This past spring at EVAWI’s annual conference, Judge Paul Herbert and Vanessa Perkins provided a phenomenal plenary address, focusing on the similarities between battered women and trafficked women. Sitting in the audience, I was overcome with gratitude and excitement that EVAWI had decided to focus on this issue. Afterward, I stood in a long line to talk with Judge Herbert and Ms. Perkins. I wanted to let them know that everything they said had perfectly matched up with my research on incarcerated women’s pathways into crime and prison.
I’m an anthropologist who studies rape culture and sexual violence in the United States. Unlike many anthropologists who focus on “exotic” cultures in other parts of the world, I have always believed that it is important to focus my attention and energy on social justice problems in my own country. I’m currently writing a book on my research, and the thought of trying to discuss my research findings in this short blog post is overwhelming for me. And yet, the issue of how sexual violence and intimate partner violence directly contribute to women’s pathways into crime and prison is incredibly important – I believe it is one of the most overlooked social justice problems in our nation today. So in this post, I want to simply share the story of one of my research participants, Shonda, and explain why I think it is imperative for us to understand the magnitude of suffering experienced by women and girls in jails, prisons, and juvenile detention facilities throughout our country.
Shonda grew up in an impoverished area of Washington, DC. Her huge, sweet smile belied the incredible pain and suffering she had endured almost her entire life. Through a series of life history interviews, Shonda walked me through her life story, beginning in early childhood and concluding with her time at the prison reentry organization where I worked. While most of my research participants were stoic and calm during their interviews, Shonda continually cried. Every time I asked if she wanted to stop the interviews or leave the research study, she would wipe her eyes, sit up straight, and insist that sharing her story with me was important. Not only did she believe that the interviewers were therapeutic in helping her process her experiences, but she was also determined to share her story so that my research could help policymakers understand the immense challenges facing incarcerated women.
Beginning at the age of nine, and continuing for nine long years, Shonda survived ongoing rapes and beatings committed by her father. She also witnessed him rape at least two of her four sisters; she told me that when she was very young, she remembered hiding in the closet with some of her sisters, whispering and giggling in confusion as they watched him assault the other girls in their bedroom. Shonda’s father was brutally violent to her mother as well, constantly physically abusing her. When she was in her early teens, Shonda found the courage to ask her mother for help. Her mother confronted her father, and they physically fought, destroying most of the furniture and belongings in their home. In the aftermath of the fight, Shonda and her sisters were forced to clean up the mess, and Shonda learned a sobering lesson: her sisters blamed her for the destruction of their property, viciously telling her that she needed to keep quiet about her father’s actions because she was a “trouble maker.” Her plea to her mother did not protect her; her father continued to rape and physically assault all of his daughters as well as his wife. He also forced the entire family to use drugs together; Shonda explained that he made them sit “in Indian style” with crossed legs, in a circle on the floor in the living room, while he forced them to smoke marijuana. This introduction to marijuana taught Shonda another important lesson: not only did drugs “numb the pain” she felt from the ongoing rapes and beatings, but the marijuana also started to make her feel brave enough to resist the abuse, and fight back against her father.
On the day of her eighteenth birthday, Shonda’s father beat her with a broom. This beating was especially vicious, and Shonda fought back and was eventually able to flee. Hiding in her family’s car, she heard her mother and sisters wandering up and down the streets, calling for her. For some reason, this particularly violent episode galvanized her mother into action; her mother and all five girls moved out of the house into a cramped apartment. However, it was difficult to earn enough money to live on their own and Shonda was soon approached by a much older man who, it turned out, was too good to be true. After Shonda moved in with this man, he began to physically and sexually abuse her, but she remained dependent on him for several years because she could not survive financially without him. During this time, her addiction to drugs began; after she had learned that marijuana could numb the pain of her suffering, she turned to other drugs like cocaine and heroin. Eventually, Shonda escaped her abusive partner, but like almost all of my other research participants, she was propelled into a life of prostitution because of her need to obtain drugs and the money to pay for them. Over the course of the next twenty years, she lived a life on and off the streets, engaging in prostitution to support her addiction.
At one point, she fell in love with a man, and they married. However, this man was also in the throes of addiction, and he began abusing her. In this relationship, intimate partner violence, addiction, and prostitution became intertwined. Shonda explained to me that she would “voluntarily” sell her body in order to score some drugs; after coming home with the drugs, she and her husband would get high together, and then he would not beat her. She said that in these situations, as she and her husband relaxed and enjoyed the high together, she felt as though they were once again connected and in love, because he did not abuse her when he was high.
Like almost all of the women I worked with, Shonda was arrested numerous times, serving short and long sentences in several different jails and prisons. As a white academic caught up in the liberal narrative of “mass incarceration must be abolished,” I had expected my research participants, who were almost all lower-income women of color, to be fiercely critical of the criminal justice system. And certainly, some women were vocally critical about issues like racial profiling, the War on Drugs, and sentencing disparities between black and white offenders. However, one day Shonda told me something that shocked me so much I nearly fell off my chair. She told me that prison was the best thing that had ever happened to her, and that prison had saved her life. At one point, she described some of her arresting officers as “angels in blue suits” who had come to save her. You see, at some point in the 80s or 90s, Shonda had contracted HIV. She thought she was infected from a blood transfusion during a hospitalization, but she was not quite sure. Regardless of how she had become infected, she had no idea that she was ill until she was tested for HIV during one of her periods of incarceration. Shonda told me that if she had not been arrested and tested for HIV, she would certainly be dead by now.
Notably, several other women shared the same sentiment with me: incarceration saved their lives. These women explained that prison forcibly separated them from their abusive partners or pimps, giving them a safe space to finally have time to stop, think about their lives, and recognize how they had been manipulated by these men. They believed that prison saved their lives because their abusive partners, pimps, or sex buyers would certainly have murdered them if they had not been arrested. The forced separations from these violent men gave the women time to reflect, work on improving their self-perceptions and self-esteem, and decide that they wanted to live differently upon their release from prison.
Ethnographic research has the tendency to fundamentally challenge, and sometimes completely shatter, researchers’ naïve opinions about their subjects of inquiry. Out of all the things I learned from the women with whom I worked, the notion of prison as a “safe place” and of law enforcement officers as “angels in blue suits” was certainly the most mind-blowing concept for me! Of course, we can all probably agree that we do not want to live in a society in which the “best thing to ever happen” to a woman is being arrested and incarcerated. And yet, this was exactly the experience of some women in my research study.
These women’s lives had been filled with such brutal violence, trauma, and suffering that prison ended up being a better, safer place to live than their own homes and communities. Out of the twenty-three women I interviewed, twenty-one of them had survived multiple rapes, with all but four of them experiencing their first rape before they reached their eighteenth birthdays. Seventeen had survived abusive intimate relationships, fifteen survived prostitution, fourteen survived addiction, and seven survived physical child abuse (in addition to sexual abuse). Many of these women also endured incredible life challenges including the murder of loved ones, suicide attempts, being raised in households by addicted caregivers, and coping with serious illnesses. Among the hundreds of women I worked with in a weekly support group, I frequently heard chillingly similar stories: time and again, women recounted how child sexual abuse or unstable home environments led them to seek out drugs to “numb the pain.” Drug use led to prostitution, which was another form of continuous sexual violence. These women were sent to prison, provided with few or no rehabilitative services, and then released to the streets, setting the stage for the cycle of abuse-crimes-incarceration to continually repeat.
Even though many incarcerated women are in prison or jail because they have in fact harmed others and broken laws, the reality is that the vast majority of these women have also suffered tremendously over the course of their lives. My research found direct causative relationships between survival of sexual victimization (usually at a young age), and the decision to engage in criminalized activities. While we currently live in a nation that prioritizes punitive incarceration methods, the simple reality is that punitive approaches will not work to rehabilitate and help the hundreds of thousands of imprisoned women and girls who are suffering on a daily basis.
As we all know, sexual violence and intimate partner violence have extreme long-term physical and psychological health consequences for many survivors. Many research studies have found that the vast majority of incarcerated women and girls have survived pre-incarceration trauma and violence. (Please see the list of recommended resources below.) This means that most of the women and girls entering into carceral facilities were already in need of trauma-informed, therapeutic rehabilitation before they were arrested. Yet, most of our prisons and jails do not provide opportunities for one-on-one counseling or trauma-informed drug rehabilitation programs. Shonda said that prison was “the best thing that ever happened” to her because she had survived a childhood and adolescence filled with tremendous violence and trauma, as well as multiple abusive intimate partnerships, addiction, and all the violence that regularly occurs within prostitution. Yet, prison certainly did not provide her with the services she needed to recover from trauma and make a fresh start at life. As with many other aspects of our society, prison failed to help Shonda, other than to literally save her life through HIV testing.
Many other researchers before me, especially in the discipline of feminist criminology, have focused on this social justice problem that continues to plague our society. If you’re reading this blog, you’re already committed to ending violence against women and children, and you understand how incredibly traumatic sexual violence and intimate partner violence can be for survivors. And yet, many people in our country continue to view incarcerated individuals through a very biased lens; there’s a serious stigma in our country when it comes to talking and thinking about people who are incarcerated. With our punitive approaches to crime, our nation often portrays women in prison as negligent mothers, selfish addicts, or lazy individuals who do not work hard enough. What women like Shonda can help us understand is that our nation has a serious social justice problem: rather than viewing women who use drugs or engage in prostitution as victims, we all too often label them as “offenders” and try to punish them for their crimes, without asking incredibly important trauma-informed questions: What is the root cause of their behaviors? Why did they begin using and selling drugs? Why are they “acting out” and fighting? Why did they become involved in prostitution? What happened to them? Who hurt them? For almost every woman and girl, the answers will connect back to sexual violence and intimate partner violence. So, for those of us who are committed to serving survivors, we must also be committed to serving incarcerated women, because they have survived some of the most heinous crimes imaginable. If we want to support and empower survivors, there is no better place to start this work than in our nation’s prisons, jails, and juvenile detention facilities.
Mahri Irvine, PhD
Gender Injustice: System-Level Juvenile Justice Reforms for Girls (National Crittenton Foundation report)