The blog of the Urban Institute
October 19, 2020

How Community-Based Organizations Serve Trauma Survivors in Women’s Prisons

As the number of women—especially women of color—in US prisons grows, state departments of corrections (DOCs) face challenges addressing their needs.

Before incarceration, many women experience violent victimization and trauma. State DOCs have both an obligation and a unique opportunity to address these issues for the women in their custody.

Our new study documents several ways correctional institutions provide victim services and trauma-responsive programming to women in prison. One core strategy involves partnering with community-based victim services agencies and other organizations to provide services and programs to women with histories of trauma.

Why partnerships between prisons and community-based agencies are necessary

A vast number of women enter prisons and jails with trauma or posttraumatic stress disorder and victimization experiences. Most women entering jails have experienced sexual violence (86 percent), intimate partner violence (77 percent), and caregiver violence (60 percent). Research has also documented how experiencing intimate partner violence and witnessing forms of violence increases women’s risk of engaging in criminalized behaviors. And once incarcerated, women report higher rates of victimization within prisons than men. In short, many women sent to prison have experienced trauma that may contribute to their pathways to incarceration, and once incarcerated, they may experience similar forms of violence.

Yet correctional administrators and staff are not experts in working with survivors to address their trauma and promote healing. We found that some correctional staff—correctional officers and even some mental health staff—are often not trained to respond to victimization or to help women cope with traumatic experiences. Staff from a victim services agency who worked with one prison had a similar assessment.

We have clinical services here, and we have the job title called a counselor, but these counselor positions are actually officers that have worked with upward mobility through the union and have been able to get this counselor title without any sort of degrees or anything.

—Facility staff

I don’t think that they have the expertise to deal with women who have been sexually assaulted.

—Community partner

By partnering with community-based victim services agencies, women in prison may have the opportunity to receive relevant, impactful help from professionals with specific training and expertise in addressing the harms caused by violent experiences. 

How community-based organizations and prisons can work together to address women’s trauma and victimization needs

We asked state-level domestic violence and sexual assault coalitions how their community-based member agencies provide services to women survivors in prison. Nearly three-quarters of coalitions (73 percent) reported that their member agencies collaborate with correctional facilities throughout the state, with 64 percent providing in-facility services. Only 5 percent of coalitions reported that their member agencies aid in transporting or accompanying women to external services.

Local agencies may help corrections staff screen women who experience sexual assault in prison, order sexual assault medical forensic exams, and provide medical advocacy and accompaniment, if necessary. They may also provide immediate crisis intervention, ongoing emotional support, and therapeutic services.

Some agencies conduct sexual violence prevention training with women in prison. In Iowa, victim advocates from Polk County Crisis and Advocacy Services assist victims of in-prison sexual assault.

These relationships can sometimes continue outside of the facility. State coalitions reported 43 percent of member agencies continue services with women once they leave prison, allowing formerly incarcerated women the opportunity to maintain relationships with service providers and helping to ease their transition back to the community.

DOCs also partner with other types of community-based providers. In California, Just Detention International, a human rights organization, reportedly provides counseling to women survivors in prison. The Alabama Prison Birth Project provides doulas to pregnant people to attempt to reduce the trauma of being pregnant and giving birth while incarcerated and the forced separation from their newborns immediately after birth. In Oregon, the Pathfinder Network and Turning Point reportedly provide cognitive behavioral therapy, substance use programs, Parenting Inside Out, and curriculum-based programs for incarcerated women to address harms and trauma they experience.

State DOCs also collaborate in innovative ways with other state-based agencies to aid women in prison. For example, the New York State Office of Mental Health reportedly provides trauma responsive evidence-based programs to women, such as Seeking Safetyand Beyond Violence, as well as mental health services to all people in prisons across the state. The Illinois and Oregon DOCs reportedly partner with their states’ public health departments to deliver trauma-responsive programming and train incarcerated women to serve as peer advocates or coaches for other women in prison.

These partnerships can help survivors heal

Correctional staff often can’t provide this assistance, and because of prison’s inherently punitive and often traumatizing nature, they are difficult environments to deliver healing services. The legal system often frames those convicted of criminal activities as perpetrators, making it difficult for the same system to consider them victims or survivors also in need of help.

Healing and recovery are the foundation of victim services agencies. These agencies are well suited to provide the empathy, understanding, and care needed for women who have been convicted of crimes but are most likely victims of harm and crime themselves. Forging and expanding partnerships between correctional facilities and local service agencies can help women heal by giving them access to the services they need to work toward recovery and successful reentry, and could limit their justice-system involvement moving forward.

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