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Sexual Abuse in Childhood and the Mentally Disordered Female Offender

Matthew Silberman (2010).   International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. 54(5), 783-802

In the late 1990s, Bucknell University sociologist Matthew Silberman interviewed over 300 women incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) - Muncy, Pennsylvania’s only maximum-security prison for women. These interviews were conducted with the assistance of a 180-item questionnaire that California-based criminologists Barbara Bloom and Barbara Owen had used a few years earlier at four California prisons for women. At the time, Bloom and Owen were developing their perspective on gender-specific programming, and Silberman was interested in how his Pennsylvania sample compared with the Bloom and Owen sample. In general, he found that, as in California, women imprisoned in Pennsylvania had experienced high levels of physical, sexual and other abuse: 49.2% were physically abused, 43.6 sexually abused, 55.6% emotionally abused, and 31.1% sexually assaulted before they reached the age of 18. As adults, these women reported that 63.1% had been physically abused, 30.3% sexually abused, 63.6% emotionally abused, and 33.4% sexually assaulted.

 In this article, Silberman focuses particular attention on the mental health status and treatment of women at SCI – Muncy. In 2006, 43.1% of women in Pennsylvania’s prisons were mentally ill, participating in one or another treatment option. At the time, 14% of the state’s women’s prison population was considered seriously mentally ill. (Figures for men in Pennsylvania were 16.4% and 2.8% respectively.)

 What role, Silberman wondered, did childhood sexual abuse play in the mental health status and treatment of women confined in Pennsylvania prisons? One of the things Silberman learned was that women in Pennsylvania were twice as likely as women in the Bloom and Owen studies to report being victims of physical or sexual abuse as children or young teenagers. Silberman also found a perplexing pattern of mental health care: “According to available mental health records,” he reports, “42.1% of the inmates at Muncy received psychotropic medication at some time during their incarceration, which corresponds closely to the 37.9% of the inmates who reported that they had received psychotropic medication. In 1999, only 8.6% of the inmates said that they were currently receiving medication to help them adjust to prison life. This relatively low percentage reflected a policy designed to remove all but the most severe cases from this form of treatment.”

 SCI – Muncy has a small, separate mental health unit (MHU) for women with mental health problems. In addition to provided psychotropic medications, the prison also has a range of non-medical therapeutic programs for women, including anger and stress management, parenting programs, and substance abuse treatment programs. Victims of physical and sexual abuse largely participated voluntarily in such programs, including a new residential program located within the facility. Nearly 20% of the women stated that they had been patients in the MHU during their prison stay. Program participation was also routinely required for parole consideration.

 In this article, Silberman argues that non-criminal women who experience childhood sexual abuse are “relatively unlikely to experience the type of adjustment problems associated with the diagnosis of a mental disorder” yet “women who are incarcerated are often diagnosed as mentally disordered if they have been victims of sexual abuse. Thus, the adjustment problems associated with victimization appear to be part of the process by which criminal conduct by women is socially constructed as symptomatic of psychiatric disorders.”

 “At Muncy,” Silberman reports, “women with sexual abuse before age 18, including many who had received mental health treatment prior to their incarceration, were likely to be diagnosed with a mental disorder and placed on the mental health caseload. A past history of mental health treatment and interviews by staff psychologists played a more important role that psychometric testing in the evaluation of the mental health status of the women. It seems that female offenders, like other clinical populations, are expected to have mental health problems if they report a history of sexual abuse in childhood.”

 Silberman expresses skepticism about the voluntariness of women’s placement on Muncy’s mental health caseload. “At Muncy,” he says, “women who reported a history of sexual abuse before age 18 were likely to be placed on the mental health caseload, sent to the MHU for observation and treatment, and prescribed psychotropic medication in response to conduct attributed to adjustment problems associated with their abuse histories.”

 Silberman also suggests that this pattern has an interesting racial twist: “Although White women with histories of abuse were more likely than similarly situated Blacks to spend time in the MHU.  Blacks and Whites with abuse histories were likely to receive psychotropic medication to help them adjust to prison life. Although the treatment trajectories were somewhat different for White and Black inmates, the end result was similar for both groups.”

 Overall, Silberman concludes that “fewer female offenders may be in need of mental health treatment than most of the literature and current practice dictates. A more efficient use of the limited resources available for treatment of mental disorders in prison suggests that such treatment should be reserved for those who are seriously mentally ill. Although many victims of abuse, especially sexual assault, have been traumatized, it is not the case that all such experiences lead to criminal conduct. At the same time, counseling should continue to be available for abuse victims on a voluntary basis so that those who seek help may do so whether or not they have been diagnosed with a mental disorder.”

 For further information, contact Matthew Silberman, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA 17837, (email)  



Posted Fri, Mar 11 2011 4:47 PM by Tracey Vessels


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