By Jahnavi Jagannath, Kierra B. Jones, Janeen Buck Willison, Urban Institute, November 5, 2020
Women make up the fastest-growing share of the incarcerated population in the US. Incarceration can be especially traumatic for women, who may experience more harassment and violence while incarcerated and face unique barriers to successful reentry after incarceration.
To learn what affects incarcerated women’s feelings of safety and well-being and how prisons can be more responsive to their trauma, we spoke with 28 incarcerated women from three US women’s prisons. Although all interviewees identified as women, people of other genders are also housed in women’s prisons, and, though potentially similar, their experiences most likely differ in important respects as well. Four prominent themes emerged from our conversations.
1. Women are often incarcerated because of their experiences with trauma and domestic violence
Eighty-six percent of incarcerated women have histories of physical or sexual violence prior to incarceration. Experiencing intimate partner violence can lead to risk of incarceration because some survival strategies—including self-defense and substance abuse—are criminalized. Evidence suggests that of women in jail for killing men, nearly 90 percent had been abused by those men (PDF). This reality is also rooted in systemic racism. Black women in the US experience high rates of criminalization and overpolicing (PDF) that lead to disproportionate incarceration. The latest research on this is old but still relevant (PDF); a 1991 study demonstrated that “the ratio of Black women to white women convicted of killing their abusive husbands was nearly two to one.”