Trauma hiding in plain view: the case for trauma informed practice in women’s prisons

Hannah McGlue
Principal Adviser Female Offenders, Programmes and Interventions, Service Development,
Department of Corrections

Author biography:
Hannah is the Principal Advisor, Female Offenders at the Department of Corrections where she is leading a strategy to improve outcomes for women in the corrections system. She completed a law degree and post graduate studies to become a barrister in England before commencing work for the Department in 2013. She started as a corrections officer at Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility and since then has worked in both strategic and operational policy roles at National Office.

“It just blows you away the lives they’ve led. It’s a testament to their strength that they’re still in the condition they’re in. They’re survivors and I guess they’ve been like that forever” – Corrections officer in a women’s prison in New Zealand

Criminal justice systems across the world have started to understand that men and women need to be managed on the basis of their different needs – what works for men, and what works for women (Barett, Allenby and Taylor, 2010, Government of South Australia 2014, Prison Service Order 4800 HM Prison Service 2008, Bloom, Owen and Covington 2003). Female offenders are different to male offenders and while this statement may be obvious, many jurisdictions have taken the same approach to managing women as they have with men, with not surprisingly, mixed outcomes. They need different interventions and respond to management and supervision in different ways (Wilton, 2012; Bevan & Wehipeihana, 2015; Wright, Van Voorhis, Salisbury & Bauman 2012). Working with female offenders to achieve change takes a particular skill set and a particular level of resilience.

This is a significant shift from the historic practice of women being an afterthought in system design. Policies, practices, processes and infrastructure have often been designed with men in mind.

Across the world, including in New Zealand, women typically make up 6% of the prison population and 20% of the community offender population. This means they aren’t just a slight minority, they are the significant minority. On the whole, women are in prison for less serious offences than men, are on shorter sentences and have a lower risk of re-offending. However, these trends are tracking in the wrong direction. The number of women managed by Corrections today is 69% higher than it was at the start of this decade. Recidivism is increasing, with more women starting a second sentence and unsurprisingly, this is mirrored in their risk of re-offending levels which have also shifted upwards.

A fresh focus on female offenders in New Zealand

Corrections has been working for many years to meet women’s needs and reduce their criminogenic risks. However, given recent trends, a fresh focus is being placed on female offenders.

To reduce women’s re-offending, Corrections is seeking to ensure that women have equitable access to services and interventions to meet their offending needs, and that women’s management is trauma informed, relational and empowering (Bevan & Wehipeihana, 2015).

Key to our approach is effective responses to women’s mental health issues, substance dependence and experiences of trauma. All of these are likely to be intertwined for women; substance dependence and mental health challenges are often linked to historic trauma. These issues play a significant role in the lives of women who offend, and impact on how they are managed within the system, especially in prison. We know that these issues are common across our entire offending population (Indig, Gear & Wilhem, 2016). The picture for women is bleaker in every category.

  • 52% of women in prison have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Recent Departmental research indicates that two thirds of women in prison in New Zealand have been   victims of family violence, rape and/or sexual assault
  • 75% of women in prison have diagnosed mental health problems
  • 62% of women have co-morbid mental health and substance disorders across their lifetime

This prevalence of trauma may explain some of the behaviours that are potentially misinterpreted by those working with the women: behaviours viewed as “manipulation”, “non-compliance” and “neediness.” The remainder of this paper provides a brief look at how trauma can affect individuals, how prison environments and culture can trigger re-traumatisation, and what effect trauma informed practice can have on women’s success in custodial environments.

Trauma: what is it and what does it do to you?

Recent research by Corrections suggests that around two thirds of women in prison have experienced family violence or sexual assault prior to their entry into prison (extracted data from Indig, Gear & Wilhem, 2016). Looking at all types of traumatic events, some international studies estimate that rates of trauma histories among women in prison are as high as 90% (Bloom, Owen & Covington, 2005; Wright et al 2012).

Trauma has a range of definitions, multiple causes, and varied responses depending on the individual. Trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being (SAMSHA, 2012). It can be caused in a range of ways, from physical or sexual assault to death of a loved one or loss of a job or a relationship. Historical trauma as a result of intergenerational poverty, racism or disenfranchisement is also an area with a growing body of research (Brave Hears, 2005). This is particularly relevant to New Zealand’s prison population where Māori are significantly overrepresented, even more so in the women’s prison estate.

The impact of trauma can be “subtle, insidious, or outright destructive” (SAMSHA, 2014), with many sufferers stuck in a constant state of extreme stress and self-protection. In real terms, trauma can have the following impacts:

  • Difficulty trusting, making it hard to establish close relationships
  • Negatively affected cognitive abilities
  • Undermined sense of safety causing counterproductive behaviour in an effort to regain control over their environment. Such behaviour could include self harm, defiance and aggression
  • Hypervigilance and fearfulness
  • Physical pain or illness symptomology
  • Emotional numbing, feeling nothing most of the time
  • Freezing when there is a present or perceived danger.

In a prison environment the impacts of trauma can be exemplified because many of the day-to-day occurrences in a prison can be perceived as threatening for trauma sufferers. Musters, loud noises, banging doors, shouting, confined spaces, control and restraint techniques, lack of privacy and body searches can all trigger responses for trauma sufferers, or profoundly retraumatise them (Benedict n.d.).

This means that many of the behaviours that staff in women’s prisons witness on a daily basis may be better understood and explained as the result of trauma, and not as women being “attention seeking”, or “non-compliant”. Building on the list above and making it directly relevant to the prison environment, these behaviours also include self harm, defiance, extreme emotional reactions and refusal or difficulty engaging positively with staff, other prisoners or in rehabilitative programmes because their trauma is a responsivity barrier (Benedict, n.d., Miller & Najavits, 2012.) The tendency of women in prison to form intense relationships and pseudo families with other prisoners has also been cited as common among women suffering from the on-going symptoms of trauma (Benedict, n.d.).

It is unsurprising that the connection between the trauma and the behaviour seen by prison staff goes unnoticed. This is not confined to prison services, and many different services have the potential to re-traumatise. The Manitoba Trauma Information and Education Centre states first and foremost that:

“Service organisations are confronted by the signs and symptoms of trauma every day and yet often fail to see it and make the necessary connections. Trauma hides in plain view. Every organisation and system has both the potential to re-traumatise and interfere with recovery and the potential to support healing.”

Trauma informed practice: what is it and how can it work in a prison?

Trauma informed practice is about taking the time to understand the reasons for women’s behaviour, and responding accordingly. Those responses seek to avoid causing further trauma.

Prisons are full of unavoidable triggers for trauma sufferers and institutional security will continue to be a primary function of prison staff. However, this does not mean that trauma informed practices cannot be introduced in a prison environment, and early evidence indicates wide ranging benefits for women in prison and prison staff.

A number of women’s prisons across the world have begun making their environments more trauma informed, and have started offering trauma specific services as well. There are examples across the USA where these new practices and services have been implemented, and England and Wales have taken some initial steps.

  • A prison service which is trauma informed should encompass the following:
  • Staff understand trauma, its prevalence and its effect in their environment. They have the skills to effectively and empathetically manage women suffering from trauma related symptoms.
  • The effect on staff of trauma exposure, and potential for vicarious trauma, is recognised and staff are given the help, support and training they need to avoid countertransference and burn out.
  • Triggering trauma reactions or retraumatising women is avoided through changing operational practices and cultures
  • Programmes and services are introduced to educate women on the effects of trauma, and help them cope with its effects.

By introducing these measures the women’s prisons have seen benefits for staff safety, prisoner safety and prisoner’s engagement in industry, treatment and learning. These benefits have included:

  • Improved attendance and participation in programmes and other interventions
  • Improved job satisfaction and staff morale for prison staff
  • Decreased prisoner on staff assaults, and prisoner on prisoner assaults
  • Decreased conflict between prisoners
  • Decreased suicide and self harm attempts
  • Decreased use of segregation
  • Decreased use of restraint
  • Decreased disciplinary charges.

(Benedict n.d., Miller & Najavits, 2012; Paterson, Uchigakiuchi & Bissen, 2013)

“Since the staff learned about trauma, they act differently. Some staff used to be hostile, but now they explain the rules calmly, they don’t yell. They take more pride in their jobs. It has changed their negative, judging attitudes to acceptance and understanding.”

Roberta, a prisoner at Women’s Community Correctional Centre, Hawai’i

To achieve these benefits, the prisons that have begun implementing trauma informed practice introduced a range of measures that included:

  • Significant training for all prison staff
  • Inclusion of women in strategic decisions
  • Increasing community outreach and engagement in prison life
  • Language changes
  • Increased access for women to their children and changes in the activities women undertook with their children during visits
  • Environmental change including increased grassy areas which replaced concrete yards and replacing “institutional colours” with bright colours and artwork.

(Benedict n.d., Miller & Najavits, 2012; Paterson, Uchigakiuchi & Bissen, 2013)

A step in the right direction for New Zealand

In New Zealand prisons we have already taken some significant steps to manage women according to their gender specific needs. Some trauma specific services are offered to women in prison, including counselling through ACC. In recognition of the high numbers of women in prison who are suffering from the ongoing effects of trauma, funding has recently been granted by the Justice Sector Fund to provide full time counsellors and social workers in women’s prisons, employed by Corrections. The counsellors will concentrate their time on delivering trauma specific services to those women in need. The social workers will dedicate their time to supporting and enhancing women’s wellbeing in prison, particularly women who are mothers.

“In the past we would see negative behaviour as simply a management issue; now we are looking more closely at the root causes of negative behaviour. This shift allowed us to break new ground and look at the impact of trauma on the behaviour of women”

Lynn Bissonnette, Superintendent, Massachusetts Corrections Institution at Farmingham

While the provision of trauma specific services is important for the women, the work done in these sessions will be most successful if it is supported by an all of prison commitment to trauma informed practice. Initial conversations have taken place, notably in the Southern Region, and as part of Service Development’s fresh focus on women, we have committed to the further investigation and eventual implementation of trauma informed practice in our women’s prisons. This work will be challenging and will require a culture shift in the way we work, but this commitment is a step in the right direction.


Benedict, A., (no date), Using Trauma Informed Practices to Enhance Safety and Security in Women’s Correctional Facilities, National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women, CORE Associates

Bevan, M., and Wehipeihana, N., (2015) Women’s Experiences of Reoffending and Rehabilitation, New Zealand Department of Corrections

Bloom, B., Owen, B., & Covington, S., (2005) A Summary of Research, Practice and Guiding Principles for Women Offenders, The Gender-Responsive Strategies Project: Approach and Findings, Washington, DC: National Institute of Corrections

Bloom, B., Owen, B., and Covington, S., (2003) Research, Practice and Guiding Principles for Women Offenders, US Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections

Brave Hears, M.Y.H., (April 22 2005) From intergenerational trauma to intergenerational healing, Keynote address at the Fifth Annual White Bison Wellbriety Conference, Dever, CO

Government of South Australia, (2014) Strong Foundations and Clear Pathways, Women Offender Framework and Action Plan, June 2014 – June 2019

Indig, D., Gear, C., and Wilhelm, K., Comorbid substance use disorders and mental health disorders among New Zealand prisoners, New Zealand Department of Corrections, 2016

Miller, N., and Najavits, L., (2012) Creating trauma informed correctional care: a balance of goals and environment, European Journal of Psychotraumatology

Patterson, M., Uchigakiuchi, P., and Bissen, T., (2013) Can Prison be a Place of Healing? The Trauma Informed Care Initiative at the Women’s Community Correctional Centre, Hülili: Multidisciplinary Research on Hawaiian Well-Being, Vol 9

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) (US), (2014) Trauma Informed Care in Behavioural Health Services, Treatment Improvement Protocol Series no 57, Rockville (MD), accessed at

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), (2012) SAMHSA’s working definition of trauma and principles and guidance for a trauma-informed approach. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Wilton, Z. (2012) What Works for Women in Offending Behaviour Treatment Programmes, A Rapid Evidence Literature Review, New Zealand Department of Corrections

Wright, E.M., Van Voorhis, P., Salisbury, E.J. and Bauman, A., (2012) Gender-Responsive Lessons Learned and Policy Implications for Women in Prison: A review, Criminal Justice and Behaviour, 30:1612