“Trauma Informed” Programs: Just a Nifty Catch-Phrase?
Date:  08-17-2015

Is restraining a woman in prison face down with four-point restraints really more therapeutic for a woman who experienced rape?
A recent Al Jezeera America article revealed that even though women make up a far smaller percentage of the U.S. prison population than men, 73 percent of incarcerated women in state prisons have a mental health problem, compared to 55 percent of males who are incarcerated.

A new pilot program in California’s two women’s prisons is aimed at females convicted of violent crimes. The Beyond Violence (BV) program delves into how trauma triggers violent behavior as a way to get the women to understand what led them to prison.

Al Jezeera quoted Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, as stating:

“Most state and federal prisons offer anger management classes as well as addiction programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. But few mental health programs are geared specifically toward women. Mental health treatment for women behind bars tends to be pharmaceutical-based, and more about controlling problematic behavior than about treatment or getting better.”

This statement echoed the views of Lois Ahrens, Director of The Real Costs of Prisons Project when she gave a powerful presentation regarding women with mental health problems at the Free Her Justice Advocacy Conference at Harvard Law School on August 4-5, 2015.

Reentry Central reached out to Ms. Ahrens and asked if she would share her thoughts about women, trauma and incarceration with our readers. Ms. Ahrens submitted the following:

Trauma informed" programs for women in jails and prisons may have begun with the best of intentions but good intentions can go astray. As Susan Sered writes in "Thinking Outside the Cell: Concrete Suggestions for Positive Change": "Many of the programs aimed at rehabilitating marginalized and criminalized Americans focus on encouraging them to “take responsibility” for their problems and condemn any hint of social or political analysis as “denial.” They place blame on the individual, compounding feelings of mental isolation. I am particularly concerned with the ubiquitous presence of twelve-step programs (“admit my powerlessness; turn myself over to a Higher Power; do an on-going moral inventory of my flaws”) and “rehabilitative” reading materials at prisons, rehab centers, homeless shelters and half-way houses."

The new rhetoric is that jails women and their families benefit when they are "closer to home" and are "gender responsive" and trauma informed "facilities" of treatment and therapeutic social services. Jail builders and jailers say building new jails closer to home is an act of kindness and concern so women can be closer to their children. Yet no matter how close a jail or prison is to an incarcerated woman’s home, she is unlikely to receive visits from her children, for a number of reasons, including: the person taking care of her child is often caring for other children and can’t get to the jail during the limited visiting hours; the caregiver has a criminal record which may prohibit visiting; and the caregiver is unwilling to subject herself and the children to the sometimes invasive searches of visitors. Having a parent in jail is deeply destabilizing for children and negatively affects their physical and mental health. Having their incarcerated parent even a bus ride away does not reduce these negative effects.

"Trauma informed" and "gender responsive" can be manipulated by jailers. How can jail be "empowering" when every aspect of a woman's life is controlled women 24/7? In 2007, at the dedication for the new jail for women in Chicopee, Mass, Sally Van Wright, the assistant warden said “We incarcerate to set free.” This same jail also claims that their treatment of women is “trauma informed”. Six years after the jail opened, Debra Baggett, then incarcerated in Chicopee contacted attorneys in Boston resulting in a successful class action suit against Sheriff Michael Ashe. At the jail male guards, standing a few feet away videotaped women while they were being strip searched. Here is segment of Sally Van Wright’s deposition about their “trauma informed” approach.

“When someone has experienced trauma in her past, an event in the present can transport her back to that traumatic event or events in her past, so keeping that inmate in the here and now is important. Saying things like “Relax,” “Take a deep breath,”, You’re doing great” and “Work with me” are all trauma-informed strategies to keep a woman in the here and now.”

“When a woman has to be restrained to a bed using four point-restraints, positioning the inmate face-down is also a trauma-informed strategy. If a woman has been raped, restraining her in the face up position would more likely be putting her in the position that she was in when she was raped.”

The solution is not better jails and better re-entry. We need to advocate for community-based community run alternatives to incarceration for women. To quote Andrea James of Families for Justice As Healing, "We need no-entry, not re-entry."

As Angela Davis has said, "I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept."