Caring for Survivors: Beyond Criminalization and Mass Incarceration

By Monica Simpson
SisterSong, Executive Director

The fact is that anyone who has experienced domestic violence faces a slew of difficult challenges when trying to seek help or to leave a violent situation, but the racism against women of color and our community makes it that much harder.   

We are told that the solution to violence in our homes is to call the police, but law enforcement has rarely been a helpful resource.  We don’t get the same sense of safety when an officer comes knocking on our door.  We have seen a huge number of men in our community locked away and removed from the community.  Mass incarceration has had a very real impact on our families.  So while we want to seek safety, we may not want to play into a carceral system that has criminalized our lives and our people far more than it has ever helped.  

When women of color do call we have to wonder if the partner or family member who has hurt us will end up dying in custody or if we defend ourselves will we end up in jail like Marissa Alexander?  If we ask for help will we be told that as victims of violence we have put our children in danger and be punished like Tondallo Hall? Women are shamed if we do not leave. People ask how could you stay, but they do not understand that the fear does not stop when we walk out the door and that thousands of women are hospitalized or die at the hands of an intimate partner when they try to leave.  They may not understand that we may not have the resources to leave and that we fear not being able to take care of our children.  They do not know how many women are behind bars right now for fighting back.

A recent article looked at 28 mothers in 11 different states who were sentenced to at least 10 years in prison as a result of laws that place the blame for violence on survivors.  This is just part of the over-policing and over-criminalization of pregnant women and mothers.  From women dealing with substance abuse issues, to women living with HIV and AIDS, to women who are abused, incarceration rates among some of the most marginalized communities are increasing and even more harmful legislation is being enacted, causing more women to lose their freedom and thus lose their parental rights, their access to many essential health services and their freedom.  

We know that victims of domestic violence are at an increased risk of acquiring HIV, which means that many women who are arrested, charged or jailed as a result of gender based violence may also be living with HIV and AIDS.  Once incarcerated, they are at an increased risk of getting very sick.  Prisons are overcrowded, so they are exposed to a range of illnesses.  They are stressed and may be malnourished and many prisoners with HIV are unable to access life-saving antiretroviral treatment. For people who were taking ARTs prior to being put in prison, this is incredibly dangerous.  A disruption in medical care could mean the development of drug-resistant HIV and the threat of decreased drug potency or the loss of entire antiretroviral classes as treatment options.  There are also issues with mandatory testing in prison and the privacy of testing results.  While testing should be made available, a person’s status should be kept confidential.  People who test positive often face stigma if their status is revealed to fellow inmates or to the prison staff.  Finally, without any trauma informed care survivors in prison often do not have access to critical counseling support to help address the very real mental health issues they are facing as a result of the abuse.  

We must find opportunities to improve the conditions of prisons to ensure that people who are incarcerated are provided with basic rights such as medical privacy and quality health care, as well as to identify ways to address gender based violence in our community that do not feed into the prison industrial complex.  We should look at cultivating stronger support for a restorative justice framework that prioritizes reparations for harm, centers victims, and involves perpetrators, victims, and community members in creating sustainable, transformative alternatives.  We can look at effective, evidence based programs for batterers to break the cycle of violence.  We can continue to move community education and violence prevention programs in order to get these issues out in the open and ensure that efforts to address intimate partner violence are coordinated and connected on an individual and community level.  

It is clear that there are systemic issues of criminalization of pregnant women and mothers.  We need to push back on laws designed to throw women into jail for various reasons, policies that always fall hardest on low-income women and women of color.  We need to make sure  that services to support survivors are culturally competent.  Indigenous women are 34 times more likely to be injured and hospitalized as a result of intimate partner violence than their non-Indigenous counterparts and yet due to a variety of cultural, economic and social factors the resources to seek safety and tools to create healing space are not always appropriate or accessible.  

We also need to think about the ways that immigration status impact survivors, especially those living with HIV or AIDS.   Immigrants who experience domestic violence are often afraid to ask anyone for help for fear they could be deported or lose their residential status.  There are also discriminatory limits on immigrant women’s access to health services, including treatment and counseling. For many undocumented, immigrant women, the threat of being dragged into a broken immigration system where survivors can be deported or have their status revoked, it is hard to leave an abusive relationship, find support, and secure needed care.  They are often unaware of their rights as immigrants, and think they have no options.

It is critical that we ensure that people who have been in an abusive situation have the ability to find counseling and support that works for them.  We have to do better both about training mental health professionals to utilize a trauma informed, harm reduction approach and making sure that private and public health insurance programs, as well as programs aimed at providing care to people who are uninsured or underinsured have comprehensive counseling services available for people who have experience violence.  If we are to truly say enough on violence against women and against people living with HIV and AIDS, we have to do more than just talk.

Monica Raye Simpson is the Executive Director of SisterSong, the national women of color reproductive justice collective.  Based in Atlanta, SisterSong works to engage, support and amplify the needs and lived experiences of Indigenous women and women of color in order to build collective power and achieve reproductive justice. 

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