Women prisoners and FASD

Joanna Chu

'Punitive culture' managed by force at NZ's largest women's prison” reported on the medical needs of women prisoners not being met because of poor leadership and shortage of health staffing levels.

Dr Joanna Chu, Jessica McCormack, Professor Chris Bullen and Dr Valerie McGinn wish to draw attention to the unique challenges faced by women prisoners with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), a diagnostic term used to describe impacts on the brain and body of individuals prenatally exposed to alcohol.

FASD can cause developmental delay, intellectual and memory impairment, and a wide range of behavioural, emotional, and mental health disorders, and may underlie the criminal activity that led to their incarceration. Studies in Canada and Australia have estimated that between 10-36% of inmates in prisons and corrections facilities have FASD compared to 2%-5% in the general population.

There is every reason to believe that the situation is much the same, even worse, in NZ, where individuals with FASD are significantly disadvantaged at virtually every point in the criminal justice system. In NZ, women offenders with FASD are not being recognised and are therefore not being offered the types of services or programmes that meet their unique needs. Women prisoners with FASD have a right to be diagnosed and receive the care they deserve. The costs and consequences of not identifying and treating FASD-affected individuals and their whanau appropriately far outweigh the costs of diagnosis and early intervention by trained personnel within correction services.