One might think that the one million women in the American criminal justice system would receive gender-specific services, or that prison programs would target their needs to lower recidivism rates. But for the 199,000 women in U.S. prisons and jails, and the 950,000 on probation and parole, that's simply not the case.

In fact in most jurisdictions, women are offered fewer programs than men, and the services provide little recognition of the traumatic paths that led them into the criminal justice system, said Stephanie Covington, PhD, co-director of the Center for Gender and Justice in La Jolla, Calif., at an APA 2009 Annual Convention session.

Just one example of the lesser services for women is a parenting program offered at 27 men's prisons and two women's prisons in a state in the eastern United States. Through the same program, men are given video equipment and tapes to record messages for their families, while women are only given audio tapes that allowed them to record bedtime stories for their children.

This is more than disparity in services, it's a lack of care, Covington said. Keeping women connected to their families and communities is a key aspect of providing services to incarcerated women, she said.

To improve services for women, psychologists, parole officers and prison employees need more education on how women in the criminal justice system differ from men, she said.

The numbers speak for themselves, she said:

  • In the last 10 years, the male prison population has increased 45 percent, while that of women is up 81 percent.

  • 73 percent of women in state prisons and 75 percent in jails have mental health problems, compared with 55 percent and 63 percent of men, respectively.

  • In state prisons, 75 percent of women met the criteria for substance abuse problems, and 68 percent had past physical or sexual abuse.

In addition, most of the women are poor, undereducated, unskilled, single mothers and disproportionately women of color, said Covington, and their paths to crime are usually marked by abuse, poverty and addiction.

"You have to acknowledge that gender makes a difference," said Covington. "Many places today are still trying to do everything gender-neutral. There is no gender-neutral. In our society, gender-neutral is male."

One way to address the disparities and treatment gaps at women's prisons and jails, she said, is through Women's Integrated Treatment, an intervention that emphasizes creating trauma-informed environments and uses multi-dimensional strategies to help women manage their symptoms so they can access, retain and benefit from the services. Covington's gender-responsive service model also features materials for treating substance abuse and trauma.

Addressing women's socioeconomic circumstances as early as possible is also critical since many women have few alternatives to prevent further incarceration.

"If you ask them what they see as their opportunities when they leave jail and prison, women say, 'There are two employers out there for me: One is the drug dealer and the other is the pimp,'" said Covington.

By targeting substance, physical and sexual abuse, and allowing inmates to maintain healthy connections to their families and significant others, penal institutions can help women stay tied to their communities and successfully rejoin them, opening up better possibilities for educational and job opportunities.

Without such interventions, these women have little chance of succeeding after prison, said Covington. "Many women come out of these systems in worse condition than when they went in."