Many women prisoners have experienced life difficulties that impact on their health and wellbeing prior to entering prison, including episodes of sexual, physical and/or psychological abuse.1 This is said to contribute to women prisoners having higher rates of mental health issues compared with women in the community. Eighty-four percent (84.5%) of women in prison had a mental disorder compared with 19.1% of women in the community.2 Women prisoners have been found to be 1.7 times more likely to have a mental illness than male prisoners, and non-Aboriginal women are significantly more likely than non-Aboriginal men to have attempted suicide.3 One Victorian study found that 84% of women prisoners interviewed met the criteria for having a mental health problem.4 Forty-four percent (44%) of these women had major depression and 36% had post-traumatic stress disorder. Higher than both these groups was the percentage of women who had a drug-related mental health disorder. This was 57%.5 The study states that this range of mental health problems is similar to those found in literature on the impact of childhood abuse including the subsequent development of mental health issues into adulthood.6
As such, women are more likely than male prisoners to suffer from psychiatric disorders.This leads to cyclical ‘serial instituionalisation’ where a high proportion of women prisoners have dual and multiple diagnoses and are more likely to serve multiple sentences throughout life.
The 2009 Inmate Health Survey for NSW showed that 20% of women in prison had been admitted to a psychiatric unit or hospital and 27% of women in prison have attempted suicide.7 A further study completed by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) in 2012 on Australian prisoners found that 49% of women prisoners that had been discharged said there was no change in their mental health and wellbeing while in prison, compared with 35% of males. Men were slightly more likely than women to say their mental health and wellbeing was a lot better (28% and 25% respectively) or a little/lot worse (9% compared with 7%).8
People in detention have higher levels of cognitive impairment (intellectual disability, borderline intellectual disability and acquired brain injury) than is evident in the community. Average IQ among juveniles in detention is around 83 and in adult prison around 84,9 indicating significantly poorer cognitive functioning than the community average of 100. Of most concern is mounting evidence in Australia that women in prison - especially Indigenous women - require much higher levels of complex medical services (dual diagnosis, multiple diagnosis and disadvantage with associated multiple service needs) than male prisoners and their peers in the community.
The World Health Organisation stated that the most likely reason for the development or worsening of mental illness was due to “factors such as the disciplinary regime, lack of choice about activities and the people that they spend time with, and limited communication with family (especially children) and friends. The result is high levels of violence, aggression, self-harm and suicide”.10 The primary concern remains that in the presence of only minor offences, it is disproportionate for women prisoners to suffer from such experiences under these sentences, as they are unlikely to be a danger to society.11 It becomes evident that the proportionality of punishment to the crime is unbalanced and unjust. Such strict sentences can, for example, lead to women’s children entering state care and the loss of housing, income and all personal possessions.
 NSW Corrective Services NSW, Women Offenders, https://correctiveservices.nsw.gov.au/offender-management/offender-services-and-programs/women-offenders/_nocache (Accessed: 24 February 2014).