Incarcerated Women and Domestic Violence

By Carney, Amy Y. | American Jails, March/April 2014 | Go to article overview

Incarcerated Women and Domestic Violence


Carney, Amy Y., American Jails


Domestic violence is a well-documented social problem in the United States. It has many forms and multiple consequences. Physical abuse, sexual coercion, psychological and economic abuse, and threats of serious bodily harm are all components of controlling behavior that can go by several names.

Since they were first studied in the 1960s, the terms "interpersonal violence," "spousal battering," "intimate partner violence," and "family violence" have all been used to label acts of aggression and cruelty. The impact of domestic violence has been shown to have widespread consequences. Substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and depression are common in domestic violence. In 1990 the Senate Judiciary Committee stated, "If every woman victimized by domestic violence were to join hands, the string of women would span from New York to Los Angeles and back again" (Moynihan, 2006). Understanding these dynamics when working with incarcerated women contributes to successful intervention in areas such as aggression, anger management, and violence prevention.

Women and Violence

The incarceration rate of women following incidents of domestic violence-both as perpetrators and in self-defense-is increasing. Numerous studies have examined the path women take to become criminals. In the past there was often a belief that some women were good and normal, and some were bad and became criminals. Evolving research has revealed that women involved with criminal domestic violence have often endured years of violence in their past. Many suffered from physical and sexual abuse in childhood, and then they continue to suffer years of abuse at the hands of partners and spouses. Some women who kill their partners experienced severe and increasing levels of violence over a period of time and believed they had limited resources available to help them. For them, murder was an act of selfdefense (Pretorius & Botha, 2009). Characteristics of female offenders include being unemployed or poor, being woman of color, and having young children. Many have mental and physical health problems, and substance abuse is common. More women than men report multiple types of abuse and turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism (Dow, 2011).

The decision to leave or not leave a battering partner is both complex and dangerous. Battered women often stay in an abusive relationship because they have no place to go or no source of income. Low self-esteem contributes to the feeling of having no choice but to tolerate the abuse. Some women stay because they have small children or are pregnant (Cooper, 2013). Others feel that to leave would put them in a more dangerous situation, or that they won't be believed if they disclose their abuse. Victims of abuse frequently express love for their partners and believe the partner will change eventually (Green & Ward, 2010). Many women experience structural and cultural barriers to leaving their abusers. Immigration status may be a factor, with the abuser threatening to report the woman if she tries to leave him. In many minority communities it is unthinkable for a woman to leave her husband for any reason. Housing, income/benefit level, and an inability to obtain information on safely leaving an abuser are often lacking (Burman & Chantler, 2005).

Violence Against Men

Studies of intimate partner violence generally focus on men as perpetrators and women as victims. Domestic violence against men often goes unrecognized for a variety of reasons. Men may be reluctant to report abuse because of embarrassment or fear of ridicule. As with female victims, they may be afraid they won't be believed. Therefore, less is known about male victims and the consequences of women as perpetrators (Barber, 2008).

Reports of men as victims of domestic violence began to appear in the literature in the 1970s. The rate of reporting for domestic violence against women declined from 1993 to 2004, but it did not decline as rapidly for violence against men. …

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