The Denver Post
The number of Colorado female prisoners diagnosed with psychological disorders has risen sharply to more than twice the level of male prisoners.
The women are almost without exception victims of severe sexual and physical abuse, experts say. They cycle through jail and prison, often because they don't get adequate treatment or community support.
"The trauma histories are extreme," said Theresa Stone, chief of mental health at Denver Women's Correctional Facility. "It's hard to hear what these women have been through."
While most women are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, a certain percentage of them are committing increasingly violent acts, Stone said.
"Women are in many cases extremely violent," she said. "I think we're seeing the impact of abuse and mental illness."
The state prison system has in recent years taken great strides in diagnosing and addressing the needs of mentally ill women, Stone said. There is drug counseling, psychological treatment and group therapy. Some women live in highly structured therapeutic communities in special pods. The first step was identifying the true scope of the problem, Stone said.
In 2001, a Colorado Department of Corrections review determined that 39 percent of women incarcerated in Colorado were diagnosed with some type of mental illness. A Dec. 31 report says that 67 percent of those women are mentally ill.
That is slightly lower than the national rate of women incarcerated in prison. According to a December 2006 Department of Justice study, 73 percent of women in state prisons nationally have some type of mental disorder. Within the general population, 12 percent of women have a diagnosed mental disorder, the same report says.
The percentage of men in Colorado prisons with a diagnosed mental illness also increased dramatically in the same time frame — from 18 percent to 30 percent — but the ratio is less than half the level of female inmates.
The percentage of female prisoners suffering mental conditions, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, has always been high but many women hadn't been diagnosed, experts say. Many of the women also had declined to seek treatment until they were behind bars.
Carol Lease, executive director of The Empowerment Program, which helps chronically incarcerated women in Denver find therapy, jobs and housing, said incarcerated women share strikingly similar backgrounds.
Nearly all of them were emotionally, physically and sexually abused as children. Many turned to prostitution and mask the pain with cocaine, Lease said. They often get arrested on felony drug dealing charges, she said.
Four inmates at Denver Women's prison recently opened up about their own traumatic histories of abuse and their struggles with mental conditions.
One expressed concern about her own prospects.
"I'm scared because I don't know how to live a normal life," said Shawn Snyder, 42, a career prostitute.
Snyder ran away from her Lincoln, Neb., home, where her mother's boyfriends molested her, and where her mother pulled her hair out, threw her down stairs and frequently beat her. She began a life of prostitution in Omaha at the age of 11.
Snyder gave birth to a daughter at 15, and when she lost custody of the infant, she went back to prostituting herself to survive. Free-basing crack cocaine made all the pain go away, she said. Along the way, she had relationships with men who beat her. She moved to Colorado in her early 20s, and a pimp introduced her to Colfax Avenue.
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Wednesday, March 06, 2013
The Denver Post