Wrongful convictions happen every year in the United States. There were 139 exonerations in 2017 according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Exonerated individuals often face serious sentences for murder, sexual assault and drug crime charges.

Those wrongfully and rightfully convicted can face negative psychological effects of institutionalization. Inmates must develop coping mechanisms to deal with the demands of prison life. Even as free men and women, they may continue patterns of hyper-vigilance, distrust of others, over-control of emotion, emotional distancing, diminished self-worth and much more.

However, the psychological trauma of a wrongful conviction has been related to trauma suffered by war veterans, refugees and torture survivors. They experience a loss of dignity and control. The effects can change their lives and lives of their loved ones indefinitely. Many people who have been exonerated and released then face mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Wrongfully convicted women face unique challenges

Both men and women face major psychological consequences when wrongfully convicted and eventually freed into the world; but women endure unique issues. Women are often wrongfully convicted for murder (at 33 percent), child abuse (at 15 percent) and drug-related charges (at 12 percent). Many times women are convicted of crimes that have not been committed at all. For example, arson charges when a natural fire had taken place.

Wrongfully convicted women often must deal with the loss of a loved one, a lack of DNA evidence, stigmatization by the media and prosecutors, as well as unique medical and emotional needs. The prison system was originally created by men for men. Processes have evolved to consider female convicts, but issues still remain. Incarcerated women may have difficulty receiving gender-specific healthcare. Incarcerated women may also face neglect and sexual misconduct by male correctional staff, leaving many women feeling powerless and helpless.

Motherhood and beyond

The majority of women in prison are mothers and primary caregivers for their kids, meaning that wrongful incarceration has a huge impact of families. Ultimately, incarcerated women face the risk of losing their children to the foster care system, many losing their parental rights completely.

Many women have not yet been identified as wrongfully convicted and continue to fight for their innocence. These women and their families can contact attorneys to help them seek post-conviction relief. It is possible that exonerated women can come out the other side as stronger and better people. Victims of wrongful convictions have grown into leaders for criminal justice system reform with proper support and treatment.