The Road to Prison is Paved with Trauma for Women and Girls

Photo: DC Protests (CC)
By Amie Newman |

The United States has the highest rate of incarcerated people in the world, according to Amnesty International. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population. Since 1980, the number of people in prison has quadrupled to more than two million. We are living in an era of mass incarceration.

While the majority of prisoners are men, a report by the Center for American Progress on the state of women of color in the United States notes that it is women — disproportionately women of color — who are the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population, increasing at nearly double the rate of men since 1985. African American women make up almost one-third of the female prison population and are incarcerated at three times the rate of white women. Hispanic women are incarcerated at 1.6 times the rate of white women.

Though a large percentage of incarcerated women spent girlhoods in and out of juvenile detention, most of their stories start even earlier, with histories of childhood sexual and physical abuse and other traumas that cause them to enter the system in the first place. The Women’s Media Center’s recent article, “Women’s Incarceration: Frequent Starting Point is Childhood Sexual Abuse,” looks at the often overshadowed story of the role trauma plays in the lives of women and girls in the criminal justice system.

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The numbers of women and girls who are victimized are not only devastating but also ripe for deeper investigation. The ACLU reports that 92 percent of all women in California prisons have suffered physical or sexual trauma in their lifetimes. According to The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: A Girls’ Story, girls in juvenile justice are four times more likely to suffer from sexual abuse than boys.

There is more than a connection between abuse and incarceration of women and girls. There is, as the report cited above dubs it, a pipeline.

The report, by the Human Rights Project for Girls, Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation for Women, was developed in an attempt to understand what is behind the skyrocketing numbers of incarcerated girls. Researchers and advocates expose the way girls’ lives, especially girls of color, are criminalized even before they are detained or incarcerated.

The increase in girls’ rate of arrest and incarceration over the last two decades is not a result of their engaging in criminal activity at higher rates. Nor are they increasingly violent. The report explains:

Although the reason has not been definitively determined, evidence suggests that one cause is more aggressive enforcement of non-serious offenses that are rooted in the experience of abuse and trauma [emphasis mine], as illustrated by the recent increase in arrests of girls involved in family-based incidents. In fact, the leading cause of arrest for girls are minor offenses such as misdemeanors, status offenses, outstanding warrants, and technical violations. And the decision to arrest and detain girls in these cases has been shown often to be based in part on the perception of girls’ having violated conventional norms and stereotypes of feminine behavior, even when that behavior is caused by trauma.

It’s a “perverse twist of justice” that many girls who experience sexual abuse and other traumas are funneled into the juvenile justice system because of their victimization, according to the article at the Women’s Media Center (WMC):

“Trauma causes girls to enter the system in the first place, keeps them there, and needs to be addressed in order to help them,” said Lisa Pilnik, deputy executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. “Trauma is often the reason we see girls committing offenses. Many have experienced trauma or may even have post-traumatic stress disorder and are reacting to that. Traumatized girls might just be trying to protect themselves, but it can come off as disrespectful or misinterpreted as aggressive.”

When comparing increased risks for girls’ delinquency as compared to boys, the Girls Study Group of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention specifically calls out depression and anxiety disorders, influence by a romantic partner, and early puberty which can “lead to negative associations with boys and men” as reasons for the increase.

When girls’ lives and experiences are criminalized — instead of placed within the contexts of poverty, addiction, racial, ethnic, or gender bias, or mental health conditions and addressed with appropriate resources — incarceration and detention rates increase.

Likewise, we’re criminalizing women’s survival strategies, notes the WMC article. Forty percent of women in prison are there as a result of a drug crime and other non-violent crimes including burglary and fraud. And the majority of women in prison also suffer from mental health problems. Women who use drugs to deal with a history of abuse and other traumas or who attempt to escape an abusive partner for the sake of their children need treatment and help. Instead, they are thrown in jail, prosecuted, and become part of a criminal justice system that fails to offer any rehabilitative measures and often re-traumatizes them.

There are state-based legislative efforts, like New York’s Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, to address the role trauma and abuse play in a woman’s criminal behavior. Other states have laws in place that take into account a history of abuse as a mitigating factor for a woman who’s been charged with a crime.

There is a growing and strong movement against mass incarceration and an emphasis on the school-to-prison pipeline that devastates communities of color in the United States. However, staggering numbers of women and girls of color are being imprisoned in this country. It’s critical to understand how their multiple identities and experiences — as female, people of color, often living in poverty — make them more vulnerable to trauma and the sexual-abuse-to-prison pipeline.

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2 Comments

  1. Diana says:

    The word Hispanic is a term coined by President Nixon that were put upon Latinos to define us as Mexicans. We are all not Mexicans. I would appreciate it, if you would please replace the term Hispanic to Latino.

    • Kiki says:

      Thank you for the reminder. We do generally use the term Latina, but sometimes get distracted — as in this case — by the use of other terms from outside sources.