The Continuation of Violence: Analyzing the Retraumatization of Incarcerated Survivors of Domestic Violence and Evaluating the Potential of a “Trauma-Informed” Prison Model

May 5, 2020   /  

Student: Eliana Kahn
Major: Sociology, Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies
Advisor: Dr. Tom Tierney, Dr. Zareen Thomas

The purpose of my study was to explore the impact of incarceration on female survivors of domestic violence. To do this, I conducted interviews with professionals involved with trauma and the criminal justice system, as well as with three formerly incarcerated survivors of abuse. I first analyzed the ways in which the physical organization, institutional procedures, and inmate-officer power dynamics of punitive institutions replicate dynamics of domestic violence. I then evaluated three “trauma-informed” systems of care, a framework actively mitigating subsequent exposure to trauma through community integration and relationship-building. My findings indicate (a) the direct and indirect connections between domestic violence and incarceration; (b) the extent to which punitive institutions largely “re-traumatize” survivors of domestic violence and; (c) how the punitive nature inherent to the American criminal justice system undermines the implementation of a broader trauma-informed prison model. I conclude by offering a non-carceral, restorative justice approach to criminal justice.

Eliana will be online to field comments on May 8:
Noon-2pm EDT (PST 9am-11am, Africa/Europe: early evening)

49 thoughts on “The Continuation of Violence: Analyzing the Retraumatization of Incarcerated Survivors of Domestic Violence and Evaluating the Potential of a “Trauma-Informed” Prison Model”

  1. Eli,
    Congratulations! What a great project–very interesting findings. This really builds on so much of the work you’ve done throughout your time at Wooster. Well done!

    1. Thank you Dr. Fitz Gibbon! I am so lucky to have learned from you during my time at Wooster, and I hope you are staying well 🙂

  2. Congratulations, Eliana! This sounds like an amazing – and difficult – research project.
    At the end of your video, you say you conclude by offering some recommendations for a restorative justice model for criminal justice reform. Could you say more about what this would look like?

    1. Hi! Thank you so much for your comment.

      A restorative justice approach to crime is one which advocates for the healing of all three parties impacted by harm in non-carceral ways: 1. the survivor or “victim,” 2. the perpetrator, and 3. the broader community in which harm has taken place. In order for this to be done, the model relies on the re-conceptualization of the word “harm.” One of my participants explained this to me by using the hypothetical example of a family marked by an abusive marriage. After a domestic violence incident results in police involvement, the primary abuser is arrested and incarcerated. Unfortunately, that abuser was also the primary breadwinner for the family, who is now impoverished and housing-insecure. It can thus be seen that in this situation, both the abusive partner and the criminal justice system participated in the creation of harm.

      It is important to note that the restorative justice model is not advocating for individuals to remain in abusive and unhealthy environments, nor is it minimizing the actions of offenders. The model continues to address domestic violence and other forms of interpersonal violence, yet it does so in non-carceral ways: by engaging in community investment, and embedding perpetrators within integrated systems of healing. As my participant summarized, “when we shift the financial investment we have in building, maintaining and reforming prisons towards public housing, education, social services, benefits, etc., we can radically alleviate many of the social, political and social issues that the prison claims to address.”

      It’s a complex model and certainly has its faults, but I hope that explanation made sense.

  3. Wonderful presentation! As the US continues to incarcerate the highest proportion of its citizens of all nations of the world, your work is timely, and deeply needed. Thanks.

  4. Great presentation, Ellie! Can you explain more about the “restorative justice approach to the criminal justice system” and a trauma-informed prison model you mentioned at the end of your slideshow, and what you mean by these?

    1. Hi Wave!! I answered this question above, so I’m going to copy the answer here. Thanks for stopping by, miss you a ton 🙂

      A restorative justice approach to crime is one which advocates for the healing of all three parties impacted by harm in non-carceral ways: 1. the survivor or “victim,” 2. the perpetrator, and 3. the broader community in which harm has taken place. In order for this to be done, the model relies on the re-conceptualization of the word “harm.” One of my participants explained this to me by using the hypothetical example of a family marked by an abusive marriage. After a domestic violence incident results in police involvement, the primary abuser is arrested and incarcerated. Unfortunately, that abuser was also the primary breadwinner for the family, who is now impoverished and housing-insecure. It can thus be seen that in this situation, both the abusive partner and the criminal justice system participated in the creation of harm.

      It is important to note that the restorative justice model is not advocating for individuals to remain in abusive and unhealthy environments, nor is it minimizing the actions of offenders. The model continues to address domestic violence and other forms of interpersonal violence, yet it does so in non-carceral ways: by engaging in community investment, and embedding perpetrators within integrated systems of healing. As my participant summarized, “when we shift the financial investment we have in building, maintaining and reforming prisons towards public housing, education, social services, benefits, etc., we can radically alleviate many of the social, political and social issues that the prison claims to address.”

      It’s a complex model and certainly has its faults, but I hope that explanation made sense.

  5. Congratulations, Ellie! So proud of you, can’t wait to read the whole thing and pick your brain more.

  6. This is amazing, Ellie! You are so knowledgeable and I know that what you have accomplished here will continue to grow beyond graduation and Wooster.

  7. This is an excellent interdisciplinary project, Ellie! Your analysis is thoughtful and incisive, and incorporates so many valuable perspectives. Thank you for completing this important work.

  8. Well done, Ellie! Such an interesting and needed piece of work. What recommendations would you give for continued research and work on trauma-informed prison models? Also, what was your favorite part of I.S.? Thank you for your hard work and congratulations on all you have accomplished!

    1. Hi Katie!! Thanks for your questions and for your love and support these last four years.

      When thinking about continued research and recommendations, I’d encourage everyone to pay close attention to what goes on within the United States criminal justice system. Due to the ways in which the system functions to punish “bad” individuals, the experiences of incarcerated people are often minimized and ignored. For that same reason, the abuse that takes place in jails and prisons is often justified and normalized. While conducting this project, I found it really important to critically consider my own conceptualizations of what is “good” and what is “bad.” Seek out and elevate the stories of those incarcerated, especially during times of crisis such as what we’re experiencing now.

      My favorite part of my I.S. was the fact that I was able to interview and include the experiences of three formerly incarcerated survivors. I was so thankful that I spoke with many professionals involved with trauma and criminal justice, but my project didn’t feel complete without the voices of those who were impacted the most.

      1. Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions with such thoughtful responses! I cannot wait to see what is in store for you in the future.

  9. Very interesting project! I’m a 2011 grad, and I was an English and Spanish major. Now I’m about to graduate from law school. You raise some really important and interesting issues in your I.S. What kind of career are you interested in pursuing?

    1. Hi Grace! Thanks for your comment. Next year, I’ll be working at an agency in New York City that supports survivors of domestic violence and sex-trafficking; in particular, I’ll be working within their economic justice program. I’ve always been drawn to journalism and documentary film-making, so I’d love to combine those two interests into an advocacy-based journalism career.

      Congrats on your graduation from law school!

  10. You amaze me. I am so thankful for the relationship we’ve built at Wooster, and love seeing your hard work come together in this phenomenal study! Congrats!!

  11. So proud of you Ellie! This topic is incredibly important, and it’s clear that your passion will allow you to impact so many lives for the better. Congratulations <3

  12. What an incredibly thoughtful and important project. I would love to hear your thoughts on how the criminal justice system should implement a restorative justice approach!

    Congratulations, Ellie! So excited for your next journey!

  13. Congrats Ellie! I am so proud of you and you should be so proud of all you have accomplished. It is not easy to dive into such heavy topics and you did it with such grace and respect.

  14. You are always so well spoken and passionate about your work. It has been incredibly inspiring to watch you pour yourself into this project this past year…and being your roommate the past four years hasn’t been that bad either 😉 I’m so proud of you and this important research <3

  15. You did a fantastic job summarizing a complex and ambitious Independent Study project, Ellie. Your thesis is a testament to the powerful contribution that interdisciplinary research can make in the pursuit of social justice.

  16. Wow, Ellie, this is such an impressive and important project! I feel so privileged to have followed your growth at Wooster from our First Year Seminar through to I.S. Through it all, you have showed an unwavering commitment to gender equity and social justice. I’m very proud of all you’ve done – and look forward to following your future contributions to our world! Wishing you all the best, Prof. Bos

    1. Thank you Dr. Bos! I am so lucky to have learned from you during my time at Wooster, your research has always served as an inspiration to me. I’m looking forward to staying in touch and wish you a wonderful summer 🙂

  17. Ellie, this is such a powerful project. You demonstrate the amazing capacity of interdisciplinary research and I look up to you so much as a WGSS/Social Science scholar! Thank you, thank you, thank you. So impressed and proud of you!

  18. This is such important work in a topic that is also near and dear to my heart. So proud of you and all of this research! Love you tons <3

  19. Ellie,

    Excellent presentation and a good subject for a documentary . We spoke last October when I was viewing the different projects. Gemma Briggs is home in Florida with Senny G and missing the campus. Thanks for an outstanding project.

  20. Eliana, what a fantastic and important project and a clear and engaging presentation! Thank you so much for sharing it. I’m wondering if you have ideas on how restorative justice practices could begin to be introduced within our current punitive system (presumably on small scales, as pilot projects, local initiatives, or individual/small group actions). Do you think that such marginal efforts would help as a step along the way towards a more thoroughgoing transformation of the US system, or might they distract from more fundamental changes?

    1. Hi Dr. Eager, thank you so much for your thoughtful question. Within my Independent Study, I evaluated three “trauma-informed” systems of care which actively seek to mitigate subsequent exposure to trauma. “Recovery with Justice” is a specialized court system that was conceptualized to offer defendants with mental illness an alternative to incarceration. Similarly, the Women’s Recovery from Addictions Program (WRAP) functions as a court-mandated residential treatment center for women suffering from addiction, another intentional alternative to the criminal justice system. Lastly, Survivors of Abuse Feeling Empowered for Re-Entry (S.A.F.E.R.) is a trauma-informed program within the Suffolk County House of Corrections in Massachusetts that offers programming and support for confined survivors of abuse during and after incarceration.

      I offer these three models in answering your question, because while they may not be explicitly defined as such, each contain elements of a restorative justice model — that is, they recognize the harm perpetuated by the criminal justice system. Such programs and models are absolutely necessary to combat the injustice of the criminal justice system, but you’re right that they’re only steps to a more fundamental change. Unfortunately, until the criminal justice system as a whole shifts away from the reliance on punishment and towards a model of rehabilitation and healing, the effectiveness of such programs will always be limited by the retraumatization inherent within punitive institutions.

  21. Ellie: This sounds like it was a very interesting topic to pursue throughout the past year, and I’m really impressed by how well you were able to articulate such a complex project into a compact presentation! I’m curious as to what inspired you to choose to focus your research on the prison system and the possibility of a trauma-informed model.

    1. Hi Emma! Thanks for your comment. I spent the past summer interning with the MA Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, and learned so much about survivor advocacy. When researching this population, something that stood out to me was the connection between domestic violence and incarceration. From there, I knew I wanted to analyze the intersection of these two spheres in order to understand how incarceration impacts survivors in particularly unique ways.

  22. Ellie! This is a stunningly simplified and graceful way of describing such a difficult topic. I am so impressed by the way you have not only analyzed theory and research but also conducted interviews of actual survivors. I am curious if you could share a bit about how this change could come about in the U.S. Would this overarching restorative model have to come from county officials, governors/state governments, or from the national/federal level?
    I am s proud of how much you have grown. Remember when we took the prison class together your sophomore year?

  23. Excellent presentation of a significant project that incorporated an impressive range of resources and perspectives. Well done…congrats and best of luck!

  24. Thank you so much for doing this work, Ellie! I wish I had talked to you about this sometime this year. This is such important work, work that’s needed urgently, and I’m really glad you had the chance to interview so many folks. Congrats! I’m proud of you!!

  25. You did such a great job with your IS and your presentation! You were able to succinctly explain a very complex and intricate topic in a very easy to understand way. I’m excited to see what’s next for you, and I know that you’re going to do amazing things!

  26. This is really interesting and important work, Ellie. How did you choose this project?

    1. Thanks for your comment Laura! I’ve been involved with survivor advocacy for a few years now, and spent this past summer interning with the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence. When choosing my topic, I knew I wanted to do something involving domestic violence, and while conducting research I began to see the ways in which the criminal justice system replicates dynamics of violence and abuse. Unfortunately, such violence is often ignored due to the ways in which we rely on these systems to secure “justice” and “safety.”

      The second half of my project, evaluating a widespread “trauma-informed” prison model, arose out of my frustration with the current criminal justice system, and I was so inspired by the advocates I interviewed who were already working to implement such policies within their organizations.

      1. You are an inspiration! Thanks for this important work you are doing, Ellie, and best wishes for an amazing future ahead.

  27. Ellie, Thank you for participating in the virtual IS Symposium and for sharing this very important work with the broader College community. Your presentation was extremely thought-provoking.

  28. Congratulations, Ellie! It’s amazing to see the bookends of your college career, from FYS to this incredible project. I wish you all the best!

  29. Congratulations, Ellie!!

    You are a wonderful human and your presentation was amazing. I am so proud of you and wish you all the best!

  30. Well done Ellie! This is really impressive and important work you’ve done, and you explained it so well. I’m so happy for you, and I can’t wait to see what great things you do in the future. Congrats! Much love ❤️

  31. Dear Ellie,
    WOW! What an impressive multidisciplinary and comprehensive study! I’m really proud of you and all you accomplished here. Thank you for concluding with a model for how to move forward (restorative justice). I will take a look at your comments on that above. I look forward to hearing about all you are doing in this next chapter.
    Congratulations!

  32. So sad I’m late to the party & can’t ask questions in real-time — this is such an important and timely topic & you’ve done a beautiful job researching it in such a thorough, feminist, and compassionate way. It is an honor to have worked with you in Jr. IS as you formulated your initial ideas. Congratulations on a job well done!!!!

  33. Thank you, Eliana, for shedding light on this topic. It is very much needed and I am glad this has been shared for all! Congratulations and I wish you the best!

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