The blog of the Urban Institute
November 5, 2020

Stories from Incarcerated Women Show the Importance of Furthering Trauma-Informed Care while Prioritizing Decarceration

Women make up the fastest-growing share of the incarcerated population in the US. Incarceration can be especially traumatic for women, who may experience more harassment and violence while incarcerated and face unique barriers to successful reentry after incarceration.

To learn what affects incarcerated women’s feelings of safety and well-being and how prisons can be more responsive to their trauma, we spoke with 28 incarcerated women from three US women’s prisons. Although all interviewees identified as women, people of other genders are also housed in women’s prisons, and, though potentially similar, their experiences most likely differ in important respects as well. Four prominent themes emerged from our conversations.

1. Women are often incarcerated because of their experiences with trauma and domestic violence

Eighty-six percent of incarcerated women have histories of physical or sexual violence prior to incarceration. Experiencing intimate partner violence can lead to risk of incarceration because some survival strategies—including self-defense and substance abuse—are criminalized. Evidence suggests that of women in jail for killing men, nearly 90 percent had been abused by those men (PDF). This reality is also rooted in systemic racism. Black women in the US experience high rates of criminalization and overpolicing (PDF) that lead to disproportionate incarceration. The latest research on this is old but still relevant (PDF); a 1991 study demonstrated that “the ratio of Black women to white women convicted of killing their abusive husbands was nearly two to one.”

The women we interviewed shared stories behind these numbers; more than one-third of women volunteered information about their history of victimization prior to incarceration unprompted, and others alluded to such experiences. Some women experienced domestic violence and sexual assault before incarceration, used criminalized substances to cope with abuse, or acted out in fear toward their abusers. These traumatic experiences, coupled with lack of community supports, created inimical conditions that led to incarceration. Criminalization of survival mechanisms, particularly among Black women and other women of color, was a theme.

2. Women need stronger medical care

Medical care varies across facilities. Although some women receive basic care and specialized services, such as reproductive and obstetrical care, many facilities lack resources and tools needed to provide adequate health care. Many are far from providing care in a way that reduces trauma and promotes holistic health of women incarcerated in the facility. One woman stated that “[women] call health care ‘death care’” because they can’t access cost-prohibitive services and receive limited preventative care.

To improve and expand care, facilities could consider strengthening partnerships with external health care providers (PDF) to further women’s ability to make decisions about their own health care and ensure women have lasting health care relationships after incarceration.

3. Women recognize and appreciate when staff treat them with respect, but when staff dehumanize them, the experience can be traumatizing

Multiple women felt facility staff are “trying as hard as they can” to make the experience of incarceration less traumatizing and more conducive to growth.

However, many women also reported staff misconduct with little to no accountability. They shared incidences of staff not allowing women to go outside during mandated outdoor time, not following search safety standards, making women feel “totally uncomfortable” during searches, and being inconsistent in their enforcement of rules. When we asked one woman whether she believes staff understand the effects of past trauma and abuse, she said, “I don’t feel like they have any sense whatsoever. None at all.”

To promote safety as much as possible within a traumatizing environment, facilities can prioritize training and awareness of trauma behaviors, and staff should hold each other accountable for misbehavior. Staff must also work to not transfer their inherited and learned traumas from day-to-day work in a correctional facility, as all who work or are confined in correctional facilities are exposed to traumatic experiences.

4. Women need better reentry services

Incarcerated people reentering their communities—especially women with traumatic experiences—need support. Many women cited a lack of release planning and support for successful reentry, including services to address trauma (PDF). One woman noted that proper case management could help her develop a reentry strategy to make her less likely to be incarcerated again. Women’s heightened needs (PDF) upon release and the dissonance they can experience (PDF) during reentry—such as difficulty in caring for children after separation, relationship building after social isolation, decisionmaking after being stripped of agency, and ensuring physical safety while navigating housing and financial instability—also make release preparation and reentry services essential.

Prisons aren’t the answer for true, long-term care

To improve care for people who have experienced and caused harm, policymakers and practitioners can consider two strategies.

These stories from incarcerated women highlight firsthand how much prisons can deepen trauma. To better address trauma, prisons can start by becoming more trauma responsive, and communities and policymakers can prioritize divestment from the prison industrial complex and investment in noncarceral and transformative solutions.

Incarcerated people walk across the campus at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. (Photo by Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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