Methods: This study analyzed transcribed interviews conducted with 79 women incarcerated in a southeastern US prison using the Women’s Risk Needs Assessment, a classification tool used to assign security levels and identify needs related to mental health, substance use, trauma, employment, housing, and relationships. The present study focuses on women’s responses to questions regarding their perceptions of how their crime impacted others and whether they had been treated fairly by the justice system. Researchers analyzed the transcripts and coded relevant information into themes/codes.
Results: Analysis identified seven reoccurring themes in the interviews, which fall along a continuum that links perceptions of fairness and culpability. At one end of the fairness continuum, women talked about the justice system as inherently unfair and operating with impunity. At the other end of this continuum, women described their experience with the justice system to be fair and in accordance with their culpability for engaging in criminal behavior. Between these two ends of the continuum, women expressed five degrees of how fair they perceived the system to be and how culpable they were regarding their positionality within it. In keeping with research that has established relationships as central to women’s lawbreaking, these five perceptions included:  low culpability relative to co-defendants who unfairly received lesser charges;  uncertainty regarding fairness due to lack of knowledge about how the system works and pressures from criminal justice professionals and/or co-defendants into admitting culpability;  simultaneous acknowledgement of culpability and systemic unfairness in instances where a woman acted in self-defense against an abuser;  fairness relative to the experiences of other similarly culpable incarcerated women;  fairness due to taking culpability for a loved one’s crime.
Conclusions/Implications: Incarceration is a traumatic experience and believing that the system is inherently unfair exponentially adds to this trauma. Social workers can use this information regarding perceived fairness to tailor their interactions with women in prison by:  acknowledging that while the system is not always fair, a strengths-based approach can help currently or formerly incarcerated women to self-actualize by acknowledging the inner resources and support systems they mobilized to survive incarceration;  asking women to recount their trauma only when it is clinically necessary for placement in programming rather than a default expectation of services provision or therapeutic group participation;  and to better explain how the system works and how women can navigate through it effectively.