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“They break us out there and then more in here. And they don't do anything to build us back up.” This is a quote from a woman serving thirty-one years for assault and crack-cocaine possession. Like many other incarcerated women, she has a history of being in domestically abusive relationships. Prison, she said, felt like an extension of feeling the same hopelessness she did before entering prison. Using drugs was a means to escape the reality of abuse and poverty. Her time in prison further disempowered her economically and socially, as she received no job-training and lost many of her relationships in the community.

This paper explores the connection between domestic violence and women in prison. Statistics and empirical studies show that women in prison have a high likelihood of having experienced domestic violence prior to their incarceration. The author argues that under the current system, prison re-traumatizes these women with histories of abuse. Prison isolates them socially, strains relationships, and creates more economic burdens. The aftermath of prison makes leaving an abusive relationship even harder than before incarceration. Further, while domestic violence affects women regardless of race, class, education level and other disparities in privilege, it has a unique effect on those oppressed in the greater society. For poor, less-educated, and newly immigrated women, domestic violence is more challenging to escape because they are more likely to be economically dependent on their abusers, and may face a wider variety of barriers to leaving abusive relationships.

Although this paper examines the connection between women who are victims of domestic violence, it does not argue that women are simply products of the abuse they have suffered. This paper relies on empirical evidence that points to important differences between male and female prisoners. It also looks at social science research that tries to explain why so many incarcerated women have experienced domestic violence and abuse prior to their incarceration. The paper focuses on domestic violence and its prevalence in incarcerated female population because this prior abuse arguably most uniquely and strongly affects women’s experience in prison. Prison replicates many of the characteristics of abuse such as power and control over the women.

The author asserts that prison policies often revictimize women with histories of abuse. Although gender-responsive approaches deal with a wide variety of issues, such as the fact that women are more likely than men to be their children’s custodians, this paper focuses solely on gender-response approaches that pertain to domestic violence. Finally, in arguing for a gender-responsive approach, this paper is not diminishing the need for reforms and gender-responsive programs for men; it is beyond the scope of this paper to analyze reforms to better address male prisoners’ needs.


3rd Place Winner in 2009 ABA Commission on Domestic Violence Law Student Writing Competition.