Addressing women's victimisation histories in custodial settings

ACSSA Issues No. 13 – December 2012

The profile of women in prison

The rate at which women are being incarcerated in Australia has increased dramatically in the last 20 years (Baldry, 2008; Mitchell, 2005). Reviewing data collected between 1995 and 2002, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) calculated that the female imprisonment rate had more than doubled (58%) over those seven years. One quarter of those women were on remand.1 In 2010, the ABS reported that the last 10 years (1999-2009) had seen an increase of 60% in the female prison population. Between the 2009 and 2010 Prisoner Censuses, the number of female prisoners increased by 5% (ABS, 2010). In short, there has been a significant increase in the number of women in Australian prisons since 1995, a situation that is not unique to Australia. Internationally, the rate of female imprisonment is also increasing (Corston, 2007; Gelsthorpe, 2010; Martin, Kautt, & Gelsthorpe, 2009).

Sentencing outcomes

A report on the gender differences in sentencing outcomes by the Victorian Sentencing Advisory Council (2010) indicates that "data from higher courts show both an increase in the proportion of women being sentenced to imprisonment and an increase in the average length of imprisonment terms" for women (Sentencing Advisory Council, 2010).

Of particular concern in both Australia and elsewhere is the increase, generally, in the remand population over the last 15 years, from 15% in 1998 to 21.4% in 2010. Although this figure has been fairly steady, there exist significant differences across jurisdictions (ABS, 2010; King, Bamford, & Sarre, 2005). This is especially true for Indigenous women in New South Wales, the Northern Territory and South Australia. Studies indicate that Indigenous women serve shorter sentences, meaning they are imprisoned for very minor offences - such as driving infringements and non-payment of fines - and that they are more likely than non-Indigenous women to be on remand (Bartels, 2010). Prisoners who are on remand are usually not eligible to participate in programs. In NSW, King et al. (2005) reported that between 1998 and 2004 the number of custodial remand prisoners increased from just over 1,000 to approximately 1,800. This increase has been particularly notable for women. Over 10 years, the number of women in NSW prisons who were on remand grew from 15% in 1993 to 25% in 2003 (Corrective Services NSW, 2011).

So women are serving longer sentences for minor crimes, rather than suspended or community sentences. A growing number of women are also on remand, usually denying them the opportunity to participate in rehabilitation programs. They are also demonstrating high levels of victimisation. The following section will explore the prevalence of child/sexual abuse victimisation in the female prison population.

Female offenders' victimisation histories

A number of reports suggest that the characteristics of the female inmate population have changed, with more mental ill-health, substance abuse and social disadvantage present, particularly among remandees.2 Female offenders demonstrate high levels of previous victimisation, poor mental health, substance misuse and social disadvantage compared to women in the community (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2009; Clark & Fileborn, 2011; Forsythe & Adams, 2009; Kilroy, 2001).

Prevalence of child sexual abuse of women in the general community

Accurate prevalence statistics of sexual assault are notoriously problematic due to underreporting. However, the available evidence indicates that women who have experienced child sexual abuse are more likely to be exposed to other forms of physical and sexual violence (Messina & Grella, 2006; Topp, 2011). In a review of seven Australian studies of child sexual abuse, just over 1 in 4 women (27.5%) disclosed an experience of child sexual abuse (Andrews, Gould, & Corry, 2002). A review of contemporary Australian child sexual abuse prevalence studies by Price-Robertson, Bromfield and Vassallo (2010) indicates figures of 7.9% to 42% for female children. This included abusive behaviours ranging from exposure to penetrative sexual abuse. In terms of adult sexual assault, approximately 1 in 6 adult women (almost 1.3 million women) have experienced sexual assault (since the age of 15) (ABS, 2006). Although these are likely to underestimate the extent of sexual victimisation, the rates reported for women in custodial settings are considerably higher, and are themselves likely to be underestimations.3

Prevalence of child sexual abuse of women in the prison population

Relatively little research has been undertaken in Australia to measure the prevalence of child sexual abuse and other forms of victimisation specifically among female prisoners - and, as above, statistics may be problematic due to underreporting. The research that has been done indicates prevalence figures of between 57% and 90%. In a 2008 study of the sexual health and behaviour of 199 female prisoners in NSW, Richters et al. (2008) found that 59% had experienced some form of sexual coercion or violence. In this sample of women, re-victimisation was common: one-third of women said they had experienced sexual coercion between three and nine times, and a further 13% said it had occurred more than ten times.

Women in community corrections4 also report high rates of sexual victimisation. Research by the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission found that between one-quarter and one-third of women in community corrections reported coerced, unwanted or forced sexual activity, including sexual intercourse (Teague, Mazerolle, Legosz, & Sanderson, 2008). The extent of sexual re-victimisation in the sample was very high for female participants. Among the victims of child sexual abuse in this sample, 81% subsequently experienced some form of sexual victimisation as an adult.

Other work suggests even higher rates: Kilroy (2001) estimated that, prior to incarceration, 98% of women prisoners had experienced physical abuse and 89% had experienced sexual abuse. Research conducted by Women's House found that 70-80% of women in adult prisons in Queensland were survivors of incest (Kilroy, 2004).

A key message is that many women who have experienced child sexual abuse often go on to experience other forms of sexual and violent victimisation (Christopher, Lutz-Zois, & Reihardt, 2007; Fagan, 2001; Teague & Mazerolle, 2007). This means that female offenders who are victim/survivors of sexual violence are also likely to be dealing with an interconnected range of victimisation and disadvantage. The interconnected impacts are discussed below.

Impacts of child sexual abuse

Herman (1994), a leading expert in trauma and recovery, stated that "repeated trauma in childhood forms … the personality" (p. 96). This is due to the adaptation the child must make in order to survive abuse or an abusive environment. Usually this affects their psychological and neurological development. Personality disorders arise due to the psychological defences required to protect themselves against physical and emotional pain. It is salient to point out here that not all victim/survivors of child sexual abuse experience all or indeed any of the following impacts. However, many do, and it is these victim/survivors with which the following literature review is concerned.

The dominant framework through which this range of responses to child sexual abuse is understood and organised is through the construct of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD symptoms such as disassociation may help a child mentally and somatically "escape" the abuse by separating the mind and the body (Herman, 1994). However, once this mechanism is developed, it can also occur at any time along with other symptoms of PTSD, such as intrusion of the memories of the abuse and hyper-arousal, which signifies a sensitive startle response to external stimuli.

Many researchers in the fields of psychiatry, traumatology and social work do not see PTSD as accurately capturing the effects of chronic and/or poly-victimisation. A useful construct in understanding the complex and interrelated social, physical and emotional sequelae of child sexual abuse is complex trauma. The clinical literature on child sexual abuse and cumulative harm has found that early onset victimisation - particularly child sexual abuse - can result in complex mental health symptoms that profoundly affect an individual's capacity for self-regulation, healthy attachments, and cognitive and neurological development (Christopher, Lutz-Zois, & Reihardt, 2007; Fagan, 2001). This signifies a group of interrelated mental and physical impacts, which unsurprisingly also affect the social lives of child sexual abuse victim/survivors.

Herman (1994) considered complex trauma a result of sustained abuse and/or torture where the victim feels there is no escape. In other words, complex trauma is the trauma that individuals experience from multiple and sustained forms of abuse and the impacts that this has on their development. Acknowledging child sexual abuse sequelae as complex trauma is important because, although there are similarities to acute trauma (single events), complex trauma from child sexual abuse will have developmental significance related to "sense of self, safety, and trust in adult life" (Foster, Boyd, & O'Leary, 2012).

What, if any, effects will complex trauma from childhood sexual abuse have on adult functioning? In recent years there has been the acknowledgement in health care that complex trauma is a factor in the development of mental and physical health problems (Covington, 2007). Child sexual abuse victims report a lifetime history of more exposure to various traumas and higher levels of mental health symptoms (Spataro, Mullen, Burgess, Wells, & Moss, 2004). The literature suggests that the manifestations of complex trauma continue into adulthood (Christopher, Lutz-Zois, Reihardt, 2007; Fagan, 2001) as problems with parenting (Tarczon, 2012), abusive and exploitative relationships, sexual dysfunction (Solomon, Solomon, & Heide, 2009), and lack of social connection.

People with complex trauma display more difficulties with maintaining employment, maintaining steady housing and completing education. They often have struggles with aggression, impulsiveness, shame, self-blame and low self-esteem (Wall, 2012). Women with complex trauma are found to be more likely to engage in casual and unprotected sex while reporting less satisfactory sexual rewards and greater sexual costs (Lemieux & Byers, 2008).

The most significant co-occurrence of child sexual abuse sequelae is substance addiction and mental health issues. Child sexual abuse and consequent drug and alcohol dependency feature heavily in the literature on child sexual abuse sequelae and impacts (Boyd, 2011; Herman, 1994; Johnson, 2006; Lievore, 2003; Loxley & Adams, 2009). It is worth highlighting as an important variable in the experiences of women with a victimisation history as it is intertwined with mental health problems and pathways to offending. According to Herman (1994), drug use provides relief in the way of disassociation from reality and is one of the methods by which "abused children attempt to regulate their internal emotional states" (p. 109).

So, if women in prison reveal high rates of child sexual abuse and complex trauma, what, if anything, is the connection between these and offending?

Women's offending: Pathways and characteristics

The following section reviews the evidence on women's pathways into offending and the characteristics of their offending, including what role victimisation and trauma might play. Due to a very recent focus on women's incarceration and increase in prison numbers, much of the literature acknowledges that previous understandings regarding pathways to offending and penal policies have been based on the male offender experience. Gender is now considered a significant factor as it relates to pathways to offending (Covington, 2007). This is not to say that issues of male incarceration are without concern, but to acknowledge that a system based on a male norm may not meet the needs of female offenders. Due to this, much of the following section will utilise comparisons with male offending in order to highlight the differing trajectories and characteristics of female offending.

Women's pathways to offending

Statistical analysis and empirical research on female offending since the 1980s demonstrates that the trajectories by which women end up within the criminal justice system are not the same as men's offending trajectories. A significant evidence base demonstrates that both the profile of female offenders and their pathways into offending are fundamentally different compared to male offenders (e.g., Carlen, 1983; Chesney-Lind, 1989, 1997; Daly, 1998; Kruttschnitt & Gartner, 2003; Salisbury & Van Voorhis, 2009; Worrall, 1990). Although the total number of women in Australian prisons is much smaller than the number of men, they are nevertheless recognised as a "high needs" population.

Specifically, when compared to male offenders, women offenders demonstrate higher levels of previous victimisation, poor mental health and serious mental illness, substance misuse, unemployment, and low educational attainment. Their time in custody is different, with shorter but more frequent periods of imprisonment. In short, despite the small size of the female correctional population, they present significant challenges, both from a management and rehabilitative perspective (i.e., reducing re-offending) and, correspondingly, in terms of their general wellbeing.

The literature was consistent in identifying a triumvirate of factors that characterise women in corrections: mental illness/poor mental health; alcohol and substance dependency; and histories of early interpersonal victimisation, particularly child sexual abuse. Based on what is known about the long-term consequences of trauma, these three characteristics would seem to be interrelated and, as such, are central to understanding women's pathways into - and out of - the correctional system. What is striking in the literature is not only the centrality of these three elements, but also how they are further connected to a range of other experiences. Whether the studies are Canadian, Scottish, British, American or Australian, a similar profile of female prisoners is identified. In no particular order, characteristics include:

  • histories of childhood victimisation, particularly sexual abuse;
  • re-victimisation as adolescents and adults, such as sexual assault and family and domestic violence (e.g., Corston, 2007; Gelsthorpe, 2010; Ogloff, Davis, Rivers, & Ross, 2006; Salisbury & Van Voorhis, 2009);
  • mental disorders such as borderline personality disorder (BPD), major depression and PTSD;
  • intellectual and cognitive impairments;
  • substance abuse and dependency;
  • housing instability;
  • primary care for dependent children;
  • low educational attainment; and
  • minimal employment histories compared to male prisoners.

In terms of violent offending, both internal and external factors contribute. External factors related to social disadvantage can lead to the commission of violent crimes by women. Violence may stem from poverty, lack of education and unemployment, homelessness and a history of exposure to family violence and child sexual abuse (Bottos, 2007; Carnovale, 2009; Miller, 2005).

Internal factors can include the gendered socialisation imperatives around women and anger. Women are taught to "inhibit expressions of anger, thereby compelling them to internalise negative affective states" (Bottos, 2007, p. 15). Mental illness or the mental destabilisation that occurs after prolonged substance abuse is another internal factor that may lead to violence by women. Feminist research also points to the defensive nature of women's violence.

Women may react violently after prolonged exposure to intimate partner violence and/or sexual abuse, particularly if children are at risk. Further, women's violence is more likely to be "driven by self-defence and fear" (Swan, Gambone, Caldwell, Sullivan, & Snow, 2008). Most violent offences by women are one-off events and few women are repeat violent offenders (Bottos, 2007).

Feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness and anger can combine with mental health issues and drug-related mental distress to result in the use of interpersonal violence. Qualitative and ethnographic research has explored the meaning of violent criminality for women, suggesting that, for both men and women, the use of violence is shaped by the norms and expectations of gender,u along with dimensions of race, class and inequality (e.g., Miller, 2008).

The pathways to female offending indicate a relationship with trauma as well as gender. The following section reviews the evidence on the characteristics of women's offending.

Characteristics of women's offending

The available research suggests that "women commit fewer and less serious crimes" (Quinn, 2008, p. 3) than men. Typically, drug offences, fraud and property theft are identified as "women's offences".5 The ABS overview of national trends between 1999 and 2009 found significant increases in robbery, theft, assault and homicide.

Taking NSW as an example, for women coming to the attention of NSW police, the top four offences were shoplifting, assault, fraud and possession/use of drugs (Holmes, 2010, p. 3). The top four for men were domestic violence assault, possession/use of drugs, assault and malicious damage to property. This analysis showed changes in female participation in criminal offending during the 10-year period to June 2009. The numbers of female offenders increased significantly for breach of bail conditions and domestic violence assault6 (up 14% and 12% respectively each year) (Holmes, 2010). Breach of apprehended violence orders and malicious damage to property also increased.

For female prisoners in Australia in this period, the most serious offence with the highest proportion of offenders was possession/use of illicit drugs, followed by acts intended to cause injury. Nationally, recent figures show that the most serious offence among female inmates was also in the illicit drug offence category (21.3%), followed by acts intended to cause injury (ABS, 2010). For men, this was reversed - the most serious offence (17.8%) was acts intended to cause injury, followed by illicit drug offences (14.0%) (Van Doorn & Geyer, 2011).

Also in this period, women made up approximately half of offenders involved in prostitution and shoplifting, and more than one third of offenders involved in fraud. In contrast, men made up 98% of offenders involved in sexual offences, and more than 90% of offenders involved in armed robbery with firearm and burglary (Holmes, 2010). Holmes concluded that more women offended, and that their offending was of a more violent nature or against justice procedures, than was the case 10 years ago.

Realistically, pathways and characteristics of offending are issues that are beyond the scope of what corrective services have been established or empowered to change - women come into the system with many of these existing experiences and needs. Further, the criminal justice decision-making that funnels women into (or away from) prison does not rest with corrections but with police and magistrates' courts (King, Bamford, & Sarre, 2005). On the other hand, prisons are central to the questions of this paper about how sexual victimisation interfaces with offending, and what corrections can do to support women as victims within the correctional setting both in terms of their rehabilitative prospects and their wellbeing.

This section has explored the profile of women in prison, how women's sexual abuse victimisation impacts on their emotional, physical and social wellbeing, and the relationship of these to their offending. The following section considers the current challenges in managing female offenders with victimisation histories, and presents two principals and frameworks to consider in overcoming these challenges.


1 In custody awaiting trial/sentencing.

2 Although this could be a function of advancement in screening and assessment tools (Lafortune, 2010), it also indicates the high rate of people with mental illness who are remanded and incarcerated.

3 Statistics for victimisation, and particularly sexual victimisation, are considered by many to be underestimate the actual extent of victimisation due to sample selection, the nature of survey questions and survey delivery (ABS, 2002, 2003, 2004; Lievore, 2003).

4 Community corrections is a system in which offenders serve a sentence in the community and are supervised to ensure that they comply with conditions handed down by the court. Conditions usually relate to completion of "educational programs, community work … [and/or] … assessment and treatment programs" (Department of Justice (Victoria), 2012, para. 4).

5 It is important to note here that determining the most common types offences according to gender depends on which data sources are used for analysis. Data collected, for example, by the Drug Use Monitoring program, or "persons of interest" proceeded against by police, are more likely to reflect base-level patterns of offending, compared to data on prison populations, which reflect not just those offenders who come to the attention of police, but who are also subsequently sentenced by the courts (Forsyth & Adams, 2009).

6 It should be noted, however, that caution needs to be exercised regarding this proposed shift, as it is not clear how dual arrest policies in relation to domestic violence are impacting these figures.