In the contemporary era of “tough on crime” policies and the globalized drug war, the number of women in the criminal justice system has increased across several countries. Women’s involvement in the system is not limited to imprisonment, however, and many criminalized women (those involved in the justice system with the assigned status of defendants, offenders, etc.) participate in community-based programs after serving sentences in prisons or jails or as an alternative to incarceration. Criminalized women encounter multiple interlocking forms of oppression based on sexuality, race and ethnicity, class, disability, immigration status, punishment status, and (importantly) gender. Gendered ideas and norms shape the way women are treated not only by the carceral state but also by community-based, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
NGOs have played an increasingly prominent role in the provision of social services since the 1970s. Organizations working with criminalized people in more affluent, English-speaking nations commonly address job readiness, psychological and substance issues, parenting, sexuality, romantic relationships, and spirituality, among other important areas. Some NGOs work with criminalized people as a condition of their criminal sentences. Criminalized women’s self-reported needs are great, yet resources are often scarce, inadequate, and unwelcoming, particularly for women of color. Responding to a dearth of services available to women, feminists formed NGOs focused on this population beginning in the 1970s; women are also served at NGOs that work with men. “Reducing offending” and “empowerment” are frequently stated goals at NGOs that work with women, but these goals can be interpreted widely depending on the views of NGO leadership and staff about gender.
NGOs can approach women’s gender in a variety of ways. For instance, they can resist or affirm the dominant views used by the carceral state that criminalize and stigmatize women. Their approaches matter because of the implications for equality of opportunities that follow. Two major philosophies can motivate the outreach that NGOs do with criminalized women. Gender sameness disregards gender differences and stresses that it is necessary to treat women “like men” to reverse the disadvantages and marginalization that women encounter. Gender difference emphasizes the importance of treating men or women based on their purportedly unique characteristics and social experiences. Much critical feminist research on NGOs that work with criminalized women has studied programs formed around ideas of gender difference.
Critical researchers have examined gender in organizational work with women outside of prisons, in community-based prisons run by NGOs, and in more traditional prisons. Researchers have examined practices at programs, the philosophies underpinning them, and their implications. This body of work shows that NGOs can perpetuate gendered exclusions and may expand the power of the carceral state. In their prescriptions for responding to the status quo, critical researchers make arguments along a spectrum from advocating more moderate social change, such as by creating more effective programs, to more radical social change, such as by ending community-based programs that perpetuate carceral control.