Issues in the Availability of Health Care for Women Prisoners

Tammy L. Anderson, University of Delaware

In 1998, more than three million women were arrested and nearly one million were under supervision of the correctional system. Whereas women comprised just three percent (about 6,000) of the prison population in the 1970s, they comprised closer to 7% (or 84,000) in 1998. A little over ten years ago (1990), there were 71 facilities to house women. By 1995, there were 104. The continued investment in punitive criminal justice policies promises, at the very least, to preserve the size of this population. A reasonable question to ask, therefore, is if the correctional system is prepared to handle a female population of this size and the social, psychological, and health problems they commonly possess. There is little evidence that the correctional system is ready for this challenge. The unique issues female prisoners present have either been over-looked completely or taken for granted by a state that has traditionally focused on male offenders. Although female inmates' preeminent issues might be child care, their physical and psychological health problems are not far behind. Female prisoners suffer considerable drug and alcohol addiction, gynecological disease (e.g., cervical cancer), and terminal or chronic health problems such HIV, Hepatitis C, hypertension, diabetes, and epilepsy. Research shows a higher rate of HIV infection among females in prison than males. Considerable mental illness has also been documented with this population. The purpose of this paper is to explore the health problems female inmates experience and how the correctional system has addressed them in the past and plans to do so in the future. The paper adopts a structural focus. It considers how extant institutional policies and resource allocation shape the types of health care provided, who receives it, and under what conditions. It is criticially important to investigate the state's ability to provide healthcare to female prisoners. Currently, a continuum of care to meet female prisoner's medical and mental health problems is missing. Persistent inattention to the unique healthcare needs of women offenders will result in a lack of understanding on important illnesses and conditions not commonly experienced by men. This impact would have great economic and social costs on society for more than one generation, i.e., through the birth of female inmates' children.

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Updated 05/20/2006