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Trauma to Prison Pipeline


Turn your wounds into wisdom. ~Oprah Winfrey

Did you know that trauma can be a funnel to prison for black girls? Unfortunately, many black girls who experience trauma are not receiving the needed assistance. Rather than receiving appropriate mental health support, they are criminalized. Imagine being a black girl dealing with trauma. You don’t know how to handle it, so you develop coping mechanisms. You decide that you will protect yourself from further harm, so you develop aggressive behaviors, run away, or engage in substance abuse. Unfortunately, this is the life of many young black girls.


Even more depressing is that these coping mechanisms are criminalized. So now, black girls are not only dealing with trauma but with excessive discipline and the juvenile justice system. They are now being punished for their trauma. Unfortunately, for many black girls, it starts when they are in school. They are pushed out of classrooms into the juvenile justice system. It begins with suspensions which are more frequent for black girls than their peers. They are often seen as disrespectful or loud. They are punished for minuscule behaviors, such as speaking out of turn or being loud in the hallways. Because they are seen as less innocent (adultification), they receive punishment rather than support. The severe disciplinary measures are life-altering. Over time they start to lose valuable learning time. Eventually, they drop out and begin to engage in criminal activity.


Healing from trauma is a dire need in the black community. Unfortunately, black girls have limited access to healing resources. As we all know, our brain is wired to protect us from real or perceived danger. Coping mechanisms can look like criminal offenses. For example, running away to escape an abuser, stealing food to support themselves and their family, and substance abuse to deal with the violence going on within the home can all be perceived as crimes. The resources are not available for them to figure out how the trauma in their life is contributing to the offenses. Rather than providing help, it is often assumed that they are the problem, not the trauma. As a community, we must start recognizing problem behaviors that are trauma responses. In addition, we must acknowledge racism and sexism in the lived experiences of black girls. Minor criminal offenses lead to more severe criminal offenses and, in many situations, prison.


Addressing trauma in black girls is one area with a sense of urgency. As a black woman, I have daily conversations about how trauma has impacted my life. In my situation and for many other black women, trauma wasn’t acknowledged until we were adults. Once we identified it as trauma, we began the healing process. Imagine if we started helping black girls earlier. They wouldn’t have to wait until adulthood to start the healing process. Childhood trauma is a strong indicator of future success. We must do better in providing support. And for those who dismiss trauma responses as just negative behaviors…Slay What Ya Hear! It goes much deeper!

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