As Clinical Director, I was honored to have the opportunity to represent Friends of Guest House, and the women we serve, at the National Organization for Victim Assistance’s (NOVA) annual conference in Jacksonville, Florida. Founded in 1975, NOVA “is the oldest national victim assistance organization of its type in the United States and is the recognized leader in victim advocacy and credentialing.” I, along with Mariel Branagan, a former Friends of Guest House employee and current D-SAACP Deputy Program Manager with NOVA, presented to over 50 Victim Assistance professionals on the barriers that formerly incarcerated women face when reentering society.
We have found that most people tend to believe that humans, and our behaviors, can be easily categorized in to either “good or bad,” and “victim or offender.” The truth is that we are much more complicated than that, and the research shows that the vast majority of women who are incarcerated are also victims of crimes themselves.
In fact, more than 90% of women and girls involved in the criminal justice system have been victims of sexual and physical abuse and violence prior to their criminal offending. Even more alarming, 98% of women in jails have histories of exposure to trauma. Surviving a traumatic environment, particularly when you have no means of escape, often requires the development of otherwise unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance use to numb the pain, and becoming dependent on the abusers themselves. Not surprisingly, the majority of incarcerated women were convicted of drug-related crimes, and/or were involved with crimes committed by another person (often the abuser).
In addition, there are many other challenges justice-involved women face at disproportionate rates prior to incarceration. For example, they tend to come from lower socioeconomic status, have completed less education, are employed at lower rates, and have higher rates of mental illness. When we take a step back to the look at the entire pathway that leads to women’s involvement in the criminal justice system, it is clear that their victimization and social disadvantages cannot be separated from their offending, as they are most often intricately linked. Furthermore, incarceration itself can be a traumatizing experience, resulting in trauma for almost all involved.
Despite the established connection between trauma and justice-involvement in women, the stigma that society still applies to formerly incarcerated women remains, making it difficult, if not impossible, to successfully reenter society and become a contributing member to their community. We believe that one of the major shifts that needs to occur to remedy this is first to educate society about the factors that contribute to women’s offending, particularly untreated trauma. Armed with this information, we can begin to invest in combating the true causal factors of women’s incarceration, rather than focusing all of our resources on interventions that don’t actually address the root problem. In this vein, our presentation at the NOVA conference was aimed at educating the Victims Assistance community about the victimization, and need for services, that our women face.
We were thrilled that our presentation was well-received, and generated thoughtful discussion among the audience about their own pre-conceived notions and ideas for change. One participant said, “I changed the way on how I look at those in prisons, especially the women,” and another said, “Eye opening. We need more resources for women and men who are released from incarceration to help them deal with the trauma that they have experienced. The cycle will only continue if we don’t.”
Nobody at Friends of Guest House is advocating for dissolution of law and order, or for a “free pass” for women who commit crimes. In fact, a safer, and crime-free community is a goal that almost all of us can agree on. What we believe is that, to truly reduce crime and recidivism, we have to address the very real factors that contribute to it. And, as previously noted, untreated trauma ranks at the top of that list.
Now, you and I, as concerned citizens probably feel as though we have very little power to prevent the extensive victimization of girls and women. So, what can we do to address this problem? Here are some small steps that you can take to help:
- Have conversations with others in which you can challenge some of the myths and stigmas associated with justice-involved women, and increase empathy for them. A great way to do this is to invite our Speakers Bureau, consisting of current and former residents of Guest House, to present for groups that you belong to. We find that hearing the women’s personal stories is one of the most effective ways to increase empathy for them.
- Educate yourself and others on the research and data related to women in the criminal justice system. The Vera Institute of Justice’s report: Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform is a great resource.
- Pay attention to legislation that addresses treatment of incarcerated individuals, as well as rights and opportunities for community reentry. Contact your representatives to advocate for laws that recognize the traumatic pathways to female offending and that address the needs of this population.
- Hire, or encourage others to hire, justice-involved women in your businesses. A livable wage, and the pride that comes with productivity and employment can make the difference between successful and unsuccessful reentry.
- Volunteer for organizations that serve this population. Here’s an idea: volunteer to facilitate a class for the women at Friends of Guest House to help in their personal and professional development, or volunteer as a mentor to an individual Guest House resident.
- Donate money or goods. Did you know that Friends of Guest House has a Target registry where you can buy bedding and goods for the women who arrive at our home with nothing? We also have a Clothes Closet full of donations that our residents can “shop” in when they need clothing (many of them arrive to us with only the clothing they were arrested in).
Together we can change the way that our society treats these victimized sisters amongst us. I hope that you will join us in this fight!
By Angel J. Daniels, PhD