Volume 34, No. 7 July/August 2003

Psychology and the Prison System

"There is a huge amount of love and pain among women in prison."

Angela Browne
Harvard University

Almost 79 percent of mentally ill inmates in state prisons and local jails receive therapy or counseling, and 60 percent receive psychotropic medications.


A voice for women in prison

A Boston psychologist helps victims of family violence.

Monitor staff
Print version: page 60

From 1994 to 2000, psychologist Angela Browne spent countless hours interviewing women at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility about their experiences with family and other violence over their lives. While many view incarcerated women as hopelessly aggressive or violent, Browne saw a different side of them.

She was struck by the stories of past abuse she heard from many of them--stories that she often associated with "hostages" or "prisoners of war." It's because of such stories that Browne has sought to learn more about family violence and its effects in these women's lives.

What she learned from her interviews at Bedford Hills--New York's only maximum-security prison for women--is that incarcerated women often bring the scars of previous trauma, especially from family violence, to prison. And while incarcerated, daily prison routines--like having to be unquestionably submissive to prison guards--may parallel their earlier experiences of control and abuse.

Browne's work in this area stems from the late 1970s when she worked with a team--led by psychologist Lenore E. Walker, EdD--that pioneered the use of a self-defense plea in trials of women who had killed their abusive partners. The work grew from the team's earlier Battered Women Syndrome Study--the first study in the country to focus on cycles of violence and entrapment among women in abusive relationships.

Most of Browne's work as a psychologist has focused on helping women in prison better cope with their past trauma. While serving as a consultant at Bedford Hills, she conducted a study on trauma histories in the lives of incarcerated women.

Nearly three-fourths of the general population at Bedford reported being severely assaulted as a child by a parental figure. More than half had been sexually molested in childhood, and more than three-fourths had experienced severe assault by a male partner. In addition, about the same number had experienced other types of severe physical or sexual assault prior to incarceration.

"There is a huge amount of love and pain among women in prison," Browne says. She believes unlocking imprisoned women's past trauma histories through assessments and programming may help both the women and those who work with them understand their criminal acts and behavior while incarcerated.

While at Bedford, Browne led efforts to spark awareness of women's trauma from family violence. In addition to conducting interviews, she consulted on acute cases of women who had been severely abused, and trained prison staff to be more aware of trauma and to respond to traumatized women with more sensitivity.

For example, during training, she helped prison staff understand how sexual assault as a child might relate to such behaviors as withdrawing from or assaulting others. In prison, officers may conduct body cavity searches or search inmates' living areas without consent or notice. Officers can also use force if an inmate doesn't agree to a search. In turn, Browne says, imprisoned women may act out in anger, self-defense or hide--similar to how they may have responded to previous danger in childhood or with adult partners.

Today, Browne--an associate director in the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center--works to establish a collaborative, nationwide database of prison research on histories of family violence cases among imprisoned women and youth. The database will include information on involvement with family service and child protection agencies, mental health services and the criminal justice system.

Browne says these domains often overlap in families' lives, yet are often considered separate. She hopes that combining this information and looking for patterns or interventions that work will lead to cost-effective social policies and interventions to help prevent violence and better identify what services and support are needed.

Prevention of violence early on is key, Browne says. However, community-level interventions that foster family well-being and are believed to help prevent family violence have faced deep budget cuts in recent years, Browne says. Furthermore, resources--such as safe shelters--that help women and children leave or escape their assailants continue to disappear because of funding cuts.

Browne says she is alarmed at the trends. She stresses the need for greater collaboration among community members, government officials and psychologists to address these concerns. She's passionate that such efforts can tap the hope and resilience she's seen in many women and teenagers with trauma histories.

"Before I came to this work in 1979, I never really found something that challenged me and held my interest," Browne says. "I would recommend this work to anyone who has a fairly good ability to see a great deal of pain and still find the joy and humor in life. I would never trade what I do."

Retrospective measures of traumatic experiences have been criticized by some who suggest they result in artificially inflated rates of trauma due to inaccurate recall and reporting. Experts in correctional psychology agree, however, that there is a very high rate of past trauma and abuse among the incarcerated population, and that it is especially high among female inmates.
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