Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Sexual Revictimization and Retraumatization of Women in Prison

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Sexual Revictimization and Retraumatization of Women in Prison

Article excerpt

When women in foreign countries are sexually abused or sexually exploited by government employees, it is a human rights violation (e.g., Fitzgerald, 1992), but when the same thing happens in the United States, it is a "prison sex scandal" (e.g., Meyer, 1992) (excerpt from Baro, 1997).

Understanding of the role of victimization and traumatization in women's lives has recently begun to inform the growing body of knowledge on women's offending (Arnold, 1995; Faith, 1993). Examining the life histories of incarcerated women reveals an extensive and pervasive array of physical, emotional, and sexual abuses (Browne, Miller, & Maguin, 1999; Girshick, 1999; Lake, 1993; Owen & Bloom, 1995; Singer, Bussey, Song, & Lunghofer, 1995). Many of these women have experienced at least one form of sexual victimization in their lifetimes, many of them before the age of 18 (Bloom, Chesney, & Owen, 1994; Heney, 1990). For women with previous histories of abuse, prison life is apt to simulate the abuse dynamics already established in these women's lives, thus perpetuating women's further revictimization and retraumatization while serving time. Women's experiences of revictimization and retraumatization need to be addressed by prison staff, policy, procedure, and programming. A feminist framework may offer a lens by which to view these experiences and offer insight for change.

Arnold (1995) suggests that the interrelated processes that govern women's victimization and criminalization begin with abuse-including physical, sexual, economic, and racial. Through a process of "structural dislocation," institutional forms of oppression such as sexism, racism, and classism aid in the removal of girls and women from primary socializing agents such as families and schools. Facing lives filled with "poverty, illiteracy, substance abuse, mental illness, childhood sexual abuse, and an intricate web of life-threatening physical, psychological, racial, and social problems," many of these women's experiences mark their advent into the criminal justice system (Johnson, 2002, p. 103).

Feminist criminology has moved beyond examining the crimes of women, and has begun to examine the broader links that may explain women's offending. For example, a study by Widom (1989) found that abused girls were more likely than girls without histories of abuse to become criminals or delinquents. Girls who had been sexually abused as children also have an increased risk for adult arrest for prostitution (Widom & Ames, 1994). Other studies have also linked early childhood abuse with later criminal activity (American Correctional Association, 1990; Lake, 1993). Much of the research in this area has focused on the links between childhood abuse, depression, substance abuse, and subsequent criminality (McClellan, Farabee, & Crouch, 1997; Singer et al., 1995; Smith & Thornberry, 1995).

Prevalence and Severity of Women's Histories of Abuse

Given the link between victimization and criminalization, the extant research literature suggests that women in prison have extensive histories of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Incarcerated women are estimated to have rates of abuse six to ten times that of women in the general population (Pollock, 2002). Although victimization and traumatization rates vary among samples and research methods, the lives of women in prison have often been characterized by the "prevalence and severity" of physical and sexual abuse throughout their childhoods and adult lives (Browne, Miller, & Maguin, 1999).

Women in both state and federal prisons are more likely to have histories of abuse than men in prison (McClellan et al., 1997; Snell & Morton, 1994). A 1991 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) revealed that nearly half (48%) of women they interviewed had been physically or sexually assaulted prior to their incarceration (Snell & Morton, 1994). Citing that the BJS study (1991) methodology may have suppressed reporting, more recent research has tackled the goal of filling in the gaps of previous literature to elucidate a more comprehensive understanding of the victimization and traumatization experiences of incarcerated women (Browne et al. …

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