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Keywords:

  • interpersonal violence;
  • incarceration;
  • gender;
  • trauma;
  • jail

With the rate of women's incarceration significantly outpacing that of men's, combined with the fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, there is an urgent need to delineate incarcerated women's pathways to crime and subsequent service needs. This article reports findings of modified participant observation and qualitative research conducted from 2008 to 2010 with women incarcerated in a large, county jail in North Carolina addressing these issues. Thirty life history interviews, nine focus groups, and 60 questionnaires reveal the centrality of trauma, particularly in the form of interpersonal violence (i.e., sexual, physical, and/or emotional abuse in adulthood and/or childhood), in incarcerated women's lives. In the absence of positive resources (e.g., counseling, family/friend support), women's attempts to cope with trauma increase their risks for incarceration as well as further trauma. In addition to providing trauma-based treatment, decreasing women's recidivism requires macro-level examinations of policies that marginalize women economically and socially.