Bricks, steel caps, iron bars: Incarcerated women’s experiences of head injury over their lifetimes

Dr Mandy Wilson1, Professor Peter Schofield3, Dr Jocelyn Jones1, Professor Tony Butler2

1National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University, Perth, Australia
2School of Population Health, UNSW, Sydney, Australia
3School of Medicine and Public Health, Sydney, Australia

Studies have consistently found a higher prevalence of head injury (HI) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) among incarcerated populations than the general population. TBI can result in neurological and behavioural changes, and has been indicated in aggression, impulsivity and violence, factors also associated with an increased risk of criminal justice involvement. The majority of studies reporting on TBI/HI among prisoner populations have focused primarily on males. However, a growing body of literature examines the experiences among justice-involved females. This work illustrates that the prevalence of TBI/HI among females is at least equivalent (if not greater) to that among men.

This paper reports on self-reported head injury (HI) among a group of women (n=157) incarcerated for violent offences in West Australian prisons. Data were collected as part of a larger NHMRC funded research project, ‘Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women perpetrators of violence: a trial of a prison-based intervention (Beyond Violence)’. Sixty-four percent of women (n=100) reported receiving a HI with loss of consciousness (LOC), with a further five reporting head injury with no LOC. In addition to a quantitative measure of HI prevalence and LOC, many women provided qualitative contextualisation of HI events; it is these data the paper presents. The majority of HIs were sustained during family and domestic violence. However, women also spoke about childhood accidents, intentional self-harm, community violence and injury sustained under the influence of alcohol and/or other drugs. Participants described the physical and mental health problems they experienced as a result of their injuries, and subsequent longer-term impacts.

Few studies of TBI/HI in prison populations report contextual data collected from qualitative sources. However, these data can broaden our understanding of TBI/HI, and provide important insights for recognition, prevention and treatment of the associated impacts of TBI/HI among this group.


Dr Wilson is a Research Fellow at the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI), Curtin University. An anthropologist and trained qualitative researcher, she is a long-time member of the Aboriginal Research Team and leads the Justice Health Research Team. Her work has focused on justice-involved and incarcerated populations, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait females, with her areas of expertise including mothering from prison, females who use force, mental health, and issues around domestic and family violence.


Dec 09 2021