Trauma Substance Abuse Comorbidity for Women Involved in the Criminal Justice System

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This is the 3rd in a 4 part Blog series on issues affecting incarcerated women and women interacting with the criminal justice system.

As a continuation of our blog series discussing our curriculum for staff who work with women within the criminal justice system, we will highlight the impact of substance abuse and mental health in connection with trauma. Depression, violence, and addiction have been called the “triple threat” of risk and resilience by Joyce Arditti and April Few (2006). They are also called significant factors in women’s viability by the same researchers, pointing to significant factors for women in the prison system.

Triple Threat in the Female Prison Population

Nearly 73% of female prisoners are suffering from a mental health disorder and nearly three quarters of these women have also lived with substance dependence or abuse (Arditti & Few, 2006). These issues become interrelated when we take into account the discussion of trauma in our previous blog posts, with varying research pointing to up to 90% of the female prison population having experienced trauma prior to incarceration.

Prior trauma history and retraumatization within the prison system present factors contributing to struggles with sobriety both while incarcerated and following release. Previously incarcerated women are ten times more likely to abuse drugs than those within the general population (Zlotnick, 2003). This presents increased recidivism and risk factors continue to present dangers for these women both as individuals and within their family systems.

The impact of substance abuse and mental health in connection with trauma affecting women within the criminal justice system

Best Practice

There are a number of factors that have the potential to positively impact those within the prison system. Policy changes in sentencing for drug related offenses would greatly impact outcomes for women within the system. The rate of female incarceration heads increased drastically in the last thirty years due to the War on Drugs created in the 1970’s (Zust, 2008). Female incarceration rates have surpassed those of men quite significantly. Often times, trauma is related to female drug offenses, with batterers forcing female offenders to partake in drug offenses with threat of force (Zust, 2008). This should be taken into account during sentencing of offenses.


Screening for prior trauma as well as substance abuse would be beneficial for best practice within the prison system.


Screening for prior trauma as well as substance abuse would be beneficial for best practice within the prison system, providing opportunities for therapeutic intervention.  Post-release, women have noted in qualitative research, probation officers have the potential to be great supports in keeping women on track and providing supports in sobriety while taking trauma and substance abuse into account (Fedock, 2012).

By: Amy Gatlin, Turquoise Collins, Kelsey Olson, and Haley Penny. All four are students in the Master of Social Work Program at Wheelock College. They are in the process of completing a year-long research project on women involved in the criminal justice system and trauma. All four students are predicted to graduate in May 2016 with Masters degrees in Social Work.

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