Incarcerated Women Are More Likely to Be Abuse Victims, Have Mental Health Disorders

This piece was published in coordination with Zealous, an organization working to amplify the perspective of public defenders.

In 2011, I joined the over 2,000 women incarcerated at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, the only women’s prison in the state of Michigan. Prior to my incarceration, I was just a depressed college student, who, perhaps selfishly, had no real conception of life behind bars. 

It didn’t take long for me to experience the dehumanizing treatment that is routine within prison walls. My first night in prison, I couldn’t stop crying. The prison’s response was to put me on suicide precautions. They took my clothes, gave me a suicide gown — a heavy, padded smock — and placed me in solitary confinement. I later learned that this is customary: Anyone in crisis would be thrown into a cell alone, often for days, sometimes much longer. 

A few weeks later, during a family visit, I learned that my father had been incarcerated at 17 for intervening in a fight between his parents that left his father dead. My dad committed suicide when I was 11 years old. When I went back to my cell, I couldn’t stop thinking about the stories that are never told, and the healing that never happens. I wondered what other stories were begging to be shared, not just from my life, but the lives of the other women who inhabited prison hell with me. What had led us to the worst day of our lives? What did we dream of becoming? And how, while living a nightmare, could we continue to dream?

The experiences of women behind bars are not universal, but I discovered that, for many, traumatic experiences are what brought us into contact with the criminal legal system. Many of us share similar experiences with abuse and feelings of childhood loss, which have led to unaddressed mental illness and substance dependence.

Research supports my observations. Incarcerated women are more likely than their male counterparts to have been victims of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse and to struggle with emotional and behavioral disorders. Research also shows that incarcerated women face high rates of co-occurring mental illness and drug abuse or dependence, challenges often linked to traumatic experiences. When abuse and trauma are discounted or ignored, it increases the likelihood that women will be imprisoned and experience further injustice while incarcerated.

I was six years old when a relative’s adult friend began molesting me. The abuse continued for months. I grew up feeling confused and vulnerable, unable to fully understand or express my emotions. Even though I knew the abuse was wrong, I started to believe it was normal. For as long as I could, I swallowed the pain, internalized the trauma, and put on my best face for the world. 

At the University of Michigan-Dearborn, I majored in journalism. I wanted to write about fashion, of all things. I was naive and oblivious to real issues in the world, desperately wanting to come off as light and normal, ignoring my mental health. I was involved in a toxic romantic relationship that ate away at my spirit. Then an unexpected pregnancy and subsequent abortion sent me spiraling.

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