Women in forensic institutions

Lisa Wootton and Anthony Maden

in Oxford Textbook of Women and Mental Health

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

ISBN: 9780199214365
Published online July 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780199640454 | DOI:

Series: Oxford Textbooks

Women in forensic institutions

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Women are always in a minority in forensic populations, whether in prisons or secure hospitals. As a consequence neither the institutions nor policymakers seem to know how to respond to them. The earliest response was to ignore them; women were an afterthought whose needs were overshadowed by the male offender population that dominated the landscape. At other times there was an overemphasis on psychopathology, reaching a peak when the United Kingdom (UK) government in the 1970s proposed rebuilding its main women's prison, Holloway, as a secure hospital. There was a tendency to see all the deviant behaviour of women as evidence of psychopathology, leading to Sim's charge that doctors located them ‘at the centre of the professional gaze’ (Sim 1990) when they came to examine and to medicalize prisoners.

Over the last decade policy has become more rational. The main advance has been to recognize that the mental health of offenders is continuous with the mental health of all women. Most women spend only brief periods in custody and it is unrealistic to imagine that either their health or broader social needs can be addressed in isolation from their lives outside the walls of the institution.

The new approach is neatly summarized in the title of the UK government’s main policy document in this area: Women’s Mental Health: Into the Mainstream (Department of Health 2002). As part of the general policy of social inclusion and reducing inequality, women are to be brought in from the margins. Awareness of gender differences should go along with acceptance of the principle of equality of access to healthcare. In practice these goals are to be achieved through an emphasis on individual needs assessment with services designed to meet the needs that emerge from the assessment.

Too often in the past the service has come first. Women have been squashed and squeezed into forensic services designed primarily for men. We have known for many years that ‘women require different treatment and facilities to men if they are to have the opportunity to break the patterns of behaviour which have led to their contact with the criminal justice system.’ (Department of Health 2006a). Now there is an opportunity to do something about the problem and we are beginning to see the first examples of services designed to meet women's needs. The rest of this chapter will consider what we know about women in forensic settings and how best we can develop responsive services.

Chapter.  5280 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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