Wisconsin Responds to Imprisoned Women’s Mental Health Crisis

The ACLU has settled a landmark lawsuit over female inmates' mental and physical health services in Wisconsin.

By Michelle Chen Aug 24, 2010

A legal intervention could soon help end a medical nightmare for women behind bars in Wisconsin. The ACLU has settled a landmark lawsuit over female inmates’ mental and physical health services. According to the group’s press release:

state officials have agreed to implement a number of significant structural improvements aimed at ensuring that constitutionally adequate levels of care are provided to all prisoners at the Taycheedah Correctional Institution (TCI), and that female prisoners receive the same levels of mental health care as the state’s male prisoners.

Back in 2006, the group filed suit charging:

the state prison system put the lives of women prisoners at risk through grossly deficient health care, provided far inferior mental health treatment as compared to men and failed to provide reasonable accommodations to allow prisoners with disabilities to access basic prison services.

The complaint outlined a litany of deficiencies at TCI: medication errors and delays, incompetent staff, and dangerous nursing shortages. The need for services is overwhelming: the facility, located in Fond du Lac, reported that as of the 2008-09 fiscal year, "approximately 70% of inmates were identified as having a mental health need. Approximately 32% of inmates were identified as having a serious mental illness." Women have been deprived of even the most essential medications. According to the complaint, an AIDS patient suffered an explosion in her viral load and acute sickness after running into repeated medication shortages and delays. The distribution of medications by correctional officers works about as well as one might expect. A sergeant summed up the day-to-day duties this way:

[Officers] might be asked by the inmates what are the side effects. We don’t know that stuff. And they’ll ask me, and I’ll laugh, "I can’t even pronounce it, how would I know a side effect?"

The new settlement mandates that the TCI administration hire a full-time medical director as well as a consultant to monitor health services. State officials will also have to ensure that high-needs inmates can receive inpatient-level psychiatric treatment in a new "off site women’s resource center." But TCI’s problems aren’t just a matter of expanding services; they’re a product of the nation’s racially charged incarceration craze. The Women’s Prison Association reports that, paralleling a national trend, "Between 1977 and 2004, Wisconsin’s female prison population grew by 863% with an average annual percent change of 9.4% per year." According to state records, women of color make up about 37 percent of the population. Black and Native American women make up about 6.5 percent and 1 percent of the state’s female population, respectively, but 29 percent and 7 percent of TCI inmates. Nationally, much of the explosion in the country’s female prison population can be traced to the war on drugs. Drug problems, in turn, are linked to other social crises that push women into the system, according to an analysis by the Sentencing Project:


  • Women in state prison in 1998 were more likely to report using drugs at the time of their offense than men (40% vs. 32%), and nearly one-third reported that they had committed their offense to obtain money to buy drugs.
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  • More than half (57%) of women incarcerated under state jurisdiction reported that they had experienced either sexual or physical abuse before their admission to prison.
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  • Nearly three-quarters (73.1%) of women in state prison in 2005 had a mental health problem, compared to 55% of men in prison

The tangled struggles afflicting incarcerated women add up to an epidemic that can’t be cured from within prison walls.