Assessing and Addressing Domestic Violence Experienced by Incarcerated Women

Article excerpt

A significant percentage of incarcerated women are victims of domestic violence, forced to be involved in illegal activity orchestrated by their abusive partners. Because intimate partner violence is not routinely assessed in prisons, the impact of partner violence is not always recognized or addressed.

The United States incarcerates more people than any other country per capita in the world (Vicini, 2007). The number of incarcerated women has increased drastically over the last 30 years, exceeding the rate of increase in incarceration of male prisoners (Harrison & Beck, 2006). The War on Drugs, declared by President Nixon in 1973, has been associated with this increase in women prisoners. Some have called it a "War on Women." Because of more stringent laws, drug dealers have become more clever in choosing couriers to deliver their drugs. Women with babies or small children are least likely to be suspected of being drug couriers. Drugs are hidden in diapers, infant carriers, and other infant paraphernalia (Coalition for Women Prisoners, 2007 ).

Although some women may choose to be involved in illegal activity, it must be noted that many women are forced to be involved in illegal activity orchestrated by their abusive partners. Women are threatened with rape, physical injury, murder, or sexual violence against themselves, their children, or other family members if they do not perform the illegal activity. In the past, these violent partners have carried out their threats, and the women know that the threats are not idle promises. Activist Carol Jacobson of the Michigan Clemency Project stated, "Law enforcement has ignored their calls for help, the judicial system has blamed them for not leaving, and the criminal justice system has wrongfully punished them. Many were not allowed to present evidence of abuse at trial" ( Jacobsen, 2007, p. 1) .

Statistics are not routinely collected on the incidence of intimate partner violence affecting incarcerated women. A 2005 random survey conducted in women's prisons by the Bureau of Justice found that 50% of the women in prison had experienced domestic violence or rape prior to their incarceration (Harrison & Beck, 2006). Browne, Miller, and Maguin (1999) found that 75% of the incarcerated women in their study were victimized by violent partners. Anecdotal data provided by wardens and prison health care providers indicate that 90%-95% of women in prison are victims of intimate partner violence.

Prolonged abuse by an intimate partner puts an abused woman at greater risk for a wide variety of chronic illnesses, debilitating and disfiguring injuries, cancer, profound and lingering depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chemical addiction, and suicide. Because intimate partner violence is not assessed in prisons, the impact of partner violence is not recognized or addressed.

Some studies have shown that abuse by male guards is an extension of the abuse the women experienced prior to their incarceration. The United States is one of the only countries in the world that employs male guards to oversee incarcerated women. In federal women's prisons, 70% of the guards are male (Amnesty International USA, 2005). Isolation, the use of restraints, pat-downs, and random strip searches by male guards have the potential to trigger PTSD symptoms in women, especially if guards take advantage of the situation by excessive groping of women's breasts and genitals (Heney & Kristiansen, 1998).

Beyond these infractions, the most difficult challenge incarcerated women face is their powerless concern for their children. Approximately 80% of incarcerated women have children, and more than half of mothers never see their children while they are incarcerated (Loucks & Zamble, 1999).

While recidivism in male prisoners is associated with drug use, recidivism for women has a complicated emotional component that is associated with depression and partner abuse (Loucks & Zamble, 1999). …