My current mantra when training professionals in responding to domestic and sexual violence is ‘if you think a client is ‘difficult’, ‘hostile’ or to use the standard statutory sector euphemism, ‘challenging’, then ask yourself ‘am I seeing the effects of trauma?’
For women involved in the criminal justice system (CJS), this is particularly pertinent. The majority of women in prison have complex histories of violence and abuse, often starting in childhood and repeated into their adult lives. This is not to excuse their criminal behaviour but to argue that this is an incredibly vulnerable population who have often been failed over and over again. Indeed, it is not uncommon for incarcerated women to say that prison is the place where they feel safest; what this tells us about their lives is heart-breaking.
Mental health issues, self-harming behaviour, substance use and experiences of homelessness are all disproportionately high amongst women prisoners, as is a disrupted education (making gainful legal employment less likely). In the majority of instances, all of these experiences result from domestic and sexual violence, including abuse in childhood. A failure to identify and provide support for these girls and young women forced them to develop their own coping strategies. For some this was a retreat into drink or drugs, for others it may have involved gang association – a replacement family for the one they didn’t get, for others, a teenage pregnancy before they had the ability to cope so desperate were they for a new family untainted by abuse. It’s easy to see how these coping strategies in turn led to criminal behaviour – often not serious or involving violence but the consequence of needing money and safety.
Responding to these experiences of abuse and trauma by locking them up is the response of an unthinking and uncaring culture. More importantly, it doesn’t work - and we all pay the price for that. No-one is arguing that women shouldn’t be accountable for their behaviour but if we are interested in what works, what is humane and what saves money in both the short and long term, we need to change our approach.
As the founder of Women in Prison said:
‘Taking the most hurt people out of society and punishing them in order to teach them how to live within society is, at best, futile. Whatever else a prisoner knows, she knows everything there is to know about punishment because that is exactly what she has grown up with. Whether it is childhood sexual abuse, indifference, neglect; punishment is most familiar to her.'