The Trauma of Women in Prison

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women in prison

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Women serving prison sentences suffer serious trauma both before and during incarceration, and improved awareness and better services in the prison systems are urgently needed, according to a new study by the Urban Institute.

Between 1980 and 2017, the number of women incarcerated in the United  States increased 750 percent, and African American women were incarcerated at twice the rate of white women, the study said.

The majority were imprisoned for nonviolent offenses.

“Many women bring past trauma into prison settings, where they often experience similar violence, abuse and trauma as they experienced on the outside,” said the study authors.

“As the population of women incarcerated in the U.S. grows, so does the dire need for services that address trauma and victimization.”

The study authors interviewed people at 41 state Departments of Corrections.

According to the research conducted in the study, “correctional facilities have not evolved to address growing concerns around victimization.”

Incarcerated women have histories of victimization and trauma at much higher rates than incarcerated men. This includes trauma exposure, interpersonal trauma, victimization, and post traumatic stress disorder.

The lifetime prevalence of PTSD among a sample of incarcerated women was 53 percent, compared with a prevalence of 10 percent in the general population, according to the study.

“Moreover, women are more likely than men to have experienced violence and/or sexual victimization before incarceration.”

The sexual violence continues after women enter the prison systems.

Research cited in the study revealed that while women accounted for only 7 percent of the incarcerated population in the United States between 2009 and 2011, they represented 22 percent of the victims of assault perpetrated by other incarcerated people and 33 percent of the assaults perpetrated by facility staff and in state and federal prisons.

When dealing with sexual violence in prison, “safety and security measures largely involve separating the victim from the person who caused harm.”

Some prisons reported using medical assessments and follow up services to respond to “in custody victimization.”

According to the assessments in the study, most prison systems currently use programming rather than victim services to deal with trauma, with program titles such as Seeking Safety, Moving On, Helping Women Recover, Beyond Trauma and Beyond Violence.

“Others provided trauma-informed substance abuse treatment to address addiction rooted in past trauma. Many, however, could not meet the demand for such treatment programming due to limited resources.”

Most prisons use “emotional support in the form of mental health treatment” for past trauma and in-custody victimization. But there are severe limits.

“Incarcerated women, correctional staff and DOC stakeholders and community partners expressed that mental health services in prisons are limited by a lack of internal staff expertise around sexual assault, and by infrequent opportunities for women to meet with mental health staffers.”

Other challenges with services for women suffering trauma involved budgets, eligibility critera and “programs that are punitive or dismissive toward participants.”

Overall, the two most significant challenges to facilities being more responsive to trauma were the “undermining of the validity of incarcerated women’s personhood and victimization experiences” and staff violence against women.

The study authors said that corrections institutions “have become marginally aware of the traumatic pathways women take to incarceration.”

Yet, the study said, “turning awareness and understanding of trauma histories into actionable programs and procedures is imperative to working with women in correctional spaces.”

The full study can be read here.

Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report.

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