About Survivors In Prison

  • A 1999 study found that 82% of women at New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility had a childhood history of severe physical and/or sexual abuse and that 94% had suffered physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes.[i]
  • This study also found that 75% of the women had experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner during adulthood.[ii]
  • Nationwide, more than 57% of women in state prisons and 55% of women in local jails report having been physically and/or sexually abused in the past.[iii]
  • 61% of female state inmates with histories of abuse and 67% of female jail inmates with histories of abuse report that the abuse was perpetrated by an intimate partner.[iv]
  • The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that more than 37% of women in state prisons have been raped before their incarceration.[v]
  • The Bureau also reports that women prisoners are at least three times more likely than male prisoners to have been physically or sexually abused in their past.[vi]
  • Women in prison are at least twice as likely as women in the general public to report childhood histories of physical or sexual abuse.[vii]
  • A 1996 government study found that 93% of women convicted of killing an intimate partner had been physically or sexually abused by an intimate partner during adulthood.[viii]
  • The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision found that 67% of women sent to prison in 2005 for killing someone close to them were abused by the victim of their crime.[ix]
  • Another study of women in Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail, found that most of the survivors interviewed reported engaging in illegal activity in response to experiences of abuse, the threat of violence, or coercion by a male partner.[x]
  • Another study found that of 525 abused women at a mental health center who had committed at least one crime, nearly half had been coerced into committing crimes by their batterers as “part of a structural sequence of actions in a climate of terror and diminished, violated sense of self.”[xi]
  • Counseling programs that assist women deal with issues surrounding abuse have proven to reduce recidivism rates: women jail inmates participating in the TAMAR Project in Maryland, for example, had a recidivism rate of less than 3%.[xii]
  • Women who participated for more than six months in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility’s Family Violence Program have a significantly lower recidivism rate than non-participants.[xiii]
  • 84% of women sent to prison for violent felony offenses in 2008 were first time felony offenders.[xiv]
  • Survivors of violence incarcerated for defending themselves against abusers pose little threat to public safety: they have extremely low rates of recidivism, and, most often, no criminal records and no history of violence other than the offense for which they are in prison.[xv]
  • Of the 38 women convicted of murder and released between 1985 and 2003, not a single one returned to prison for a new crime within a 36-month period of release – a 0% recidivism rate.[xvi]
  • Of the total number of women sent to prison in 1980 for a violent felony offense, only about 9% were convicted of another violent felony after their release.[xvii]


[i]  Browne, Miller and Maguin, Prevalence and Severity of Lifetime Physical and Sexual Victimization Among Incarcerated Women, in International Journal of Law & Psychiatry 22 (3-4) (1999).

[ii]  Id.

[iii]  Prior Abuse Reported by Inmates and Probationers, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice (April 1999), at 2 (hereinafter Prior Abuse Reported by Inmates and Probationers), and Doris J. James, Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice (July 2004), at 10.

[iv] Id.

[v] Prior Abuse Reported by Inmates and Probationers, at 2.

[vi]  Survey of State Inmates, 1991, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice (May 1993), at 6.

[vii] Prior Abuse Reported by Inmates and Probationers, at 1.

[viii]  This study found that “[t]he vast amount of harm experienced” by the women interviewed for the study “reinforces the importance of intervention programs for incarcerated women.”  Homicide by Women, New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services (June 1996), at 8 and 19.

[ix] “Among the 36 women committed for a homicide in 2005, in which the victim-offender relationship was able to be determined, 12 (33%) killed someone they were close to, other than their children…[and] 8 of these women (67%) had experienced prior abuse at the hand of the victim.” Female Homicide Commitments: 1986 vs. 2005, New York State Department of Correctional Services (July 2007), at 14.

[x] 32 survivors were interviewed.  Beth E. Richie, Compelled to Crime: The Gender Entrapment of Battered Black Women (New York: Routledge Press, 1996).

[xi] Marti Tamm Loring & Pati Beaudoin, Battered Women As Coerced Victim-Perpetrators, 2J. Emotional Abuse 3, at 13 (2000).  The authors of this study are clinicians based in Atlanta, Georgia.

[xii] The Trauma, Addiction, Mental Health, and Recovery (TAMAR) Project provides “integrated, trauma-oriented services for women with mental illness and co-occurring substance abuse disorders” in local jails in Maryland.  Report of the Reentry Policy Council: Charting the Safe and Successful Return of Prisoners to the Community, Reentry Policy Council, at 522.

[xiii]  This DOCS report tracked rates of return to state prison for the 220 women who participated in the Family Violence Program from 1988 to 1994 and were released to the community.  Participants’ recidivism rate was just over 10% versus nearly 24% for non-participants.  Kathy Canestrani, Follow-up Study of Bedford Hills Family Violence Program, New York State Department of Correctional Services Research Unit (1994), at 4.

[xiv] “Table 1C: Crime by Predicate Felony Status By Gender,” 2008 New Court Commitments to NYSDOCS, New York State Department of Correctional Services.  As of January 2008, just under 82% of women under custody for violent felony offenses were first felony offenders.  “Table 4A: Crime by Predicate Felony Status by Gender.”

[xv]  Statistics related to the numbers of people incarcerated for committing crimes as a result of abuse are not currently tracked by government agencies.  Although exact statistics do not exist, programs serving currently and formerly incarcerated survivors report that survivors rarely have histories of violent criminal behavior and most often do not recidivate after release.  For example, of women sent to prison for violent felony offenses in 2008, 84% were first time felony offenders.  “Table 1C: Crime by Predicate Felony Status By Gender,” 2008 New Court Commitments to NYSDOCS, New York State Department of Correctional Services.

[xvi]  Testimony on Behalf of the Alliance for Rational Parole Policies, Testimony Before the New York State Senate Standing Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Correction, January 15, 2008.

[xvii] New York State Division of Criminal Justice Statistics, DCJS Computerized Criminal History System, data based on persons sent to prison from January 1 through December 31, 2006.