Women’s Psychological Adjustment to Prison: A Review for Future Social Work Directions

Mar 13, 2017

swrWith the increasing number of women in prison, understanding incarcerated women’s psychological health is a timely and necessary line of research to guide policy and practices within prisons. This understanding influences prison design, service coordination, and intervention development. Social workers working with incarcerated populations especially can benefit from further research into imprisonment’s effects on women. Knowledge of how women psychologically adjust to life within prison informs social work efforts in developing services for this population, shaping the discourse around women in prison, and crafting policies. In conducting research into incarcerated female populations, two theoretical perspectives guide a majority of researchers on adjustment in prison: deprivation theory and importation theory. Deprivation theory focuses on how institutional factors, such as custody level, influence adjustment. In contrast, importation theory examines how inmate characteristics (for example, trauma history) are associated with adjustment.

In a recent article in the journal Social Work Research, published by NASW Press, Gina L. Fedock, PhD, LMSW, argues for integrating these two theoretical approaches in order to guide researchers toward a more complete understanding of incarceration’s effects on women prisoners. She reviews factors from both deprivation and importation perspectives that have been shown to influence women’s psychological adjustment and she identifies research gaps to inform future social efforts related to improving incarcerated women’s mental health, preventing suicide in prison, and promoting long-term outcomes such as reduced recidivism.

Dr. Fedock notes that The prison environment is a physically, socially, and psychologically distinct location with intentional deprivations (such as loss of privacy), with adjusting and adapting to this environment as challenges for inmates. Prisons are total institutions in that they operate within a contained space, dictated by their own set of rules, regulations, surveillance, and consequences and maintained by authoritative custodial staff. In the 1950s and 1960s, social scientists developed the concept of prison adjustment with three goals: (1) to prevent and reduce prison violence and misconduct of both an individual and a group nature (for example, prevent prison riots); (2) improve skill building and rehabilitation; and (3) ultimately, lower recidivism rates. Thus, a prisoner’s level of adjustment displays how well she or he is able to survive within prison, the degree of rehabilitation occurring, and the level of risk for future criminal behaviors. Dr. Fedock further notes that psychological adjustment has been understudied in comparison with disciplinary and behavioral adjustment.

Two main theories are commonly used to examine psychological adjustment in prisons: deprivation theory and importation theory. Deprivation theory highlights the role of the prison environment; in contrast, importation theory focuses on individual-level factors that influence psychological adjustment.

Deprivation theory

Deprivation theory posits that the prison environment inherently deprives the inmate of basic needs, resulting in tension and particular ways of adaption. Deprivation theory focuses on analyzing:

  • The type of correctional facility
  • Overcrowding
  • Length of stay
  • Inmate perceptions
  • Separation from children
  • Prison policies for social support

The main critique of deprivation theory is that the prison environment doesn’t’ explain all or nuanced variations in prisoner adjustment. Deprivation theory shifts the focus almost entirely to the prison environment, and may ignore individual-level prisoner needs or care.

Importation theory

The other main theory used to study and predict adjustment is importation theory, which posits that an inmate’s demographics and past experiences determine his or her psychological adjustment in prison. These individual factors shape prisoner perceptions and responses to the environment. Researchers using this theoretical perspective commonly explore the following four variables:

  • Demographics
  • Personal and family histories
  • Substance use
  • Prior mental health

Importation factors are commonly conceptualized as risk factors and, specifically, factors to be assessed for when women enter prison to guide custody determination, risk levels (for recidivism and prison misconducts), the provision of specific treatment services such as substance abuse groups, and even parole decisions. However, because importation factors are often described as prisoner risk factors, the conflation of needs into risk factors has shifted the responsibility from system solutions to individual-level factors. Therefore, this perspective has been criticized as distracting from problematic environmental factors within prisons and the structure and functions of prisons themselves.

Integrating deprivation and importation theories

Dr. Fedock thus calls for an integration of deprivation and importation theories in order to provide a more complete assessment of women’s psychological adjustment to incarceration. Women present with high rates of mental health needs in prisons and, as such, research is needed that examines influencing factors on their psychological health, especially to prevent poor outcomes such as suicide. Deprivation and importation theorists have found a range of significant factors, which illuminates multiple directions for advancing social work policy, practice, and research efforts. Given the inherent tension between prison goals of security and the mental health needs of prisoners, social work may serve as a field for mediating this tension. Also, this social work integrated theoretical perspective, along with ecological models, may bridge individual and institutional factors, as well as incorporate additional social work concepts of a strengths perspective, the role of resiliency in prison, and human-rights-focused policies and practices—thus expanding theoretical and applied perspectives on women’s mental health in prison.

Dr. Fedock calls for further research using this integrated perspective, with the goal of improving social work with incarcerated women’s populations. The psychological adjustment of women to prison is shaped by both institutional and individual factors. This area of research is still emerging and in need of work that elicits women’s perspectives and definitions of adjustment, including a range of conceptualizations about positive and negative adjustment.