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Fighting for Dignity

Trauma is a persistent feature in the lives of incarcerated women. Seven of them describe how they cope in the face of inhumane conditions and what truly rehabilitative institutions would provide.

Published: October 20, 2022
Illustration
Lucy Jones

In 2009, I became a resident at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, the only women’s prison in the state of Michigan. Prior to my incarceration, those who were locked behind bars never crossed my mind. I fell victim to the stereotypes and media narratives about “prisoners” — that they were all there because they deserved to be. That myth was quickly dispelled the moment I was without my freedom. Every single woman in prison — every single person in prison — has a story and a life beyond the crime for which they were convicted.

On the inside, I learned everything I could about the women there with me. What led them to the worst day of their lives? What were their childhoods like? What did they dream of becoming? And how did they continue dreaming while living in a nightmare?

While the experiences of women behind bars are not universal, I found that there are important aspects that are shared. This paper contributes to a more comprehensive understanding by exploring the lived experiences and sentiments of women in several states who are currently serving time. One theme is the experience of trauma. For many women, traumatic experiences — including physical and emotional abuse — have brought them in contact with the legal system. These unaddressed traumas are then compounded by a sense of unfairness in the criminal justice process and inhumane treatment in correctional facilities. To survive these experiences, women develop coping mechanisms that sustain them until their sentences are up.

I was six years old when a relative’s 26-year-old friend began molesting me, and the abuse continued for months. When my family realized what was happening to me, my abuser suffered no consequences. I grew up feeling confused and unprotected. I didn’t understand the emotions I was experiencing or know how to express them. Even though I knew the abuse was wrong, I started to believe it was normal — that it was something all little girls go through.

Living in fear at home forced me to rely on my inner strength to get through each day, and, strangely, it also meant finding a sense of safety once I began venturing out into my city. I was unafraid when I encountered danger in Detroit, thinking it couldn’t be worse than the abuse I had endured. In my mind, I was strong enough to handle whatever threats were out there. I swallowed the pain, internalized the trauma, and put on my best face for the world as long as I could.

In 2009, Forbes named Detroit the most violent city in America. footnote1_1koz4mg 1 Zack O’Malley Greenburg, “America’s Most Dangerous Cities,” Forbes, April 23, 2009, https://www.forbes.com/2009/04/23/most-dangerous-cities-lifestyle-real-estate-dangerous-american-cities.html. That year, 365 people were murdered footnote2_koq3xxq 2 FBI, “Crime in the United States,” 2009, table 6, https://www2.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2009/data/table_06.html#d. — my grandmother among them, by my hands.

The act was a product of mental illness brought on by trauma. Once I was in the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, I witnessed and experienced dehumanizing treatment and learned that unaddressed trauma, poor mental health, abuse, guilt, and regret are their own prisons, special kinds of hell that the penitentiary exacerbates rather than treats.

Like the other women in this study, while incarcerated I leaned on a number of coping strategies to survive the experience. I was also fortunate enough to receive intense therapy, which gave me both hope and the tools I needed to improve my life and understand the traumas I had experienced. I joined peer groups, formed supportive friendships, and read every self-help book available. I was determined to leave prison a healthier woman, not just an older version of the unwell girl who had entered.

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