcerated female population differs from populations of incarcerated men and women in the community. Opiate-dependent women undergoing treatment in the community may prove to be a reasonable comparison group in beginning to develop evidence-based treatment for female offenders in prisons and jails. Ultimately, the development of services for incarcerated women will consider gender, race, and psychopathology in determining treatment setting and modalities. We are on new ground. It is a promising and exciting time to be involved with treatment of female offenders.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / diagnosis
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / epidemiology
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / psychology
  • Comorbidity
  • Crime / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Crime / prevention & control
  • Crime / psychology
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Forensic Psychiatry / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Gender Identity*
  • Health Services Accessibility / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Health Services Needs and Demand / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology
  • Mental Disorders / psychology
  • Prisoners / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Prisoners / psychology
  • Prisoners / statistics & numerical data
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / diagnosis
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / epidemiology
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / diagnosis
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology
  • United States
  • Violence / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Violence / prevention & control
  • Violence / psychology