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Female inmates with incarcerated relatives at greater risk of neurological problems

University of Delaware

Since 2010, women have become the fastest growing population in prisons, increasing at nearly double the rate of men.


University of Delaware nursing professor Kathleen Brewer-Smyth has studied about 770 female inmates in the Mid-Atlantic area. She found almost all of these women suffered from neurological issues and over half also had at least one incarcerated family member.

She studied 135 female inmates to look at the link between neurological problems and having close relatives who’ve been in jail.


Compared to those who didn’t have incarcerated family members, the women who did were more than three times as likely to have been physically and sexually abused as children. Traumatic brain injury was commonly found among them.


These women often lived in very poor conditions as children that also contributed to their neurological problems.


“Some examples I found were women who said there was no food at certain times in their childhood so they would eat the paint chips off the wall, making them at a  greater risk of exposure to lead,” said Brewer-Smyth. “In their mind as a child--paint chips, potato chips--it was all the same.”


Inmates revealed in conversations they thought abuse was a normal part of life, so they never admitted it to authorities.


“They were afraid further retaliation,” said Brewer-Smyth. “They were afraid of going to another foster home--that would be worse. So they denied it was abuse and they went along with whatever the abuser said was the cause of the injury. So we really need to get children early before they end up in the criminal justice system.”

She argued that targeting these abused children would, in turn, reduce incarceration rates of women over the long term.


The study was published in the journal Health Care International earlier this year.