Sexual Abuse Victimization as a Pathway to Prison


By Katie Ford, Executive Director, Truth Be Told

It was at a privately run prison in Central Texas where I figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up — a seismic disruptor in the cycle of abuse, addiction and incarceration among women.

In 2010, I began facilitating a “healing through storytelling” course as a volunteer for a nonprofit called Truth Be Told at a correctional unit in Lockhart. At the time, the facility housed 500 women and 500 men in separate quarters. A few years into my volunteer service there, the men were moved off the unit and — practically overnight — 500 additional women filled their empty beds.

I didn’t understand it yet, but what I was witnessing was a sign of the times. In conversations about mass incarceration and criminal justice reform, much attention is paid to the United States being the top incarcerator in the world, with roughly 2.3 million people under custody. Our country only accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we have 25 percent of the world’s total prison population.

What’s only now starting to make headlines is the rate at which women are being incarcerated. Since 1978, the number of women held in state prisons has grown 834 percent — more than double the rate at which men are being incarcerated.

Organizations like the Prison Policy Initiative and Vera Institute will point to the “tough on crime” drug laws of the 1980s and 1990s as the driving catalyst behind this explosive growth, and that’s partially true. However, for those of us who are proximate to women in custody and listening to their stories, a more insidious narrative reveals itself: a history of interpersonal violence and childhood sexual abuse.

While illegal drug activity might be the technical violation that introduces many women into the criminal justice system, dig a little deeper into her story and you will find unresolved trauma and a long line of abusive relationships — a line that often begins with a “trusted” family member or friend forever changing the trajectory of a little girl’s life.

It took only a semester of facilitating the storytelling course at Lockhart prison to identify the common narrative thread of sexual abuse. Their accounts often began with:

“When I was 7 years old, my mom got a new boyfriend.”

“I remember my grandpa asking me to come sit on his knee.”

“My stepdad started coming into my room after Mom went to sleep.”

My colleague Germayne Tizzano, who works with women with trauma histories, accurately captures the storyline I hear repeatedly in the classroom:

Childhood abuse > runaway > homelessness > substance abuse, addiction, sex work > becomes involved in the criminal justice system for drug-related crimes, sex work, crimes against their abusers > incarceration

Research shows this narrative thread is far-reaching. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that six in 10 women in U.S. prisons have experienced physical or sexual abuse, and about 70 percent report the abuse occurred before they were 18 years old. I have read studies that place this percentage as high as 95. After eight years of listening to incarcerated women reflect on the life experiences that put them on a path to prison, I’ll raise that percentage to 98 and say that’s about accurate.

Gender-responsive and trauma-informed care

Thought leaders in criminal justice reform say that U.S. prisons and jails — which were largely built by men for men — remain mostly “gender neutral” in culture, policy and programs. Women, totaling somewhere around 220,000, remain the minority behind bars.

Still, critics say our correctional facilities do not adequately address the unique pathways that lead women into the system, such as elevated rates of interpersonal violence, addiction and histories of sexual abuse. Consequently, women cycle in and out of the system, no better off than when they entered it.

A growing body of research is now calling for gender-responsive management, programs and policies that acknowledge and address these pathways. Studies also cite trauma-informed programs and care as critical to helping women in a criminal justice setting.

Becki Ney of the National Resource Center on Justice-Involved Women points out that some of the basic processes in the criminal justice system “can function as significant trauma triggers for women,” such as:

  • separation from children,
  • disconnection from relationships that are defined as supportive and important,
  • pregnancy and childbirth while in the system and
  • interactions with male staff.

The women I have worked with over the years likely would add to Ney’s list: strip searches, loud noises, witnessing violence between inmates, being yelled at by staff or fellow inmates, living in close quarters with no privacy, and feeling powerless over what is happening around them and with loved ones in the free world.

“Knowing the impact and process of traumatic events can help us to work more effectively with women,” says Ney.

Knowledge is power

Educating the women themselves about trauma is also key — specifically, how trauma can impact thoughts, feelings, behaviors and physical health. Last year, I left my career as a journalist to implement Dr. Stephanie Covington’s Healing Trauma curriculum at Lockhart prison. In addition to basic trauma education, the course takes a look at what abusive behavior looks like, what healthy relationships look like, the importance of self-care, healthy personal boundaries and healthy ways to self-soothe when triggered — which can be game-changing for abuse survivors who have turned to controlled substances to mask unresolved trauma. In Healing Trauma, Covington reports that incarcerated women are 10 times more likely to abuse controlled substances in response to trauma. That sounds about right; most every woman I meet in prison struggles with drugs and/or alcohol.

Wrote one Healing Trauma student in her exit evaluation: “I’ve gained so much awareness — not only for myself, but for my children too. Now that I have this knowledge, I know I will make better judgments in all aspects of my life and in my relationships.”

It may not be seismic, but that feels like a disruption in the cycle of abuse, addiction and incarceration. Perhaps I have finally become what I wanted to be when I grow up.

Published in the July/August 2018 issue of Sexual Assault Report, a publication of the Civic Research Institute.

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