Women and Incarceration: How Trauma Begets Trauma


This is the 2nd in a 4 part Blog series on issues affecting incarcerated women and women interacting with the criminal justice system.

People may be surprised when they hear the statistic that 95% of women who have been incarcerated have a trauma history. Or maybe that’s not surprising at all. The fact is that most women involved in the criminal justice system have a history of trauma, and with women being the fastest growing prison population today (Fedock, Fries, and Kubiak, 2013) it’s an issue that must be addressed.

What is trauma?

Trauma is the new hot word in mental health and human service professions these days, but what do we really mean when we talk about trauma? Trauma put simply is anything that was a distressing or disturbing experience for someone (See the Merriam-Webster definition here). Of course that experience of an event varies person by person. A ride on a roller coaster is an exciting and thrilling experience for some, and a terrifying and completely unenjoyable experience for others. An event that traumatizes one person may not traumatize another. More clinical definitions of trauma can be found in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, of which the newest version is known as the DSM-5. This tool, used by most mental health professionals, helps us to understand what kind of symptomology goes along with a traumatic experience if it is causing that person distress after the actual event. It also helps professionals to understand treatment plans that may actually alleviate some of these symptoms.

The problem is that this issue is overlooked in the prison population as a whole.  Many men and women who enter the criminal justice system have experienced some trauma in their lives.  Women who are incarcerated are 90-95% likely to have a traumatic history. Fifty percent of these women have experienced victimization by an intimate partner or rape prior to their incarceration (Zust, 2008). Many of these negative experiences directly correlate to their reasons of being in prison. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is often correlated with high levels of drug and alcohol abuse related to PTSD symptoms or ongoing victimization. This paired with changes in drug sentencing policies has greatly contributed to the rise in female prison populations (Fedock, Fries, and Kubiak, 2013).

Criminal Justice System

The whole goal of the criminal justice system is to reduce crime, and rehabilitate people who have committed these crimes back into mainstream society to become productive members of society. It serves an important role in responding to criminal acts, but oftentimes does not fulfill its goal. There are a number of reasons for this in current policy and practice, including mandatory minimum sentencing, mass incarceration, racial prejudice within the system, and so forth. Not the least of these reasons being the inability of “the system” to address trauma histories and how this affects recidivism rates and reintegration of convicted offenders after they have been through the criminal justice system.

Trauma could and should be addressed throughout women’s experience with the criminal justice system, from beginning through the end.  In a study conducted in 2008, it was found that probation offices often did not screen for mental health issues such as depression, and other psychological disturbances that could point to trauma histories and specific treatment needs that would aid women in reducing the harm that comes from being in the criminal justice system (Arditti, 2008). Probation offices are often the first place where women who have been arrested go. They often interact with probation officers before they are able to meet with lawyers. This would be an ideal time to at least screen for mental health issues and trauma histories to aid in addressing the complex issues involved.

If a women has gone through the court system and is now being sentenced to time in jail or prison, that would be the next step in the process of acknowledging mental health needs and/or trauma histories and address this in treatment or in planning for release if the sentence is relatively short. Liebman, R. E., Burnette, M. L., Raimondi, C., Nichols-Hadeed, C., Merle, P., & Cerulli, C. note in a 2014 study that:

“Survivors of trauma are often hesitant to pursue treatment because of avoidance and lack of resources. Within the prison environment, there may be additional safety concerns that prevent inmates from identifying themselves as trauma survivors. The strict prison regulations add additional hurdles to study design and participant confidentiality that can seriously compromise the study’s integrity.”

An additional barrier to treatment in prison/jail is noted by B.L. Zust in a 2008 study:

“Some studies have shown that abuse by male guards is an extension of the abuse the women experienced prior to their incarceration. The United States is one of the only countries in the world that employs male guards to oversee incarcerated women. In federal women’s prisons, 70% of the guards are male (Amnesty International USA, 2005). Isolation, the use of restraints, pat-downs, and random strip searches by male guards has the potential to trigger PTSD symptoms in women (Heney & Kristiansen, 1998).”

The argument is that prisons and jails are not meant to be treatment; they are meant as a punishment – so why does this matter? Fedock, Fries, and Kubiak state the following: “The lack of intervention [within prisons] contributes to reoffending, relapse, and unsafe conditions for women, as seen with the connections between untreated mental health and substance abuse disorders, poor functioning and recidivism.” (p.502) This equals reoffending and women reentering the criminal justice system because their needs have not been adequately addressed in their first experiences in the system. It could be seen as a cost saving measure to address these needs the first time around. In addition to the fact that addressing trauma could aid the criminal justice system in its goal to rehabilitate healthier and more productive citizens, it could also save taxpayers millions of dollars.

Fedock, G., Fries, L., & Kubiak, S. P. (2013). Service needs for incarcerated adults: Exploring gender differences. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 52(7), 493-508.

Arditti, J. F. (2008). Maternal distress and women’s reentry into family and community life. Family Process , 47 (3), 303-321.

Liebman, R. E., Burnette, M. L., Raimondi, C., Nichols-Hadeed, C., Merle, P., & Cerulli, C. (2014). Piloting a Psycho-Social Intervention for Incarcerated Women With Trauma Histories Lessons Learned and Future Recommendations. International journal of offender therapy and comparative criminology, 58(8), 894-913.

Zust, B. L. (2008). Assessing and addressing domestic violence experienced by incarcerated women. Creative Nursing. 14(2), 70-73.

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.