Gender Differences in Chronic Medical, Psychiatric, and Substance-Dependence Disorders Among Jail Inmates

Women inmates are more likely to suffer from medical, psychiatric and drug dependence than incarcerated men, although men suffer more alcohol dependence, according to data from a 2002 survey of 6,983 nationally-representative inmates. Women are seven times more likely than men to have cancer while in jail.

The health of inmates is significant: in 2007, over a million people spent time in a U.S. jail. Here, the prevalence of disease in men and women was calculated for chronic medical disorders, such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension and asthma; psychiatric disorders, such as, depressive, bipolar, anxiety and personality; and substance-dependence. Although inmates tend to be young–most were age 35 or less–and from socioeconomic and demographic pools associated with poor health, there are population differences between men and women inmates. Researchers analyzed the relationship between gender and each disorder by adjusting for these differences.

Key Findings:

  • After adjustment, women were significantly more likely than men to suffer from every medical condition and psychiatric disorder, except for cirrhosis and psychotic disorder.
  • Women were nearly 1.5 times more likely to suffer from drug dependence but significantly less likely to suffer from alcohol dependence, after adjustment.
  • Women inmates were seven times more likely than men to have cancer. When gender-specific cancers were removed from analysis, the gender difference was insignificant.

While both men and women inmates have poor health, this is the first study to show women are generally worse off, suggesting research is needed on how to deliver gender-specific services within jails. For example, cancer prevalence is likely related to cervical cancer; thus, screening and HPV vaccination could be considered for all females in the correction system. Incarceration may be a good time to deliver health services to a sick population, thus reducing health problems before inmates return to the community.