Building Empathy Within the Walls


This is the 1st in a 4 part Blog series on issues affecting incarcerated women and women interacting with the criminal justice system.

A research team, made up of four masters in social work students at Wheelock College, has been working hard over the past year on researching and developing a curriculum which trains correctional staff on how to work with female inmates who have experienced trauma. The curriculum focuses on how to address the struggles associated with trauma, and lessen the amount of trauma that occurs while incarcerated. Over the course of four blog posts, our team will be introducing the issue of trauma and incarcerated women to the Wheelock community, and beyond. Today we begin by providing a brief outline of the issue at hand and lay the groundwork for why this is an important Human Rights Issue.

Over the past fifteen years, more and more women are being incarcerated within the United States. The numbers at which they are entering prisons, far exceeds the numbers of men entering prisons at this time (Fedock, 2013, p. 494). Any person entering incarceration, male or female, brings with them a history of numerous long and short-term struggles. These struggles could include a history of substance use, being a witness to violence, being a victim of violent acts, being a victim of sexual abuse, and having mental health diagnoses. Connie Neal (2007) studied the rates at which women who were incarcerated had reported intimate partner violence, prior to their incarceration. Neal (2007) found that, “across the nation, 57% of women in state prisons and 40% of women in federal prisons reported they have been physically or sexually abused” (p. 38). This experience is often defined by the all-encompassing term: trauma. According to the American Psychological Association (2016), trauma can be defined by a “…emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea” (“Trauma and Shock”, para. 1). Our team believes that trauma, if undiagnosed and untreated, can lead to numerous debilitating issues for those who are incarcerated. Incarceration is a traumatic experience alone, and when taking into account a person’s  trauma history prior to even being incarcerated, this can lead to a variety of struggles, the least of them being recidivism, or the return of someone to the criminal justice system once they have been released.

When trauma goes undiagnosed and is untreated, the effects can be extremely harmful and can often develop into a larger issue for women as time goes on. Joyce Arditti and April Few (2008) found in their study that women who had been incarcerated were at greater risk for depression, domestic violence and substance abuse after their release (p. 304).

When delving deeper into the published research on incarcerated women, our team discovered a larger systems issue and a human rights violation, which has been identified by many, but there are little if any long lasting solutions. The argument at hand is not against incarceration itself, instead the argument is against the way in which society incarcerates individuals who have experienced traumatic events. How do we work and interact with the women who are involved in the criminal justice system, while at the same time minimizing the traumatizing impact of the system they are in and could possibly be in for the rest of their lives?  The goal of incarceration when necessary, is that it should be rehabilitating instead of inflicting longer-term damage.

By: Amy Gatlin, Turquoise Collins, Kelsey Olson, and Haley Penny. All four are students in the Master of Social 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. They will present their findings on April 25th, 2016 at Wheelock College. All four students are predicted to graduate this May with Masters degrees in Social Work.