The Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” brings to light the invisible world of women in prison. By all accounts there are more women behind bars now than in any time in US history. This phenomenon is certainly not what was intended when the movement toward gender equity gained steam in the 1970’s. Although women still constitute less than 10% of the inmate population, their numbers are increasing at an estimated rate of 5% per year. This growing number means that correctional nurses need to understand the specific issues surrounding providing nursing care to this segment of patients.
Women entering jails and prisons have unique socioeconomic background that result in healthcare needs. For example, most incarcerated women have substance abuse histories and many work in the sex trade. A national profile of female inmates reveals a history of many difficulties:
- Disproportionately women of color
- Most likely to have been convicted of a drug or drug-related offense
- Fragmented family histories, with other family members also involved with the criminal justice system
- Survivors of physical and/or sexual abuse as children and adults
- Multiple physical and mental health problems
- Unmarried mothers of minor children
- Limited vocational training and sporadic work histories
It is not surprising, then, that women prisoners frequent healthcare services. Female inmates report higher rates of arthritis, asthma, cancer, diabetes, and hypertension than male inmates. Being female also brings with it reproductive conditions such as pregnancy, menopause, and sexually transmitted infections. Reproductive cancers such as breast, ovarian, and cervical must be screened-for, diagnosed and treated.
Incarcerated women also have higher rates of mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorders, and post-traumatic stress. In an earlier post, Catherine described Gender-Responsive Trauma Informed Care that responds to the needs of the female inmate population. Successful healthcare interactions require attention to relationship-building and sensitivity to the patient’s traumatic past.
Our aging criminal justice facilities were originally created for the male population and continue to operate with a focus on their primary population gender. Pregnancy and menopause, challenging in normal conditions, can be brutal in poorly ventilated housing units that overheat in summer and are freezing in winter.
“Orange is the New Black” may be a fairly accurate portrayal of life in a female prison, according to one analysis. If the series increases awareness of the concerns of women in prison than it will provide us with more than merely entertainment.
How do you describe the unique aspects of providing nursing care to women in the correctional setting? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.
To read more about the unique aspects of women’s health care in the correctional setting see Chapter 9 in the Essentials of Correctional Nursing. The text can be ordered directly from the publisher and if you use Promo Code AF1209 the price is discounted by $15 off and shipping is free.