RCASA’s Friday Facts:Women’s Experiences of Abuse as a Risk Factor for Incarceration Part 2

In Friday Facts, Sexual Assault Awareness on October 28, 2011 at 8:00 am

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

Processes That Entrap Women in Violent Relationships and Coerce Them into Crime
Economic offenses. Many women are in prisons for economic crimes, primarily larceny for shoplifting and using stolen credit cards. Some women charged with economic offenses are runaways, street women and drug-addicted women, but others may have no prior illegal activity or drug addiction. They may be coerced into crimes by abusive partners, they may try to support themselves and their children with stolen items, they may be caught in welfare fraud, or they may steal or forge checks in order to escape from abuse (Kopels & Sheridan, 2002).

Battering may force women into poverty and homelessness; it can cause women to lose jobs, welfare benefits, housing and educational opportunities (Browne & Bassuk, 1997; Davis, 1999). Financially abusive partners may steal women’s earnings and possessions, force them into debt and harass them at work until they lose their jobs. Women who escape often have no resources of their own and cannot afford housing, food, medical care and childcare. Recent changes in welfare policies have left many abused women with even fewer choices and resources (Hagen & Owens-Manley, 2002). Low-income women of color experience the highest rates of domestic violence (Wyatt, Axelrod, Chin, Carmona, & Loeb, 2000) and are the most affected by welfare reform policies (Coker, 2000).

Women arrested for harming others. Arrest and incarceration can result when women try to protect or defend themselves and their children from abuse, as well as when they cannot protect their children. Arrests of women for domestic violence assaults have increased since mandatory and pro-arrest laws and policies have been implemented (Peng & Mitchell, 2001). The increase of women arrested under mandatory arrest laws and policies may be due to officers’ reluctance to do careful investigations, perhaps in part as backlash against women (S. Miller, 2001). Some abusers call the police to have their partners arrested and use arrest as an additional tool of power and control (NCDBW, 2001). Some battered women do fight back to defend themselves and are treated as the primary aggressors by the police and courts. However, we have few examples of women arrested for harming their male intimate partners who fit the profile of batterers (Dasgupta, 1999; Miller, 2001)–the majority of women who fight back do so in self-defense.

Battered women report being pressured by prosecutors and their defense attorneys to plea bargain for a “light” sentence even when they were wrongly arrested (Miller, 2001). One of the reasons women give for accepting plea bargains is to get released from jail in order to care for their children and to protect them from the batterer (NCDBW, 2001). A plea of guilty leaves a woman with a permanent criminal record. Women with criminal records may lose welfare (TANF), food stamps and Medicaid, may be subject to deportation if they are immigrants, face employment barriers and may be permanently denied the right to vote (Coker, 2000; Haviland, et al., n.d.; NCDBW, 2001). A battered woman facing criminal charges and imprisonment has even less power and fewer resources to ensure her own and her children’s safety (NCDBW, 2001).

Browne (1987), Walker (1989) and Leonard (2002) studied battered women who killed abusive partners in self-defense after long struggles to protect themselves and their children from terrifying violence. Those studies show how women can be completely trapped by severe violence, yet the criminal justice system still rarely acknowledges the history of abuse in its definition of self-defense. The number of intimate partner homicides in the U. S. dropped by more than 60% from 1976 to 1998, with the largest drop for women who kill their partners (Rennison & Welchans, 2000). A study by Browne and Williams (1993) suggested that the decrease might be due to the increasing availability of domestic violence services for women. Unfortunately, the rate of male-perpetrated intimate homicides has not decreased (Rennison & Welchans, 2000).

Battered women who defend themselves and harm abusers resemble battered women who kill batterers, but may look as if they are not “good victims;” for using too much force, or using alcohol or drugs, or having an arrest record. They are unlikely to be treated as victims when they try to use law enforcement and the courts for protection. Another controversial trend in social policy is prosecution of battered women as child abusers or for “failure to protect” their children even in situations where the batterer prevents them from protecting their children (Kopels & Sheridan, 2002; Mills, 1998). There are increasing efforts in research, policy and practice to understand and address the issues of battered women whose children are also abused.

Enforcement Violence. Battered women with multiple issues, such as poverty, substance abuse, mental illness, homelessness, criminal records and prostitution histories face steep barriers to receiving services and benefits, and are not taken seriously as victims by the criminal justice system (Zweig, Schlichter, & Burt, 2002). Most women with multiple issues are not eligible for domestic violence shelters and face discrimination and further abuse wherever they turn. Enforcement abuse is victimization, entrapment, coercion and harm that results from enforcement of policies, laws and institutional practices (Bhattacharjee, 2001). Some of the consequences of arrest discussed above (loss of rights and benefits) are examples of enforcement abuse. Particularly serious enforcement violence affects groups who have few legal rights or access to legal resources for protection. These include refugees and immigrants as well as people under correctional control. Although not the focus of this paper, additional groups exposed to enforcement abuse include people institutionalized in settings such as psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes and facilities that house people with disabilities.

Battered immigrant women, who may or may not have any of the above issues, face a particular kind of enforcement violence from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) (Raj & Silverman, 2002), including rapes by border patrol agents (Arguelles & Rivero, 1995). They may be isolated from extended family and unable to access information and services due to language barriers. Abusive partners may keep them from learning about laws and services in the U.S. Immigration status can be used as a weapon of abuse by threats or destruction of vital documents and threats to turn women over to INS for deportation. Immigration laws allow men to sponsor their wives and thus to control wives’ immigration status and keep women dependent on them. Recent immigrants are not eligible for TANF or Medicaid for 3 years unless a woman can obtain a waiver as a battered woman. It is difficult for women to get waivers because of the legal complexity, women’s lack of information about the provisions and not being believed by authorities. Many immigrant women also fear that the batterer will be deported, perhaps taking the children with him and they may risk their own arrest and deportation if they call police. Immigrant women may be detained in INS detention centers without access to attorneys or visitors and little information on them is available.

Over two million women are arrested each year and nearly a million women are currently under correctional control (Sourcebook, 2000). Eighty-five percent are on probation or parole and fifteen percent are incarcerated in local jails and state and federal prisons (Greenfield & Snell, 1999). The number of women in prison tripled from 1980 to 1990 (Chesney-Lind, 1997) and more than doubled again between 1990 and 2001, reaching 161,000 in 2001 (Beck, Karberg, & Harrison, 2002). The largest increases are for drug-related and property offenses (Greenfield & Snell, 1999). Although the portion of women arrested for violent offenses increased 80% between 1987 and 1997, women¹s violent offenses still total only 3.6% of all arrests and 17% of violent offenses (Greenfield & Snell, 1999; Sourcebook, 2000). What has changed is the percentage of women arrested who are being convicted and incarcerated, whatever their offenses (Beck, et al., 2001).

Incarcerated women are predominantly poor women with little education and few employment options; most were either unemployed or receiving welfare assistance prior to their arrests (Greenfield & Snell, 1999). A study of women in Cook County Jail in Illinois (Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, 2002) found that over half of the women were homeless and unemployed and one-third relied on prostitution for income. Twenty-nine percent of the women had recently lost or been denied government assistance.

Native Americans are incarcerated at a rate that is 19% higher than all other groups (Minton, 2002) and non-citizens represent 29% of all federal prisoners (Scalia & Litras, 2002). Women of color, once arrested, are disproportionately sent to prison while white women are more likely to be placed on probation (Greenfield & Snell, 1999). Racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, often practiced through the discretionary power of police officers, prosecutors, judges, juries, parole boards and corrections authorities, has a devastating effect on women of color. Women of color are more likely than white women to be arrested and charged with more serious offenses, to be prosecuted, to be convicted and to serve time in prison ( S. Miller, 2001).

Drug enforcement in poor communities, harsh sentences mandated for certain offense categories, and laws requiring prisoners to serve longer portions of their sentences have increased the numbers of women warehoused in prisons. Few correctional settings offer drug or mental health treatment, job training, or rehabilitation programs to prepare inmates for release (Allard, 2002; Olson, Lurigio, & Seng, 2000). Nearly three-fourths of women in the criminal justice system were using drugs prior to their arrest, yet only 25% of state and federal prisoners and 17% of people on probation receive any kind of drug treatment (Allard, 2002). Federal welfare rules allow states to place a lifetime ban on cash and food stamp benefits for anyone convicted of a felony drug offense. Convicted drug felons are prohibited from living in public housing and cannot receive federal financial aid for post-secondary education (Allard, 2002). Such policies make it very difficult for women to legally obtain food, housing, health care, drug treatment, education and income for themselves and their children. Two-thirds of people released from prisons are re-arrested within three years, primarily for economic offenses (Langin & Levin, 2002).

Women and girls under correctional control are among our most impoverished and violated populations yet they have few advocates and virtually no resources, services, or rights that can be reasonably exercised. The interlocking forms of interpersonal and state violence and gender, race and class oppression imprison girls and women in battering relationships, lives of poverty and subsistence through illegal economic activities. Once they are placed under correctional control they have ever decreasing chances of extricating themselves.


Women and girls under correctional control or living and working on the streets are in urgent need of advocates, economic resources and services. Those services must be designed to be accessible, culturally appropriate, respectful and useful to the specific contexts of women’s lives. We need programs in jails, prisons, courts and at street-level. Every prison and jail should have community-run domestic violence and sexual assault services. Neighborhoods where women and girls are prostituted should have confidential and easily accessible services on the streets providing information, counseling and advocacy. Shelters must be opened to provide safe haven for street women (regardless of their drug use or legal status) and to shelter women released from jails and prisons who are at risk for abuse, homelessness and prostitution.

A host of social policies cutting across criminal justice, immigration, drug enforcement, housing, welfare and health and mental health care must be changed. We need to document the extent of race, gender and class entrapment by abusers, laws, social policies and enforcement practices. The movement to end violence against women needs the leadership and expertise of women who experience criminalization, entrapment and enforcement abuse. The movement is beginning to recognize the unintended consequences of relying heavily on the criminal justice system to protect women and children from male violence; we must begin to look for other options in order not to add further harm to already oppressed communities. We need safe places, services and strong advocacy for women who are not always “good victims,” but are real victims, women caught in the web of poverty, racism, violence, correctional control and enforcement abuse. Finally, the women’s movement should join the effort to abolish prisons and decarcerate non-violent inmates.

Author of this document:
Mary E. Gilfus, Ph.D., ACSW
Associate Professor Simmons College
School of Social Work
Boston, MA mary.gilfus@simmons.edu


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