Venezia “Venice” Michalsen likes to imagine a world without incarceration, or at the very least, a world where incarceration has been reduced in the United States—the world’s leading incarcerator.

Michalsen is an associate professor of justice studies at Montclair State University in New Jersey who spends a lot of her days thinking about what such a system would look like particularly for women. She teaches about gender and crime, human trafficking, and victimology. She’s also the author of a new book “Mothering and Desistance in Reentry,” which just came out in September.

On a recent episode of WNHH’s Criminal Justice Insider program with Babz Rawls-Ivy and Jeff Grant, the Hamden native said a system of less incarceration might look like one that has “gender-responsive programming.”

“Gender-responsive programming acknowledges that gender makes a difference,” she said. “We have to respond to women’s needs and strengths differently than we do for men. And within the criminal justice system and re-entry … we have to make it so that women’s needs are addressed differently.”

Michalsen said that trauma plays an important role in the criminal activity of women because they are far more likely than men to have experienced trauma as children—sexual trauma in particular. They’re also are far more likely than men to have childcare responsibilities. The offenses committed by women tend to complicate the narrative around who is the victim and who is the criminal.

“We dichotomize victims and criminals as two different things,” she said. “One is good and one is bad. The Survived and Punished project talks about this idea that there is no perfect victim. And to me what that means is we have to mesh together our idea of victim and criminal.”

She said most incarcerated women have experienced some form of trauma and likely have experienced it because of things like sexual assault or domestic violence. That trauma, she said, feeds what has become known as the “trauma to prison pipeline.”

Michalsen said that as stands now, the U.S. system of mass incarceration is one that further traumatizes people and not just the people who are locked up.

“The system is a complete and utter failure to the people who are incarcerated within it, to the workers working within it, to our families,” she said. “Correctional officers have a very difficult job because we have set up a system that traumatizes basically everyone. It dehumanizes the people incarcerated and it encourages people to dehumanize the people there.”

She teaches students who want to be corrections officers and police officers but … she thinks it is failing them too, especially those who go on to work in the private prison system where she said there is less training and less preparation. Michalsen said that results in more trauma for those who are incarcerated and those who work with the incarcerated.

People who work in the criminal justice system—correctional officers and police officers—are more likely to be involved in domestic violence, to commit suicide, engage in substance abuse and develop all kinds of mental health problems, she said.

“No one should be in a situation where they are dehumanizing someone else,” Michalsen said. “That doesn’t serve anyone.”

The Criminalization of Survival

Michalsen said that the Survived and Punished Project has found that as a society the girls’ survival strategies are criminalized. That means behaviors like running away or skipping school often introduce girls who are often traumatized when they are young into the criminal justice system. Such behaviors are often considered “status offenses” by the juvenile justice system. 

Instead of looking at this behavior as “these are bad kids” we should be recognizing that these children “are trying to survive in very, very difficult situations,” she said.

“Right now what we choose to do is punish those survival strategies,” she added. “And what we could be doing is noticing those survival strategies and empowering these girls …”

“And then redirect that energy and put in place at that entry point [an intervention] that can turn the tide,” Rawls Ivy finished. “They can use those skills in other ways because they’re good skills.”

“And protect them because they’re our children,” Michalsen said.