RCASA’s Friday Facts:Women’s Experiences of Abuse as a Risk Factor for Incarceration Part 1

In Friday Facts on October 21, 2011 at 6:00 am

Women’s Experiences of Abuse as a Risk Factor for Incarceration

Mary E Gilfus, PhD, ACSW“My crime–being addicted to alcohol and drugs. My crime–being a survivor of domestic violence. My crime–being a survivor of incest. My crime–being an American Indian woman” (Ogden, 2000-2001, p. 20).The battered women’s movement has relied heavily on the criminal justice system to protect women from male violence, but this has had negative consequences for many women of color and their communities who have historically been more harmed than protected by the system. Women of color activists call for both the battered women’s movement and the prison abolition movement to join together to stop violence against women who are “victimized by both interpersonal and state violence” (Rodriguez, 2000-2001, p.17).

This article describes how violence perpetrated against women and girls increases their risk of arrest and incarceration through the intersections of interpersonal and structural violence. The processes that place victims under correctional control are the “criminalization” of women’s survival strategies (Chesney-Lind, 1997) and “entrapment” into crime by abusers and by gender, race and class oppression (Richie, 1996). Once entrapped and criminalized, women are re- victimized and subjected to “enforcement violence” by the state through coercive laws, immigration policies, social welfare policies and law enforcement practices (Bhattacharjee, 2001).

This review of the research on incarcerated women and girls identifies six, sometimes overlapping, pathways through which abused girls and women are placed at risk for incarceration. The process of criminalization is most evident in the lives of (1) abused and runaway girls; (2) women forced to live and work on the streets; and (3) women addicted to substances. The process of entrapment affects the above three groups of women but also applies to (4) women arrested for economic crimes, sometimes coerced by batterers; (5) women arrested for harm to children or abusers; and (6) women affected by enforcement of discriminatory and coercive welfare, immigration and corrections policies. Once abused and socially harmed women become labeled as offenders they are even more at risk for repeated victimizations and entrapments that keep women imprisoned literally and figuratively. The framework presented here takes into account the diversity of abused women who are subjected to correctional control.

Victimization in the Lives of Incarcerated Women and Girls

Most studies of incarcerated women have observed high rates of victimization that link violence in women¹s lives to their entry into the criminal justice system as defendants (Richie, 1996.). Richie (1996) observed patterns of entrapment by abusive partners into crime in her study of African-American battered women in jail in New York City. Daly (1994) identified several pathways by which primarily poor women of color become involved with the courts. Miller (1986) described extensive victimization and exploitation in the lives of “street women” and Chesney-Lind and Rodriguez (1983) and Gilfus (1987, 1992) identified early and repeated abuse as antecedents to women’s entry into crime.

Government surveys of state and federal prisoners estimate that 43% to 57% of women in state and federal prisons have been physically or sexually abused at some time in their lives (Harlow, 1999). One-third of incarcerated women report child sexual abuse and 20% to 34% report abuse by an adult intimate partner; they have multiple abuse histories and are three to four times more likely than male prisoners to have abuse histories (American Correctional Association, 1990; Harlow, 1999). 

In contrast, smaller and more in-depth studies using expanded measures of abuse have found that nearly all girls and women in prison samples have experienced physical and sexual abuse throughout their lives (Gilfus, 1987, 1992; Owen, 1998; Richie, 1996). A study of 150 women at a maximum security prison for women in New York State (Browne, et al., 1999) found that fully 94% of the women reported severe physical or sexual abuse during their lives. Eighty-two percent of the women had been abused as children and 75% had experienced adult intimate partner abuse. Not only was the prevalence of abuse extremely high, but the abuse was also severe and cumulative over the life course of the women. A recent study by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (2002) reported that 53% of a sample of 235 women in Cook County Jail had been abused as children and 66% had been victims of domestic violence.

Consequences of Abuse as Correlates with Risks of Incarceration

Browne and colleagues found parallels between the well-known long-term effects of exposure to violence and the reasons for which the women in their study were incarcerated, particularly running away from home, re-victimization, drug and alcohol addictions and prostitution (Browne, et al., 1999).

Studies of women sexually abused as girls find that onset of drug and alcohol abuse, self- harm, depression, suicidal ideation, relationship disturbances, running away from home and entry into prostitution are frequent negative consequences of child sexual abuse (Herman, 1997; van der Kolk, 1996). Longer duration and severity of abuse appear to increase the risk of negative outcomes. Trauma at early stages of development may alter brain chemistry and cognitive functioning, interfering with concentration, school performance and the capacity to discern and interpret cues from the environment regarding danger and risk (van der Kolk, 1996). Flashbacks, hypervigilance and emotional flooding may alternate with states of psychological numbing or dissociation (Briere, 1996; Herman, 1997). The desire for relief from trauma symptoms may lead survivors to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to invoke the numbing state; on the other hand, numbing may lead some survivors to engage in risk-taking and self-injury behaviors in order to feel alive again (Briere, 1996; Chu, 1998).

Sexual predators tend to play on children’s loyalty and desire for affection, leaving abused children confused about social relationships and the distinctions among sex, love and violence (Briere, 1996; Finkelhor & Browne, 1988). Sexually abused girls have a high rate of sexual revictimization (Crowell & Burgess, 1996; Koss, et al., 1994), perhaps because perpetrators tend to target vulnerable young people who may have little or no adult protection. The absence of at least one caring adult or a stable family life, failure at school and poor social skills increase the likelihood that a child will not be able to overcome the adversity of abuse, especially in environments characterized by poverty, racism and social disorganization (Benard, 1991; Hyman & Williams, 2001; McFarlane, 1996).

In retrospective studies, women at risk for incarceration–women who work as prostitutes (Farley & Kelley, 2000), women with drug addictions (Moreno, El-Bassel, Gilbert, & Wada, 2002), women with alcohol problems (Clark & Foy, 2000) and homeless women (Wenzel, Leake, Gelberg, 2001)–report very high rates of child sexual abuse and adult physical and sexual abuse.

Pathways from Victimization to Incarceration

A synthesis of the research on incarcerated and high-risk women suggests several pathways by which abused women enter the criminal justice system as defendants rather than as victims. The six pathways presented here may not be exhaustive and often converge and overlap. The first three pathways best reflect the process of criminalization by which girls’ and women’s resources for escaping and surviving abuse are so limited that they must depend on illegal activity for income. They are subjected to intensive law enforcement surveillance for behaviors labeled as criminal primarily for girls and women only. The last three pathways are more reflective of the process of entrapment by which battered women are forced into crime by abusers and/or poverty and are forced into the criminal justice system by laws and practices that entrap battered women. However, criminalization and entrapment tend to be at work for all six groups of women. The final pathway, enforcement violence, is a process that cuts across all of the first five pathways but can also be a separate and direct route to incarceration.

Processes that Criminalize Girls and Women’s Efforts to Escape Violence
Abused and runaway girls. The American Correctional Association (1990) reported that 54% of girls incarcerated in U.S. juvenile correctional settings surveyed in 1987 had been sexually abused, 61% had been physically abused and the majority had been abused multiple times. Over 80% of girls had run away from home and over half had attempted suicide (ACA, 1990). Girls are more likely than boys to be incarcerated for status offenses, which are behaviors that are not criminal–such as running away, truancy, “incorrigibility,” and being deemed a child in need of supervision (Chesney-Lind, 1997). Early juvenile involvement in the criminal justice system is highly predictive of adult incarceration and recidivism (Greenfield & Snell, 1999). Arnold (1990) used the concept of structural dislocation to describe young black women in jail who had been sexually and physically abused. They were alienated from school by racist education systems and had no support from family, school, work, or community as homeless runaways. Initially they were referred to juvenile court as abused and neglected children, but they left the system labeled as offenders (Arnold, 1990). In such cases, being processed by the courts can turn young women into criminal defendants rather than victims of crimes. Abused girls of color are more likely to be processed by the criminal justice system and labeled as offenders while white girls have a better chance of being treated as victims and referred to child welfare and mental health systems (Chesney-Lind, 1997; Robinson, 1990).

Street women. Women who start out as juvenile runaways and status offenders may end up living on the streets where they have no legal means of survival (Chesney-Lind, 1997; Daly, 1994; Gilfus, 1987,1992; E. Miller (1986). Gilfus (1987) examined the timing of life events that preceded incarceration among 96 women in prison and identified a pattern of sexually and physically abused girls who ran away from violent homes and were unable to continue school. By the age of 16, the girls were living on the streets with no viable employment options. Pimps recruited them or violently coerced them into prostitution. Most had been raped multiple times while on the streets and nearly all had been or were still in abusive relationships with co-addicted male partners involved in crime. They had long arrest records for minor offenses and were eventually sent to state prison after numerous probation failures, prostitution offenses and drug law violations (Gilfus, 1992).

Most street women are poor women who have been displaced as a result of being abused and runaway girls or forced onto the streets by poverty, loss of housing and welfare benefits, escape from abusive intimate partners, mental illness and/or alcohol and drug addiction. A study of women in Cook County Jail in Illinois found that more than half of the women had been homeless prior to arrest (Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, 2002). Mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness are highly correlated with post-traumatic symptoms and histories of severe sexual and physical abuse; a high portion of women living on the streets and in homeless shelters are re-victimizaed while on the streets (Browne & Bassuk, 1997; Wenzel, Leake, & Gelberg, 2001). Life on the streets is dangerous and can re-traumatize women. The terrible poverty that forces girls and women onto the streets often forces them to earn money by prostitution, most often under the control of pimps where they raped and battered again.

Street women are highly visible to law enforcement and they are swept up during campaigns to crack down on crime and “clean up the streets” (Miller & Jayasundara, 2001). Street women may be automatically presumed by police to be prostitutes and addicts and are often arrested for offenses that are rarely charged against men (solicitation, loitering and disorderly conduct). When picked up on prostitution-related charges women report rape, body searches and coercion to perform sexual services by police officers, jailers and prison guards (Miller & Jayasundara, 2001).

Addictions and drug offenses. Addiction and drug offending can be an outcome of street life, having to endure prostitution and economic desperation. It can also be a coping response to battering by women across class and race (Goldberg, 1995). Battered women often experience extreme stress, symptoms of complex PTSD, anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation and physical pain (Campbell & Lewandowski, 1997; Crowell & Burgess, 1996; Hughes & Jones, 2000) and may use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate (Bennett, 1998; Browne, et al, 1999). Procuring drugs places users at risk for arrest. Some women are introduced to drugs by abusive partners and may be forced to sell or carry drugs for them, while other impoverished women may resort to selling drugs to finance a planned escape from an abuser or to find a place to sleep (Gilfus, 1992; Richie, 1996).

Very high rates of addiction are found among incarcerated women and women¹s rising rates of incarceration are attributed primarily to aggressive drug enforcement and heavy sentences imposed for drug convictions (Richie, 1996). Since the introduction of crack cocaine, drug enforcement has targeted poor communities of color where visible street transactions are monitored and homes are raided, often in front of children, looking for “crack houses.” Heavier penalties and longer sentences are imposed for inexpensive crack than for higher priced forms of the drug, thus increasing convictions and imprisonment of poor people of color.


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