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Phoenix Forward

5 ways women in prison behave differently than men

The gender gap extends to prison.

While the vast majority of people in the U.S. corrections system are male, female offender populations are growing.

“With this increase comes considerable challenges,” says Mark Reinhardt, MS, area chair for the College of Criminal Justice and Security at University of Phoenix as well as a supervisory U.S. probation and parole officer for the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of California.

“There are issues of codependency, motherhood, mental illness and the like,” he adds. “Female offenders can present unique risks and needs [due to these issues].”

Robert W. Olding, PhD, associate dean of the University of Phoenix School of Advanced Studies and a former warden, concurs. “From a psychological perspective, there are dramatic differences between female and male offender populations,” he explains, “both in terms of the crimes they commit and how they behave in the correctional system.” Here, five things criminal justice professionals should consider when addressing this growing population of female prisoners.

1. Expect women to form different relationships.
A cognitive-behavioral psychologist by training, Olding asserts that corrections systems have to take psychological gender differences into account. “Female offenders have a greater need to form surrogate family relationships with their fellow prisoners while incarcerated versus their male counterparts, and that affects prison dynamics,” he says, adding that “one should not confuse the idea of ‘gangs’ serving some ‘surrogate family function’ (along with other purposes related to social dominance and fiscal gain) with the more common social affiliation of surrogate family relationships among female offenders."

Female offenders’ need to form surrogate families can be a positive element in the prison environment, according to Olding. “As corrections professionals, we should recognize and manage family-like relationships among the women and allow them to exist, as long as they remain positive,” he says.

2. Beware of substance abuse-related issues.
“Most female offenders have substance abuse problems, and their crimes often stem directly from that,” explains Olding, citing a study that found that the prevalence of drug abuse dependence ranged from 10 percent to 49 percent in male prisoners and 30 percent to 60 percent in female prisoners.

3. Look for the early signs of depression.
"Female offenders are more prone to self-harm,” says Olding. “Depression and suicide attempts are much more pronounced among female offenders than male offenders, who tend to have antisocial tendencies and the violence associated with it instead.” Ironically, he says, “It is important to note the paradoxical matter that, while incarcerated female offenders show more self-harm and suicide attempts, male inmates are actually more successful at completing suicides.”

4. Expect participation in programs.
“Female offenders are also more likely to engage in corrections-based education and literacy programs than their male counterparts, and to react positively to these programs, which in turn can help reduce recidivism,” says Olding.

5. Factor in the family.
Motherhood and all it entails is another unique challenge facing the female offender population. “One of the biggest challenges facing the corrections system, from the perspective of both the inmate and society at large, is the concept of prison motherhood,” says Reinhardt. who adds that, according to 2010 Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of children under the age of 18 with a mother in prison has increased by 131 percent since 1991. In addition, the study reports that incarcerated mothers were two times more likely to report homelessness in the year preceding their arrest, and nearly 73 percent of prison mothers who were living with minor children at the time of their arrest had been diagnosed with mental illness.

“The questions are real and troubling: Who cares for the child while the mother is in custody?" he asks, adding that 40 percent of the mothers imprisoned will be released within six months of their sentence. “Reintegration services, which provide female offenders the tools they need to succeed once they are released from custody (such as drug/alcohol treatment, mental health services, vocational training, etc.) are paramount to reduce recidivism and to achieve and sustain long-term desired outcomes.”