Women's Problems or Problem Women? Menstrual Disorders in Women Serving a Prison Sentence

Catrin Smith, The University of Texas at San Antonio

Accounts from prison health care staff indicate that menstrual disorders take up a high proportion of doctors' time in women's prisons, ranking among the conditions most frequently presented for consultation. This paper explores the way in which menstrual disorders are defined and managed in women's prisons through an analysis of data drawn from a qualitative study of women, health and imprisonment in England. The findings suggest that, in prison, where control is taken away as the prisoner and her body become the objects of external forces, women are quick to reflect on menstrual symptoms, to interpret them in terms of illness, to regard them as problematic and, hence, to help-seek. In turn, the issue of gender which has invaded the medical perspective on menstrual disorders, creates particular difficulties for women prisoners, as 'women' and as 'offenders', in their dealings with the medical profession. Here, a medicalised view of suffering may lead to an increased willingness on the part of prison doctors to define and treat menstruation as pathological, to accord a diagnostic label to menstrual symptoms and, by extension, to women prisoners. The findings raise questions about the medicalisation and social control of deviant women and how cultural judgements and 'folk wisdom' can influence medical management in this context.

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Updated 05/20/2006