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Women In Jail And The Criminalization Of Survivors

Incarcerated women, half of whom are in local jails, have histories of trauma that require care, not criminalization.

Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.

In recent years, researchers have noted that while the number of men in jail has begun to decline, the number of women in jail remains stubbornly high and has even creeped upward. The conclusion has been that reforms that fail to explicitly consider women’s needs and conditions fail to decarcerate evenly across genders.

The latest report on women’s incarceration from the Prison Policy Initiative looks at the 231,000 women in jail and prison in the United States, under the custody of local, state, and federal authorities, including ICE. Researchers took a close look at the numbers to ascertain what we do and do not know about the landscape of women’s incarceration.

The first set of questions has to do with how women are incarcerated and where. The second is why and how their experience differs from that of incarcerated men. And the third is  figuring out how this fits into the broader picture of all women who are under correctional control, including under community supervision.

The main takeaway is that nearly half of all incarcerated women—114,000—are held in local jails, a figure that places incarcerated women in jails, not prisons, at far higher rates than men. Of these women, 61,000 are in jail pretrial, detained while presumed innocent. Another 40,000 are serving sentences in jails. A full 13,000 are technically under the custody of federal or state agencies but are held in local jails.

Arrests are the only data available annually and broken down by gender, but arrests of women went down from 2016 to 2017. The report’s authors write: “Frustratingly, even as this report is updated every year, it is not a direct tool for tracking changes in women’s incarceration over time because we are forced to rely on the limited sources available, which are neither updated regularly nor always compatible across years.”

The large fraction of women in jails is important, however, because of some qualitative differences between jails and prisons. A large proportion of the women held in jail are there post-conviction. Although this points to a higher incidence of shorter sentences, jail incarceration is also problematic for a number of reasons. Healthcare, including mental health care, is typically far worse in jail. Phone calls are often far more expensive. Some jails prohibit contact visits. And in some states, for some women, jails may be further away from their families.

The PPI report notes the higher incidence of mental health needs and histories of sexual abuse and trauma among incarcerated women, and these links, between surviving violence and incarceration, have received increasing attention in recent years. The cases of Cyntoia Brown and Marissa Alexander, groups like Survived and Punished, and recently passed reforms in New York have pointed to the criminalization of survivors and pushed for a reckoning with the violence that forces women to defend and protect themselves, when they can.

The violence and trauma in the histories of incarcerated women often stretches far back. In recent years, advocates have described a “sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline.” According to a 2016 report from the Vera Institute of Justice, 86 percent of women in jail, have a history of abuse. And 77 percent have a history of intimate partner violence. That experience of violence, in turn, contributes to high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.

For too many women who survive abuse and violence, particularly women of color and women living in poverty, the support and the care needed to cope with and heal from pain and trauma is simply not available. The coping mechanisms that are available, such as substance use, are instead criminalized.

Last week, writing about the high hurdles to reentry for returning citizens, I quoted Michelle Alexander’s description of the lifesaving work done by A New Way of Life, the organization begun by Susan Burton for women returning home from prison. That description is from Alexander’s introduction to “Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women,” Burton’s memoir chronicles her journey from repeated trauma through drug use to finally, after multiple periods of incarceration, getting a chance to get the treatment she needed and, eventually, building what would become A New Way of Life.

Burton’s trauma, and repeated criminalization, is emblematic of the multiple traumas in the life stories of so many incarcerated women. She experienced sexual abuse at the hands of an aunt’s boyfriend and was raped as a teenager. Later, she lost her 5-year-old son when he was run over by a police car. What Burton and Cari Lynn, her co-author, capture so poignantly is the horror of the abuses and the loss she suffered and the total absence of any support, familial or institutional, to aid her in coping with her trauma. When the police officer killed her son, the city of Los Angeles would not even issue an apology.

What followed for Burton were years of drug use, and, instead of any treatment, one spell of incarceration after another. It was only when she learned of a treatment program and urged her attorney to negotiate for her to be sentenced to it that she was able to begin her process of recovery. What she survived led her to found the network of homes that makes up A New Way of Life and led to her abolitionist vision.

The jails and prisons we have are clearly inadequate for the task of caring for women living with trauma. But asking what a trauma-informed criminal legal system would look like is, ultimately, not enough. When we know that hundreds of thousands of women are dealing with trauma that has not been addressed, we should be demanding trauma-informed care outside of the criminal legal system.

As one scholar, Shannon Lynch, a professor of clinical psychology at Idaho State University, wrote last year, “We know from qualitative studies with incarcerated women that women link entry into the system to running away to escape abuse, using drugs to cope with abuse, and involvement with violent partners.” In addition to recommending coordination between corrections and community health systems, she wrote, “we must take a step back and consider what we label as criminal behavior. … We can see direct associations between the reduction in psychiatric beds and increases in incarceration rates. We are well aware of ‘victim-offender’ overlap, recognizing that many of the individuals at greatest risk of incarceration are also at greatest risk of violence. If we want to change the rate of incarceration in the United States, we must consider how we label and respond to these behaviors, and that in our current system, our social identities … experiences of violence, and mental health status are associated with risk of incarceration.”