Methods: Twenty-five adult women were interviewed in a rural county jail in the southeastern United States. The researcher used a semi-structured interview questionnaire to engage with women about their lives. Many questions focused on experiences that have been associated with criminal legal involvement within the literature, i.e. demographic information, education, employment, mental health, substance use, and adult and childhood trauma. Each interview transcript was entered into an NVivo software program and, using phenomenology as a guiding method, coded initially by “significant statements” (Creswell, 2013). These significant statements were then collected into what Creswell (2013) refers to as “clusters of meaning” and coded accordingly.
Results: The reoccurring themes that emerged from the researchers’ coding of the transcripts included: assault, death of a loved one, foster care, illegal activities, parental involvement/neglect, substance use, and other adverse events. These themes are consistent with previous literature and also provide a more holistic picture of the traumatic childhood experiences that women in jail have endured.
Conclusions and Implications: These findings present an opportunity for the criminal legal system and collaborating social work entities to be more mindful of childhood trauma when arresting, jailing, and sentencing women. Giving women who have gone through traumatic childhood experiences other options when possible, such as diversion programming and trauma-informed treatment, could provide them with opportunities to heal from the trauma and remain in the community. These findings also suggest that there is not only a need for trauma-informed intervention programs for women in jail, but for adolescent women and girls who have experienced childhood trauma. This type of holistic trauma-informed care, led by social workers and other related social service providers both inside and outside of the criminal legal system, could potentially decrease the numbers of women with histories of childhood trauma from entering into and returning to the system where they are unlikely to receive the support that they truly need.