Abuse to Prison Pipeline - How We Fail Women // Vanessa Facemire, MA, LPC


I have had the unique opportunity starting in August 2015 to be placed in the mental health unit of a minimum-security women’s prison for my clinical practicum experience. As someone who finds passion and meaning through working with survivors of trauma and my identity as a feminist, the prison was a very appealing site for me in a multitude of ways. I have been astounded by the strength and resilience of the women that I have had the pleasure to provide services to. However, through working with these women I have had to face some harsh truths about the different ways that the criminal justice system fails women including the expanding incarceration of women and the cruel reality of the rampant amount of trauma these women have survived.

Rates of Incarcerated Women//

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There is much discussion and political debate surrounding men in the criminal justice system, but there is very little discussion about women offenders. Recent studies have found that there has been a 757% increase in women’s imprisonment since 1977 with women of color being incarcerated at 3x the rate of white women. Women are the single fastest growing demographic in U.S. prisons.

Harsh reality//

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Contemporary research has found an estimated 75-90% of women in state prisons have experienced interpersonal trauma. The impact of victimization in terms of domestic violence, sexual abuse, severe neglect, physical abuse, human trafficking, and other forms of exposure to traumatic stress is profound and multi-dimensional for the female inmate population

Violence against young girls is a painful crisis of national proportions that cuts across every divide of race, class, and ethnicity. According to the Human Rights Project for Girls: one in four American girls will experience some form of sexual violence by the age of 18, 15% of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age of 12; nearly half of all female rape survivors were victimized before the age of 18, and girls between the ages of 16 and 19 are 4x more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault. These facts are staggering and in a perverse twist of justice, many girls who experience sexual abuse are routed into the juvenile justice system because of their victimization. For example, victims of sex trafficking are habitually arrested on prostitution charges and are often punished as perpetrators rather than being supported as survivors of abuse; a devastating practice of victim blaming.

Further, often times victimization from interpersonal violence and related trauma becomes a gateway to crime, particularly for impoverished women. In trying to support themselves through prostitution and low-level drug dealing, they eventually become ensnared in the justice system. Often women are attempting to self-medicate the pain of trauma or of mental illness. Studies have found that more than half of women offenders are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs at the time of their offenses. Further, many women are pulled into crime by men (e.g., abusers, pimps, drug dealers) and violence/power are used routinely to confine them.

Informing Practitioners//

Given the high rates of trauma and mental health concerns of the female inmate population, a high percentage of women in America's jails and prisons have unique needs and challenges. Examples include the need for safe housing, protection, trauma-informed mental health and substance abuse services, child care, parenting and vocational supports.

The pattern of women offender’s lives are often woven from these threads: past trauma, low self-esteem, poor education, restricted opportunities to earn a living and support children, substance abuse, mental illness, and/or financial and/or emotional dependence on men who are involved in crime. Mental health professionals both inside and outside of the criminal justice system need to be informed of these unique needs. I am fortunate to work in an institution that values and promotes trauma-informed care of incarcerated women. Trauma-informed treatment must include a woman-centered focus to care, which emphasizes participation, social justice, empowerment, safety, relationships, the individual, and is comprehensive and respectful of diversity.

A groundbreaking report by the National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women (NRCJIW), outlined Ten Truths that Matter When Working with Justice Involved Women:
1. Women are a fast-growing inmate population; yet pose a lower public safety risk than men.
2. Women follow unique relational and trauma driven paths into crime and require different intervention needs.
3. Women's engagement in criminal behavior is often relationship driven.
4. Traditional criminal justice policies and practices have largely been developed through male and traditional lens.
5. Justice involved women have a high prevalence of sexual victimization and trauma and continue to be vulnerable in correctional settings.
6. Traditional prison classification systems tend to result in unreliable custody designations for incarcerated women.
7. Gender responsive assessment tools can enhance case management efforts for justice-involved women.
8. Women are likely to respond favorably to gender-specific and trauma-informed cultures.
9. Incarceration and reentry are particularly challenging for mothers of minor children.
10. The costs of involving women in criminal justice system are high, with multi-dimensional consequences.

A Call to Action//

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These women represent the aftermath of failed and oppressive policies and practices. While my role (as a clinician) in remediation is necessary and valuable, these women will be faced with an endless daunting cycle unless the true sources of the problem are changed (e.g., systemic oppression, rape culture).  All current research, experience, and data speaks to the fact that it is time for an extreme makeover of how the criminal justice system approaches women in terms of embracing the evidence base pertaining to trauma. Mental health treatment and services must be adequately funded and geared to meet the unique intervention needs and challenges of women. Jail diversion and prison reentry planning must support women with housing, childcare services, peer mentoring and employability training.

“No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but its lowest ones” – Nelson Mandela

Written by//
Vanessa Facemire, MA, LPC

Selected references and resources for further inquiry//

Chesney-Lind, M. & Pasko, L. (2013). The female offender: Girls, women, and crime (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Raphael, J. (2007). Freeing Tammy: Women, drugs, and incarceration. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

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