Member Groups

The Catalyst
The newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Women and the Law

October 2006, vol. 12, no. 1

Special needs of girls and women in prison: What can we do?

During its 2005-06 term, the Women and the Law Committee welcomed special guest speaker Lori Levin, Executive Director of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, to one of our meetings. The Committee asked Lori to tell us about the ICJIA, its role in understanding how the criminal justice and juvenile justice systems deal with female prisoners, and the resources it is developing to serve those prisoners. The following discussion is based on information from Lori’s presentation and a review of certain professional literature Lori distributed to us.

History and work of the ICJIA

Lori first described the history and mission of the ICJIA. This state agency, which is governed by a 21-member board of state and local government leaders, was founded in 1973 for the purpose of improving the administration of criminal justice in Illinois, in part by providing information to the public about the criminal justice system, and also by enhancing communications among the various law enforcement agencies in the State. A primary focus of the ICJIA has long been the gathering, analyzing and conducting of research on issues related to crime and criminals.

In addition, the ICJIA awards grants for residential substance abuse programs, for child advocacy groups, and to entities that provide services to victims of crime, to abused elders, and to women who are beneficiaries of the federal government’s Violence Against Women Act. As a grantee, the Authority itself commissions research projects funded by various federal government law enforcement agencies. Another important task of the ICJIA is to identify and propose policies, programs, and legislation addressing ways to improve the functioning of Illinois’ criminal justice system and facilitate the solving of problems within that system to benefit both the prison population and its administration. (For more information, visit the ICJIA Web site at 

Special problems of female prisoners 

Given its long standing commitment to the rights of women, the W&L Committee asked Lori to identify the special problems faced by the female prisoner population, both young women and girls, and the challenges faced by the prisons and correctional and detention centers that house this population. Some of the statistics she provided surprised many of us.

Data on inmates, especially on the basis of gender, race, and ethnicity, is not systematically collected by the State, and the data that has become available recently is only from certain geographical areas or correctional facilities rather than on a statewide basis, and it can be sparse and incomplete. However, we do know that the female prisoner population has been increasing steadily and dramatically since the early 1970s. In 1970, there were 130 females in the Illinois Department of Corrections, including parolees; in 2003, that number had increased to 6,183. The study does not appear to reflect the numbers of female juveniles in the system.

Through information obtained when women are processed into the prison system at the Dwight Correctional Center for Women, Lori noted that approximately 57 percent of female offenders are victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse. Adult female offenders also tend to be the sole or primary caretakers of minor children, are unemployed or underemployed, and are more likely than their male counterparts to benefit from nurturing programs.

Female juveniles

According to Lori, the ICJIA reports that there has been a 116 percent increase in the female juvenile population in the past decade(s), and that a majority of the girls who enter the criminal justice system as juveniles have committed crimes against property rather than violent crimes against persons. In a 1999 data collection project based on arrests from a sample of law enforcement agencies across Illinois that was reported in the ICJIA’S November 2002 Research Bulletin, page 2 (“Bulletin”), the ICJIA found that, for the group of female juveniles studied, 14 percent of arrests were for violent crimes, predominantly aggravated assault; 74 percent were for property offenses, predominantly larceny and theft; and drug offenses constituted 11 percent of the arrests. Among juvenile offenders nationwide, most of whom are 15 and 16 years of age, a majority are members of a racial or ethnic minority (but in Illinois they are white), are victims of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, and suffer from some form of substance abuse. (See the Bulletin, page 4).

A study funded by a U.S. Department of Justice grant and conducted under the auspices of the ICJIA in 2003 collected data from admissions to the Illinois Youth Centers from 1993 to 2002. This data revealed that more than half of the females were victims of some form of abuse at least once, and that in most instances, the victimizers were known by the females. (“Female Delinquents Committed to the Illinois Department of Corrections: A Profile,” ICJIA publication, December 2003, hereinafter “Female Delinquents”). Other studies have shown that where “relational victimization” occurs, the impact on girls can include low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, aggression, and substance abuse, and that their families might contribute to these reactions by denying the occurrence or blaming the girl for the attack. (See the Bulletin, page 5.) Understandably, many of the female juveniles in the samples were having trouble in school and almost three-quarters had been diagnosed with a mental health condition, which may be another factor contributing to their criminal history. Lori noted the role of ICJIA in promoting this kind of research, which is crucial to the development and delivery of services that will help this group of girls survive their victimization and possibly avoid becoming juvenile offenders or repeat offenders.
What next?

It is evident from these statistics that providing meaningful preventive and supportive services to a very vulnerable population of female delinquents is difficult and costly. Nevertheless, we have a responsibility to care for this neglected and troubled segment of society, and we know that everyone suffers when we incarcerate girls as well as women and forget about them because they are out of the public eye.

In order to address the critical needs of female arrestees, inmates, parolees, and delinquents, and to begin to reduce the incidence of criminal activity by—and against—women and girls, relevant services must be made available, and money must be found to fund the services, inclusive of staffing. Clearly, further research remains to be conducted, and soon, on larger or more representative groups of both girls and women, but that can certainly take place while currently proposed recommendations for working with incarcerated, detained, and arrested women and girls are implemented. Girls and women who give birth in prison and try to parent their infants while incarcerated, or who want to actively parent their children from prison cannot wait very long for research project result.

To this end, the ICJIA has recently embarked on a two phase data collection project. In phase one of the project, women entering the DOC at Dwight will be given base line questionnaires asking for such information as medical history, abuse history, and age and other identifiers. After data from the questionnaire responses has been analyzed, the second phase of the project will proceed with in-depth intake interviews of a representative sample of the female inmates. During both phases, appropriate care will be taken to protect the privacy rights of the women providing information on the questionnaire and during the interview process. 

Although a broad range of data is being sought through the phase one questionnaire process, a specific goal of the phase two interviews is to determine whether those women who were previously victims of domestic abuse either knew about or sought services for themselves. Results from these interviews will help the ICJIA and social service agencies figure out how to better communicate the messages about domestic violence prevention and treatment programs to a population continually in need of such support services, and how to improve the effectiveness of those programs.

This research and other information being gathered will also enable the ICJIA and state agencies dealing with women and girls in prison to identify the kinds of programs that will help these prisoners manage their lives while they are incarcerated, whether in temporary detention facilities, juvenile centers, or jails and prisons. This goal might include the provision of mental health services, mentoring and tutoring, pregnancy counseling, sex education and parenting classes, and anger management and conflict resolution programs, all of which will also prepare the female prisoners to cope with life outside prison walls. (See “Programming recommendations” on page 9 of the Bulletin; and the Executive Summary, and Recommendations section, page 77, of “Female Delinquents,” supra.) The next challenge is to develop aftercare services and transitional living centers that are available during parole so that the recidivism rate is reduced.

A great deal of advocacy and work remains to be accomplished.