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Exploited First, Criminal Second: Women in Prison Are Surviving Lifetimes of Violence

Sexual exploitation. The words alone conjure up images of women being abducted, physically abused, trapped and forced into service by strangers.

But what the average person knows about this is just the tip of the iceberg. For example, in addition to violence, most abusers use psychological methods — tricking, manipulating or threatening women into providing commercial sex. And many women are exploited by romantic partners and family members. In fact, the abuser is often an intimate partner or the father of the woman’s children. Most women stay for complicated reasons, not because they’re held against their will. They may lack a safe place to live and many fear for their own and their children’s safety.

It’s important to understand what sexual exploitation is. A good definition comes from the World Health Organization: “Actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically.”

Survivors’ Stories

“While other kids were getting braces and sharing confidences about boys they liked, she was performing sex acts with multiple strangers in order to fulfill her role as the family caregiver.”

This is just one line from one woman’s story. The Women’s Prison Association (WPA) has written hundreds of letters on behalf of survivors of sexual exploitation. Why? To get them out of jail. WPA, which provides an alternative to incarceration for women who were exploited long before they were criminals, has been in operation for 175 years.

“We see survivors of sexual exploitation arrested and incarcerated for anything from petty larceny to murder. Incarcerated women often feel as though they had no choice in either committing the act or taking the blame for it because they have experienced and witnessed tremendous violence on the part of their abusers,” says Miriam Goodman, WPA’s director of alternatives to incarceration. “For many women, the person whom they fear, or who has hurt them, is also their intimate partner whom they love. This dynamic creates an extremely complicated situation for survivors.”

A Lifeline for the Sexually Exploited

WPA has a long history of working with sexually exploited women, making it one of the tentpoles in their practice in aiding and advocating for incarcerated women. “The reasons why women are exploited are nuanced, and we have the skills, training and empathy to connect with them, earn their trust, and work with them to redefine what safety looks like in their everyday lives,” says Georgia Lerner, executive director, WPA, noting that 20 percent of the women in WPA’s alternatives to incarceration program are survivors of sexual exploitation by its legal definition, and that nearly 90 percent of women who come to WPA report a history of trauma.

The non-profit uses an all-encompassing approach, from providing alternatives to prison sentences to offering ongoing support systems once they are released. The assistance it offers includes:

· Reviewing and adjusting charges: Specially trained case workers work with attorneys to negotiate with the district attorney and judge to reduce or dismiss charges — and associated jail time. This begins with legally identifying the woman as a sexual exploitation survivor. “You have to prove force, threats and coercion against her and/or her family,” notes Goodman.

· Assisting with post-traumatic testimony: “If you’re constantly mentally and physically abused to the point that you believe only your exploiter has worth — plus if he threatens to hurt or kill you — that’s obviously a traumatic experience,” says Goodman. “Trauma can impact memory, particularly linear memories, so WPA staff help survivors create timelines.”

· Offering a wealth of community resources: While a survivor is out in the community, WPA offers anything the woman might need, such as job training, substance use treatment, therapy and safe housing.

· Providing alternatives to incarceration: JusticeHome, a WPA home-based program, is designed to support women so they can stay in their communities rather than serving jail time. The JusticeHome team works with survivors to enhance their stability and overall wellbeing by addressing needs that might have contributed to their criminal legal system involvement.

“Supporting survivors with healing and growth can be challenging — and we are committed to providing patient and enduring partnership so that women can claim their freedom, safety and independence,” notes Lerner.

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