Coming Back to Jail

Women, Trauma, and Criminalization

By Elizabeth Comack  

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Published some two decades ago, Elizabeth Comack’s Women in Trouble explored the connections between the women’s abuse histories and their law violations as well as their experience of imprisonment in an aged facility. What has changed for incarcerated women in those twenty years? Are experiences of abuse continuing to have an impact on the lives of criminalized women? How do women find the experience of imprisonment in a new facility?

Drawing on the stories of forty-two incarcerated women, Coming Back to Jail broadens the focus to examine the role of trauma in the women’s lives. Resisting the popular move to understand trauma in psychiatric terms — as post-traumatic stress disorder (ptsd) — the book frames trauma as “lived experience” and locates the women’s lives within the context of a settler-colonial, capitalist, patriarchal society. Doing so enables a better appreciation of the social conditions that produce trauma and the problems, conflicts and dilemmas that bring women into the criminal justice net.

In Coming Back to Jail, Comack shows how — despite recent moves to be more “gender responsive” — the prisoning of women is ultimately more punishing than empowering. What is more, because the sources of the women’s trauma reside in the systemic processes that have contoured their lives and their communities, true healing will require changing women’s social circumstances on the outside so they no longer keep coming back to jail.

“This is a superb book. At the theoretical level it breaks new ground in linking aboriginality, gender and incarceration. Empirically, through in-depth interviews with forty-two female prisoners, Comack shows how the womens’ traumatic experiences — abuse, racism, misogyny — framed their lives. This book should be required reading for politicians, activists, scholars and students.”

— Laureen Snider, Queen’s University

Elizabeth Comack has produced yet another insightful book. The women’s personal stories and Comack’s feminist anti-colonial analysis illuminate the ‘justice’ system as an institutional apparatus of the colonial state that is thoroughly infused with biases toward Indigenous and impoverished people and with patriarchal biases towards women — a system that individualizes the experiences of its captives so as to avoid addressing systemic inequalities. It is no wonder that once enmeshed in this system, women are likely to keep ;coming back to jail.’”

— Joyce Green, University of Regina

  • PDF
  • ISBN: 9781773634678
  • January 2021
  • $28.99
  • For sale worldwide

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  • “…women should not be forced into contexts that punish but do not rehabilitate, and that replicate the deep structural processes of colonial and patriarchal power in Indigenous lives.”

    — Joyce Green for Herizons Magazine (full review)


  • Women in Trouble
  • Understanding Trauma
  • Colonialism, Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Trauma
  • The Lived Experience of Trauma
  • Involvement with the Criminal Justice System
  • The Prisoning of Women
  • Making Change
  • Appendix: The Research Process
  • References
  • Index


  • Elizabeth Comack

    University of Manitoba

    Elizabeth Comack is a Distinguished Professor Emerita in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Manitoba. Over the past four decades she has written and conducted research on a variety of social justice topics. Her most recent book is Coming Back to Jail: Women, Trauma, and Criminalization. Elizabeth’s current research projects stem from her involvement in the Manitoba Research Alliance, a large consortium of academics and community partners engaged in SSHRC-funded research that addresses poverty in Indigenous and inner-city communities, and with Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, which is conducting a project entitled “Meeting Survivors’ Needs: Gender-Based Violence and the Criminal Justice System in Inuit Nunangat.”

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