I wasn’t surprised to read that more than 2/3rds of incarcerated women have a history of mental health problems in this important new report: The Mental Health Crisis Facing Women in Prison; in fact I believe the rates are even higher. I am a former lifer whose incarceration was the direct result of nearly a decade of unacknowledged, undiagnosed and untreated sexual abuse. That man was my mother’s boyfriend, and I was his “special girl.” Because of his status in our family, I never mentioned the sexual trauma, which abruptly stopped (at the time, it felt like rejection) when I reached puberty. Years later, I had no cognitive memory of his abuse…until there were signs he was grooming another young girl to be his next victim.
In communities of color, the subject of sexual abuse is taboo and not discussed. Therefore, victims are literally forced to keep “secrets” bottled up inside. They have no clue how to process what has, and often continues to happen. Like me, they wonder if they are at fault. Because secrets are so deeply embedded in our souls, we often don’t possess the insight to understand the need to seek therapy; someone who might be able to walk us through the healing process. We are isolated and forced to create alternate personalities that we hope will keep us safe from further harm.
Through living over a decade in prison, I believe the disparity of mental illness is even greater than the study suggests. It’s been my experience that, when women get trapped in the criminal justice system, MOST come with untreated mental disorders, yet the cry for help is not being recognized or addressed. If treated at all, symptoms are generally medicated, which only masks the trauma, while life behind bars deepens the cycles that lead to crisis. It says something about our society that LA County Jail is the largest mental health provider in our state. Women suffering from sexual trauma and mental health disorders or substance abuse need safe spaces, medical treatment, family reunification, and economic opportunities, not strip searches, beatings, inadequate health care, and the isolation of incarceration.
It has taken many years of introspection for me to understand my experiences. With this insight comes resolve to release the secrets. Through my work at A New Way of Life, I help provide a space for other women exiting incarceration to speak up, own their narratives and create a space for healing.