Mental Illness In Women Offenders

The national female incarceration rate is rising at a dramatic rate as compared to male offenders (Rousseau, 2024). However, there is seemingly less of a focus on treating the unique issues that come with female offenders. Correctional institutions have been used to treat female offenders with severe mental illness, who are not receiving the appropriate treatment for their diagnoses, calling for an immediate reform in our system to incorporate gender responsive mental health programming in our corrections departments.

Prisons have been commonly used as an alternative to a mental health facility for female offenders, however, these two types of institutions are incomparable in treatment needs. Placing mentally ill women in prison means that they must acclimate themselves to the regimentation and unquestioning obedience that keep prisons running smoothly, however, the behaviors required are simply beyond the abilities of most seriously mentally ill women (Lord, 2008). In a study by Janet Warren, clinical associate professor of psychiatric medicine at University of Virginia, her findings included that women inmates in her sample as more like women who were receiving inpatient or outpatient mental health treatment than to women in the community (Lord, 2008). The rate of PTSD among women in prison is believed to be twice the size of that among women in general population. Furthermore, the most common pathways into crime for women are based on survival of abuse and poverty and substance abuse (Rousseau, 2024). Warren found that there were two major clusters of diagnoses that the sample of female inmate’s personality disorders fell into, including tumultuous relationships, impulsivity, recklessness, susceptibility to substance abuse, and abuse in one cluster and suspiciousness, social awkwardness, and overly dependent attitudes and behaviors in another (Lord, 2008). These diagnoses are believed to be present prior to incarceration, and contribute to the behaviors that lead to incarceration, causing an immediate need for mental health treatment.

A prominent issue for incarcerated female offenders with mental illness is self-harm activities. Some mentally ill women self-harm exclusively, and some go between self-harm and violence, and if one woman self-harmed, others often followed because the nature of relationships between women cued much of their behavior, both positive and negative (Lord, 2008). Women offenders will use anything in reach to self-harm, such as screws, plastic, paperclips, staples, and anything else they may have access to. Most women offenders who self-harm during incarceration begin their self-harm behavior long before they get to prison. Most began to cut or swallow when they were young teenagers, often in juvenile facilities, on observing another girl cut or self-harm (Lord, 2008). Although some prisons punish self-harm, most prisons punish the behaviors associated with self-harm, however, cell confinement seems to result in yet more self-harm (Lord, 2008).

Many prisons create programs for mental health; however, they fail to create a therapeutic environment in doing so because ultimately, prisons operate on the basis of power and control. Prisons are not the best places for the mentally ill to develop a sense of autonomy or to experiment with new interpersonal skills (Lord, 2008). Prison is difficult for any offender, however mentally ill women offenders struggle greatly due to the lack of connection and relationships, such as with their family members. This issue is especially prominent with the lack of physical contact with their children specifically, and being unable to contact those they formed relationships with during incarceration upon release, leaving mentally ill female offenders isolated and lonely both inside and outside correctional institutions (Lord, 2008).

We must do what we can to address these disparities in mental health treatment for mentally ill female offenders, as prison is not always the answer to rehabilitation in these cases. Other interventions must be implemented to fully address and treat mental illness specific to the diagnoses commonly seen in justice involved women. “It is not that we do not know how to create meaningful changes to our prison and mental health systems, it is that we do not have the will to do so. It is far easier to put people who are dangerously ill behind walls and fences; in that way, we will never have to acknowledge their suffering” (Lord, 2008).


Lord, E. A. (2008). The challenges of mentally ill female offenders in prison. Criminal Justice and Behavior35(8), 928-942.

Rousseau, D. (2024b). Treating women offenders [Lecture]. Boston University, Forensic Psychology. Blackboard:

View all posts