Survivors of Abuse and Incarceration

The overwhelming majority of women in prison are survivors of domestic violence. Three-quarters have histories of severe physical abuse by an intimate partner during adulthood, and 82% suffered serious physical or sexual abuse as children. But whereas efforts to recognize and address domestic violence in the community have made some progress, public support too often stops when survivors defend themselves or their children from an abuser’s violence.

Too often, the system responds to such women solely as perpetrators – not survivors – of violence, sending them to prison for long periods of time with little chance for parole. In addition, because incarceration further destabilizes already marginalized communities, it ultimately perpetuates the conditions in which violence against women thrives.

The large numbers of survivors in prison represents a failure of both the criminal justice and social service systems. Some women are in prison for defending themselves against an abuser. Others are incarcerated because they engaged in criminal activity to survive or because they took action at the behest of an abuser out of fear and threat of harm. Inadequate community or financial supports and harsh anti-immigrant policies may make it especially difficult for low-income and immigrant women to escape abusive relationships.

Prisons are a cruel environment for survivors: most prisons have few programs to address needs related to abuse and trauma and services to aid in rebuilding relationships with children and families are inadequate. Women often experience poor treatment – sometimes physical and sexual abuse – from correction officers and shackling policies can result in intense distress and trigger flashbacks.

Because domestic violence plays a significant role in women’s pathway to prison, it should be taken into account and addressed at all stages of the criminal justice process. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, judges have limited ability to take the impact of domestic violence into account when making sentencing decisions. As a result, many survivors end up serving years – sometimes decades – behind prison walls for acting to protect themselves.

Survivors in the system pose virtually no threat to public safety, and when appropriate should be diverted to alternative-to-incarceration programs in the community—programs that are more effective in helping women recover from abuse and rebuild their lives and families.

Likewise, all criminal justice professionals should be trained to recognize and address the needs of domestic violence survivors, and prison programs and services should be realigned to humanely and sensitively account for women’s histories of trauma and abuse.

Finally, the public at large must recognize survivors caught up in the criminal justice system as equally deserving of support, protection and justice as survivors in the community.

For more information, or to get involved, visit the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act page.

 

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