Treatment Approaches for Incarcerated Women Who Have Experienced Trauma

{0 Comments}

This is the final post in a 4 part Blog series on issues affecting incarcerated women and women interacting with the criminal justice system.

In March 2015, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey noted the importance of gender-responsive practice in correctional institutions, saying, “Women are a unique population…many are victims of trauma, of sexual violence, human trafficking. We need to address the unique circumstance that they arrive with.”

Attorney General Healey is just one of many policy makers who are speaking out about the unique needs of female prisoners. While the traditional environment of jails, prisons, and halfway houses has been punitive, the rapidly increasing number of incarcerated women with trauma histories necessitates a change in service provision. Despite its historical purpose as punishment, Miller and Najavits (2012) report that “prison can…be a golden “teachable moment” in that the inmate’s incarceration may heighten awareness of needing new coping skills and addressing trauma impact” (p. 6).

Trauma-Informed Care

Research indicates that the needs of incarcerated women are best met utilizing a trauma-informed framework. Miller and Najavits (2012) define the goals of trauma-informed care as “accurate identification of trauma and related symptoms, training all staff to be aware of the impact of trauma, minimizing retraumatization, and a fundamental “do no harm” approach that is sensitive to how institutions may inadvertently reenact traumatic dynamics (Harris and Fallot, 2001; Hodes, 2006)” (p. 2). In fact, trauma-informed care is so necessary for prison environments that it has been adapted for corrections-specific work. This model of trauma-informed care is known as trauma informed correctional care (TICC).

Research indicates that the needs of incarcerated women are best met utilizing a trauma-informed care framework.

How Does it Work?

The primary methods of enacting trauma-informed care into correctional environments, as identified by The Connecticut Women’s Consortium (2014), include:

  • Creating and maintaining a “…correctional environment that is highly structured and safe with predictable and consistent limits, incentives and boundaries….as well as swift and specific consequences so that inmates are treated fairly and equally” (p. 1)
  • Thorough intake procedures that include screening new inmates for trauma histories (p.1)
  • ”Provide education and training for correctional staff which includes information about trauma as well as ways to respond effectively” (p.1)
  • “Using cognitive behavioral interventions to restructure…thinking and develop positive coping skills” (p.1)

What Can Prisons Do?

Within the prison setting, trauma-informed care can be applied by educating staff members on “…the importance of establishing trustworthy relationships, offering to the women when possible, creating appropriate boundaries,…and moderating tone of voice (Elliott, Bjelajac, Fallot, Markoff, & Reed, 2005; Harris and Fallot, 2001; Najavitz, 2002)” (Wright, 2012, p. 1621). It is important for staff to learn how to recognize behaviors that are the result of post-traumatic stress disorders, as these symptoms can often be misinterpreted as defiance or disobedience. Finally, it is critical that experienced, senior correctional officers and other staff support the training and education of staff, and take a leadership role (Miller and Najavitz, 2012).


“It is important for staff to learn how to recognize behaviors that are the result of post-traumatic stress disorders.”


By: Amy Gatlin, Turquoise Collins, Kelsey Olson, and Haley Penny. All four are students in the Master of Social Work Program at Wheelock College. They are in the process of completing a year-long research project on women involved in the criminal justice system and trauma. All four students are predicted to graduate in May 2016 with Masters degrees in Social Work.

Leave a Reply