“The Only One” Working With Incarcerated Women

Incarcerated womanSadly, the story is frequently the same when working with women in the prison setting.  Regardless of the crime, from drug crimes to violent crimes, the story told by incarcerated women is one filled with trauma.  I had been in private practice for over 10 years before we brought our Peaceful Families Program to the only prison in Kansas for women. I am trained in EMDR, I have worked with troubled kids for several decades.  I am no stranger to trauma.  However, entering the women’s prison was different.  The experiences that incarcerated women have had in their lives often takes trauma to a new level.  

Sadly, in working with these women, I am often told, “Steve, you are the only one.”  It is hard for me to imagine, but I believe them.  In our trauma-focused program, we create a space where women are invited to tell their story.  It takes time, and we go slow, but at some point, these women often arrive at a point where they say, “I have never told anyone this before, but….”.  Using this statement as an entry point, the story that follows is often a painful description of cruelty that was experienced at the hands of a man.  Sexual abuse by mother’s boyfriend, or physical abuse by a stepfather, leaving home at an early age to escape cruelty only to land in a relationship filled with domestic violence.  The stories can describe being tortured, being forced to engage in criminal activity, being sold as a sexual object, killing their abusive partner, and on and on. These stories are the norm among incarcerated women.

The day that all women are safe from men will find very few women in prison.

When I first meet the women at the beginning of our program, they often are unwilling to simply sit beside me.  It is not unusual for them to avoid looking at me. Sometimes they muster up the courage to tell me that they do not like men, and they that they don’t trust me.  Their life experiences have taught them that they should be afraid of me.  I tell the women that I intend to be trusted and I am going to work very hard to show them that they are safe with me.  Of course, they have heard that from men before.

As the class progresses, there are times when I tear up as engage in conversations that are particularly emotional.  Women frequently comment that I am the first man that they have ever seen cry.  They look at me in disbelief, as they were literally not aware that men could do that.

At the end of our six-month program, there is almost always at least one woman who will say, “Steve, you are the only man in my life who has not hurt me. Thanks for letting me know that men can be safe.”  Of course, there are plenty of safe men in the world: I am far from the only one.  However, for that woman, in that prison, I was saddened and honored to be “the only one”.  The day that all women are safe from men will find very few women in prison.  Our world can never be right as long there are women who can say, “you’re the only one”.

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