Incarcerated women evidence high rates of both interpersonal trauma and mental illness. In particular, the rates of sexual violence victimization are so high that some researchers have suggested that sexual abuse may be a pathway to prison for women, likely through the development of mental illness, including substance abuse. This review article summarizes the literature on sexual victimization (n = 32 articles; 28 independent studies) and mental illness (n = 11 articles; 8 independent studies) prevalence among samples of incarcerated women (Ns ≥ 100) in context of methodological choices within included articles. Best estimates for sexual victimization from studies using established survey methods were as follows: 50–66% for child sexual abuse, 28–68% for adult sexual abuse, and 56–82% for lifetime sexual assault. Although data directly comparing prevalence of sexual victimization among incarcerated women to prevalence for other groups are limited, the existing data indicate that incarcerated women have significantly greater exposure than incarcerated men and community samples of women. Moreover, compared to findings from the National Comorbidity Survey-Replication, incarcerated women evidence greater prevalence of most lifetime and current mental illnesses, especially depressive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance use disorders. Surprisingly, only two independent studies have investigated the overlap between sexual victimization and mental illness in samples of incarcerated women. Both studies found disproportionally high rates of mental illness among victims of sexual violence. Suggestions and implications for research, policy, and practice are discussed.

Marie E. Karlsson, Melissa J. Zielinski
Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, April 16, 2018