Women incarcerated at Oregon’s Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville by an overwhelming number have been abused throughout their lives and were in abusive relationships at the time of their arrest, according to a report released Aug. 7.
The results of surveys support anecdotal accounts that advocates hear when working in female prisons and, the report said, showed health in prisons needs more emphasis.
“Criminal systems were not designed with women in mind and there is often little to no consideration by decisionmakers and stakeholders of how women experience the system,” the report stated.
The data comes from the Oregon Justice Resource Center, which partnered with Portland State University to develop two surveys. They were then given out to the Coffee Creek inmates in 2017 and 2018 with the support of the Oregon Department of Corrections.
Researchers focused on how abusive relationships at the time of arrest correlated to an inmate’s incarceration and on past traumas.
The first survey polled 142 inmates and the second 66 inmates. In February, the facility held 1,221 inmates, according to the report.
Bobbin Singh, executive director of Oregon Justice Resource Center, said the low number means the results are not “statistically significant.” However, PSU researchers concluded the surveys were accurate enough to show significant trends of how women interact with the criminal justice system. Singh said he isn’t aware of this specific sort of research ever being done in the U.S.
Of the 142 women surveyed, 65% were in an abusive relationship when they were arrested and 69% said trauma led to their involvement in the justice system.
Jennifer Black, spokeswoman for DOC, said the department has been conducting independent health services reviews for decades, and is accredited by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.
“All 14 of our institutions meet nationally accepted standards of health care,” Black said in a statement. “NCCHC audits DOC institutions with independent survey teams that are comprised of experienced physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals.”
The women told researchers that they stole to support their male partner’s drug habits, or because they were scared of them. They also said they received more punishment than their partners.
The second survey showed that women in Coffee Creek had been dealing with abuse all their lives. Of the 66 surveyed, 68% said they were physically abused as a child, and 82% were emotionally abused. Seventy-five percent said they were sexually abused as a child. In adulthood, the numbers remained high. More than half said they were sexually abused, 85% were physically abused and 92% reported emotional abuse.
“The numbers are just profound,” Singh said.
Many said they experienced additional forms of trauma through witnessing suicides and overdoses.
“My ex-husband was very sexually and emotionally abusive,” one woman told researchers. “He encouraged my addiction to amphetamines and pressured me into sexually abusing my daughter with him. I was afraid of him. I thought I was saving my daughter’s life.”
Singh said when the system fails to appropriately rehabilitate the women, they will fall into the same cycle of abuse when released. The report suggested the state start trauma counseling and domestic violence support groups and provide more education and workplace training programs.
Singh said the Oregon system is punishing women for reacting to decades of trauma.
“This is not what our criminal justice system should be used for,” he said.
He said state corrections officials should instead look at mass incarceration through a public health lens, rather than a punishment one.
“The combination of what you’re seeing is there’s a lot of individuals in just very terrible circumstances that are coming in contact with the criminal justice system because of those circumstances,” Singh said.
Black said DOC understands the needs of women in its custody, and will consider the reports findings.
“The department will need time to fully review and assess the survey results and determine any appropriate action,” Black said. “We have a good working relationship with Oregon Justice Resource Center, and we will continue to have conversations with them regarding the wellbeing of all adults in our care and custody.”