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date: 29 November 2022

Incarcerated Womenfree

Incarcerated Womenfree

  • Patricia O’BrienPatricia O’BrienJane Addams College of Social Work, University of Illinois at Chicago


This article summarizes the incidence of women in the United States who have been sentenced to prison as a consequence of a felony conviction for violation of state or federal laws. It also describes their characteristics and co-occurring health conditions; issues that contribute to women’s experiences after release from prison, including those that lead to success and failure during re-entry; and gendered practices and policies that provide alternatives to incarceration.


  • Criminal Justice
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Poverty
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Culture
  • Social Justice and Human Rights

Historical Context of Incarcerated Women

Except for sensational stories and destitute girls in the streets, crime in the 19th century was men’s business. When individual women were found either mad or bad, they were housed in facilities constructed for and supervised by men. Horrific conditions and sexual and physical abuse by both male inmates and male guards led finally to the establishment of Mount Pleasant Women’s Prison in 1870 on the grounds of the Sing Sing men’s prison in Ossining, New York (Freedman, 1984).

Early 20th-century social reformers (including Elizabeth Fry in the United Kingdom) inspired women to crusade for better conditions in early U.S. prisons. Fry argued that women offenders were capable of reform and that it was the responsibility of community women to assist those who had fallen victim to a deviant lifestyle or disreputable behavior—most often related to sexual conduct. Many of the early reformers came from upper- and middle-class backgrounds, and the efforts of these reformers led to significant changes in the incarceration of women, including the development of separate institutions for women (Freedman, 1984).

Opening in 1873, the Indiana Women’s Prison is identified as the first stand-alone prison for women in the United States, with 16 inmates. By 1940, 23 states had facilities designed exclusively to house female inmates. Freedman’s (1984) history of women’s prisons describes two different models: reformatories and custodial institutions, both most often racially segregated. The reformatory was designed to rehabilitate women. Women were held for indeterminate sentences until they were deemed to be reformed—corrected of their “lewd and lascivious conduct” and other unladylike behaviors. Women sent to the reformatories were most likely to be white, working-class women. Although reformatories were more comfortable than custodial facilities and were the first to provide some remedial treatment for incarcerated women, their rehabilitative efforts have been criticized by feminist scholars as an example of patriarchy at its finest, because women were punished for violating the social expectations of true womanhood (Rafter, 1990). In addition, as Britton (2003) describes, rehabilitation was to be effected by a specifically feminine program of discipline—such as training in cooking, sewing, and religion to “foster both piety and domesticity” (p. 38).

In comparison, custodial institutions were similar in design and philosophy to male institutions. Here, women were simply warehoused, and little programming was offered to the inmates. Women in custodial institutions were more often convicted of property crimes, and custodial institutions were more likely to house women of color (Freedman, 1984). In addition, black women were sent to work on penal plantations under conditions that mimicked those of enslavement. Prison conditions for women at custodial institutions were characterized by unsanitary living environments with inadequate plumbing, work conditions that were dominated by physical labor and corporal punishment, a lack of medical treatment, and solitary confinement for women with mental health disorders (Rafter, 1990).

Freedman (1984) argues that the initial early underuse of prisons for women related to women’s lesser status within the public sphere. As women left the private sphere, where they were more tightly controlled by social norms, and entered a growing urban landscape, they were at greater risk of being perceived as members of a dangerous class prone to not only sexual deviance but also to crimes of passion and violence.

One of the most successful reformatories during this time frame was the Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI) in Framington. Opened in 1877, Framington possessed a number of unique characteristics, including an all-female staff, an inmate nursery that allowed incarcerated women to remain with their infants while they served their sentences, and an on-site hospital to address the inmates’ health care needs. Additionally, several activities were provided to give women opportunities to increase their self-esteem, gain an education, and develop a positive quality of life during their sentence (Rathbone, 2006).

Today, most states have at least one facility dedicated to a growing population of criminalized women. In many cases, these are located in remote areas of the state, far from the cities where most of the women were arrested and where their families reside. The distance between an incarcerated woman and her family plays a significant role in the ways in which she copes with her incarceration and can affect her progress toward rehabilitation and a successful reintegration after release.

Contemporary Issues: Build-up of Incarcerated Women in Prison Nation.

Over the final quarter of the 20th century, U.S. criminal-justice policies underwent a period of harsh transformation in response to get-tough correctional policies and punitive responses to drug use. Draconian sentencing laws led to an unprecedented increase in jail and prison populations and drove the U.S. rate of incarceration beyond that of any other developed country.

Beginning in 1980, there was increased attention to women in the criminal legal system. Initially, the bulk of offenses were primarily property (typically shoplifting and fraud) and public-order offenses. Then, in what Richie (2012) refers to as the buildup of prison nation, the sharp increases in arrests and prison sentences for both women and men were driven by the implementation of mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession and accessory trafficking charges. Scholars also began documenting gender differences in how charges were made and prosecuted, differential histories leading to incarceration, and differential needs during incarceration and after release (Bloom, Owen, & Covington, 2004).

These harsher prison sentences for low-level drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes quickly resulted in a sevenfold increase in the number of incarcerated women, growing at a faster rate than that of men year by year (Sentencing Project, 2012). Table 1 documents this increase as estimated by the Bureau of Justice Statistics up to the most recent enumeration from 1980 to year-end 2010 (Guerino, Harrison, & Sabol, 2011). There was a slight decline (1.3%) between year-end 2010 and year-end 2011 of incarcerated women in state and federal prisons in the U.S. Females comprised 6.7% of the total prisoner population (Carson & Sabol, 2012).

Table 1 Women Prisoners Under the Jurisdiction of State or Federal Correctional Authorities, 1980–2010


Number of women prisoners








112, 867

Note. Jurisdiction refers to the legal authority of state or federal correctional officials over a prisoner.

Source: Guerino, P., Harrison, P. M., & Sabol, W. (2011).

Characteristics of Incarcerated Women—Types of Offenses

The question of whether the increased number of incarcerated women reflects actual involvement in more criminalized activities or changes in arrest, conviction, and sentencing policies and practices has received increased attention from scholars and advocates. The 1970s saw an increase in claims that “liberation” led to women’s deviant behaviors (see Adler, 1975 for example). Other authors contended that arrests occurred in categories more traditionally female, such as shoplifting, prostitution, and check fraud (Steffensmeier, 1980). In an era characterized by increasingly punitive and racially targeted policing and prosecution, the major driver for the increase in women’s incarceration has been the drug war. According to an FBI report, between 1995 and 2004, arrests of adult women for drug offenses rose by 48%, compared to 23% growth for men (FBI, 2004).

A disturbing trend among women that mirrors that of incarcerated men over this build-up period is the disproportional percentage of black and Hispanic (Latina) women who are incarcerated relative to their proportion in the general population According to the 2010 census, African American women are 13.6% of the total U.S. population, yet at the end of 2011, they constituted 25% of all women prisoners. Hispanic women are 16.7% of the U.S. population, but by the end 2011, they constituted 17.4% of all women prisoners.

Explaining some of this disproportionality, African Americans have historically borne the burden of far harsher federal sentences for crack-cocaine offenses (more often charged to African Americans) compared to powder-cocaine offenses (more often charged to white Americans). The Fair Sentencing Act, passed in August 2010, partially reduced these sentencing disparities, although, the Act was not explicitly retroactive for those already incarcerated. The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to make the new guidelines retroactive (Schwartz, 2011) rendering many more inmates eligible for reduced sentences and immediate release. In addition to incarceration for state and federal felony crimes, at year end 2010, 3,864 “noncitizen” women were held in federal custody; they are more likely to be poor and of color (Guerino, Harrison, & Sabol, 2011).

The literature devoted to the analysis of women in the criminal legal system concludes that women’s pathways into crime differ from those of men, identifying four major themes to describe the etiology of women’s criminal behaviors and their personal and social problems (Gilfus, 2011). First, most women in prisons come from urban neighborhoods that are entrenched in poverty and limited in viable systems of social support. A Bureau of Justice Statistics report (Greenfeld & Snell, 1999) found that only 40% of women had been employed prior to incarceration; more than one third had been living on less than $600 per month and were dependent on welfare assistance.

A second theme is the alarmingly large number of incarcerated women who have experienced very serious physical and/or sexual abuse, often commencing at a young age and continuing into adulthood. Third, incarcerated women experience a high level of physical and mental health problems as well as substance-abuse issues. Often, these problems are combined and compounded into what Meyer, Springer, and Altice (2011) describe as a syndemic (involving one or more epidemics) of mental and physical health issues. Finally, the great majority of women who have experienced incarceration are mothers. Moreover, they are far more likely than men in the criminal legal system to be the sole support and caregiver for their children.

The Economics of Female Crime

While poverty does not cause crime, it provides a context that many would argue contributes to women’s criminalization, most specifically as related to taking risks to meet their basic needs. Compared with both developed and transitional nation economies, the United States has the highest poverty rate for female-headed households and the largest gender gap related to poverty, both of which are linked to family structure and occupational sex segregation (Pressman, 2003). Since the end of the 20th century, public welfare has transitioned from financial assistance for family support to time-limited work expectations with wages that are too low to move families out of poverty (Abramovitz, 2006). The negative impact of these policies on formerly incarcerated women is exacerbated by the stigma of a criminal record and a lack of job experience prior to incarceration. Incarcerated women are predominantly poor, with little education and few employment options; most were either unemployed or receiving public assistance prior to their arrests (Greenfield & Snell, 1999). A study of women in Cook County Jail in Illinois (Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, 2002) found that more than half of the detained women were homeless and unemployed prior to their arrests (mostly for nonviolent offenses) and one-third relied on prostitution for income. Twenty-nine percent of the women had recently lost or been denied government assistance.

Carlen’s (1988) ethnographic study of 39 incarcerated women in Great Britain found that their drift into crime evolved when they perceived a possibility for financial gain that reinforced a lifestyle more satisfying than that offered by conventional labor. The inequalities stemming from class, gender, and race combined to criminalize social identities that operated to keep women entrapped in a cycle of impoverishment and criminalization. Chesney-Lind (2004) argues that most women of color entering the criminal legal system come from economically distressed communities lacking in social supports. Much of the drug abuse that characterizes these women’s involvement in criminal behavior is understood as “self-medication” used to ease the pain and suffering brought about by the circumstances of their life histories. The flood of crack cocaine that hit urban areas such as New York City in the late 1980s served to increase women’s involvement in street-level prostitution, a mainstay survival strategy for women addicts, along with low-level drug dealing and petty property crimes. Jurik (1983) also investigated the effect of economic incentives focusing on the re-arrest rates of 125 women released from prison. Her study was culled from a larger study designed around the premise that individuals steal largely out of economic need. Findings supported the expectation that unemployment compensation and employment are negatively associated with re-arrests for economic crimes. These studies implicate poverty as a critical factor in women’s criminalization and incarceration.

Poverty is also a factor in recidivism. Multiple studies on recidivism show that offenders are less likely to recidivate if they gain employment after release. Reisig, Holfreter, and Morash (2002) documented that better-educated women with higher incomes are members of larger social networks, which positively influences re-integration after release from prison. Employment is a necessary correlate of success after release from prison for its positive social meaning, its frequent indicator of parole success, and the instrumental good of gaining income for self-and family support.

Victimization to Incarceration

Many scholars have examined the characteristics of incarcerated women for what are considered “pathways” that increase the risk for women to engage in the behaviors that bring them to the attention of the system and eventually, in a context of decreasing services and greater focus on punishment, to a prison cell. The recognition that women “look different” than men in terms of their offenses, background characteristics, and gendered needs has been useful for identifying different correctional strategies in classification, location, and programming. A consistent empirical finding linking these pathways is the strong association between experience of abuse and involvement in the criminal legal system.

The relationship between violent physical and sexual abuse and women’s incarceration has been traced by Browne, Miller, and Maguin (1999), who find high rates of women in prison with histories of abuse. They report strong associations between histories of childhood sexual abuse and violence and subsequent problems such as alcohol and drug abuse, involvement in prostitution, involvement with violent intimates who are involved in other criminal activities, and arrests for criminal offenses. Daly (1992, 1994) identified several empirically observed pathways by which primarily poor women of color became involved with the courts, including “harmed and harming” and drug-related. Miller (1986) described extensive victimization and exploitation in the lives of “street women” leading to incarceration. Richie (1996) has drawn from the life histories of women in jail to illustrate a link between culturally constructed gender-identity development, violence against women in intimate relationships, and women’s participation in illegal activities. Richie argues that what she identifies as “gender entrapment” in the intersection of race, gender, class, and victimization can lead women to commit crimes.

National surveys of state and federal prisoners estimate that 43% to 57% of incarcerated women have been physically or sexually abused at some time in their lives. One-third of incarcerated women report child sexual abuse, and 20% to 34% report abuse by adult intimate partners; they are three to four times more likely than men to report abuse histories (Harlow, 1999). Smaller studies that use more expanded measures of abuse have found that nearly all women in prison samples have experienced physical and/or sexual abuse throughout their lives (for example, Bloom, Chesney-Lind, & Owen, 1994; Browne, Miller, & Maguin, 1999).

Mental/Physical Health Issues

In a national survey that included a modified DSM-IV interview, a Bureau of Justice report indicates that at midyear 2005, more than half of all inmates in prison and jail had had a mental health problem (James & Glaze, 2006). Mental health problems were defined as a recent history or symptoms of a mental health disorder in the 12 months prior to the interview. Female inmates had higher rates of mental health problems than males (73% to 55%), including symptoms of major depression, mania, or psychotic disorders. About 74% of state prisoners who had a mental health problem also met criteria for substance dependence or abuse.

While it might be assumed that one of the pains of imprisonment is the mental health disturbances related to incarceration itself, what is now more often recognized is that the majority of people in prison have a history of trauma—particularly women who have experienced, witnessed, or been threatened with injury, serious harm, or death stemming from violence, physical or sexual assault, accidents, and the daily trauma related to survival on the streets. Wallace, Connor, and Dass-Brailsford (2011) describe the high prevalence of trauma among incarcerated people and its negative impact on them. They report that 77% to 90% of women with drug dependency in prison report extensive histories of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. They argue that this high prevalence requires integrated and trauma-informed treatment that addresses trauma and drug addiction simultaneously.

A literature review by Meyer et al. (2011) confirms that violence and victimization are intertwined with increased risk taking under the influence of substances, related, for example, to intravenous drug use, participation in commercial sex work, and trading sex for drugs—and subsequent negative health consequences. Substance abuse is a major factor in perpetuating cycles of intimate-partner violence and power imbalances within relationships. In turn, intimate-partner violence and power imbalances within relationships increase HIV-associated risk behaviors and influences poor healthcare decision-making and barriers to appropriate health care. Meyer et al. note that HIV care in correctional facilities should include screening for substance abuse, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and violence.

The co-occurring nature of mental illness and substance-abuse disorders for criminalized people cycling in and out of prison in a context of austere state budgets has generated collaborative and national-policy attention in pursuit of pragmatic approaches to reduce recidivism and improve recovery among corrections-involved adults. A multi-system panel has produced a shared framework that can be used in both the corrections and the behavioral-health systems level to prioritize scarce resources based on risk assessment as well as substance-abuse and mental-health treatment needs (Osher, D’Amora, Plotkin, Jarrett, & Eggleston, 2012).

Healthcare for incarcerated women has been a topic of political debate and lawsuits, especially as the demand for care has increased with the massing of women within confinement facilities. Young (2000) identified reasons that that explain why women entering prison present with multiple physical-health concerns requiring assessment and treatment, including the association with some of the offenses that brought them into the criminal legal system. She also pointed to women’s increasing HIV rate and the incidence of tuberculosis within prisons. In her qualitative study that she conducted with inmates in one prison (2000), she found that 14 of the 15 respondents described having received inadequate medical care in the last six months in custody—meaning none or partial care, or delayed or misdirected care. All 15 women discussed examples of provider treatment that was demeaning, that is, disrespectful providers or providers who did not take seriously the women’s symptoms.

A major national campaign focusing on incarcerated women’s health care has been directed at the harmful practice of shackling pregnant women during either labor and delivery or transport after delivery, or both—a practice often justified by security concerns (although there is no record of even one pregnant woman escaping during transport for delivery or during return to lockup). The federal system banned the use of shackling in 2008 in all federal facilities. California, in 2012, became the first state to completely ban the practice of shackling women during pregnancy, labor, delivery, and recovery. By 2013, 38 states had some type of ban in place (Rebecca Project for Human Rights, 2013).

The National Commission on Correctional Health Care provides standards for acceptable health care in correctional settings. These cover care and treatment, health records, administration, personnel, and medical-legal issues. In 2002, the Commission, directed by Congress, implemented a three-year comprehensive study of inmate health care. Its report (2002) documents that “tens of thousands” of inmates are being released into the community every year with undiagnosed or untreated communicable disease, chronic disease, and mental illness. The report concludes that it would be cost effective to treat several of these diseases during incarceration, and that it is possible to do so with empirically based effective interventions.

Prison Conditions for Women

As of December 2005, there were 1,821 state and federal correctional facilities, including public and privately contracted facilities at multiple levels of security. Although there is no specific enumeration of how many facilities housed men or women in the most recent census of state and federal facilities (Stephan, 2008), a web search identifies facilities for women in every state, ranging from only one in Hawaii to seven in New York. According to the Census of Facilities, most had inmate work activities and offered inmates educational and counseling programs. The most common educational program offered was a secondary education or GED program, followed by literacy training and adult basic education. Counseling programs were available to inmates in nearly all public institutions and in about three-quarters of private facilities. Drug and alcohol dependence and awareness counseling was offered in all facilities in Hawaii and Wyoming, compared to 8% of institutions in Florida and 13% in Washington state. Taken as a whole, generally some elements of prison options are consistent throughout the state and federal system, if also uneven in accessibility, depending on location and level of custody.

While programs may be “offered” at facilities, whether inmates have access to them is determined by multiple factors, including the capacity of the institution, time remaining on the sentence, and other eligibility restraints. Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM, 2009), addressing the 5,000% increase of women incarcerated for drug offenses in Illinois, indicated that the state’s Department of Corrections estimates that drug treatment is needed by 80% of its women inmates but is available only to about 16% of them. Other states report similar gaps in program services. The California Institute of Women (CIW) is one of the oldest and largest women’s confinement facilities in the country, covering 120 acres and housing almost 1,500 women at all levels of custody, including reception and special needs. A former CIW inmate (Carter, Ojukwu, & Miller, 2006) who is now a re-entry advocate, conducted a study of inmates and released former inmates of CIW. She used three focus groups, including 63 participants with different lengths of sentences, to investigate the prison environment, barriers in accessing resources, services needed upon release, and factors that prevent recidivism. The major barriers related to access to education and treatment programs were related to eligibility factors and/or time on the sentence. Barriers to medical care included red tape related to gaining an appointment and the co-pay expense for health care. Most respondents in the study viewed the environment at CIW as “hostile,” reporting that some staff used fear and intimidation to control the inmates, especially during visiting times.

Most incarcerated women are poor, convicted of a drug-related offense, single mothers with co-occurring substance dependence and mental health disorders, have insufficient education and histories of trauma. Most incarcerated women are given short sentences. All of these factors combined strongly suggest that confinement facilities must identify immediate services during the period of incarceration that will assess the complex assortment of women’s needs and link treatment and services they can receive during incarceration with resources in the communities to which they will return.

Harassment/Sexual Misconduct

For imprisoned women in the 19th century, sexual harassment and assault served as a daily reminder of their lack of autonomy. It is still an issue in prisons today for women, particularly when they are guarded by men. Abuse can of course, take many forms, from the more flagrant assault or groping, to invasive pat-downs and peeping during showers, to verbal harassment. Flagrant and ongoing sexual misconduct in Michigan prisons attracted international attention and 13 years of litigation until a settlement with 500 current and former inmates was reached with the Department of Corrections for $100 million (Levy, 2009). Michigan was held liable for not only the pervasive sexual misconduct of its employees but also the unsafe environment for reporting the misconduct and the lack of appropriate administrative action. In addition to the settlement, the case forced the state to remove male prison guards from women’s housing units and developed safeguards for protected reporting procedures.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was passed by Congress in 2003 in an attempt to address sexual assault and misconduct in state and federal prisons. The Act aimed to curb prison rape through a “zero tolerance” policy as well as through research and information gathering. The Act called for developing national standards to prevent incidents of sexual violence in prison and annual incidence reports. According to a survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 2008 to 2009, 2.8% of all state and federal prisoners reported at least one incident of sexual victimization by a corrections employee within the previous 12 months. That represents an estimate of 57,000 incidents of sexual victimization by staff members in just one year.

In May 2012, the U.S. Justice Department released the final rule for preventing, detecting, and responding to prison rape. This rule from the Office of the Attorney General promulgates specific mechanisms for reporting and dealing with this pervasive problem in the federal system and throughout the 50 states. Critics are concerned about how hidden a problem sexual abuse can be and that employees will not report on offending co-workers unless the assault is flagrant; advocates worry that the Act will not result in an effective response to nonassault, abuses such as verbal harassment or humiliation. Laura Whitehorn, a former political prisoner incarcerated for 14 years in a federal facility, said in an interview that “power abuse is the root of the problem and until incarcerated women have a way to defend their bodily integrity, prisons will continue to mimic and exaggerate the male supremacy of U.S. society” (Bader, 2012). Making a dent in the most egregious sexual abuse could be transformative, but advocates agree that a great deal more needs to be done to address many forms of harassment, abuse, and sexual violence that incarcerated women experience.

Linkage to Children, Family, and Community

A national study on incarcerated parents in prison found that 62% of incarcerated women had at least one child under the age of 18 (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). At midyear 2007, 65,000 women in a state or federal prison had been caregivers to more than 1.7 million minor children. Among the family issues related to women prisoners are maintaining contact with their children, alternative care for their children, and support of the mother’s role during incarceration.

Since women often serve their prison sentences hundreds of miles away from their families, consistent visitation can be challenging (Michalsen, Flavin, & Krupat, 2010). The lack of visitation from children can make serving time increasingly painful, particularly for women who view their children as extended identities essential to their self-hood (Ferraro & Moe, 2003). Prior to arrest, 64% of mothers in prison reported they were the primary caregivers of their children, and 42% of those caregivers said they lived in a single-parent household (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). Thus, when a mother is incarcerated, children are usually cared for by a grandmother or family member, and in about 10% of cases, children enter the foster care system.

A study at the Minnesota women’s custodial facility in 1985 found that the mothers had a tenacious commitment to their parenthood and that five years later, most (two-thirds) of these mothers had sustained primary parenting from within prison and reunification with their children when released (Martin, 1997). The study confirmed that frequent visitation during incarceration supported their ongoing parenting and reunification. While there are an increasing number of infant nurseries that enable women to successfully attach with their newborns up to 18 months (see study at one site by Byrne, Goshin, & Joestl, 2010), advocates argue that women’s status as primary caregivers to their children should weigh heavily in favor of diverting them to community-based drug-treatment programs designed to build their abilities to lead self-sufficient lives and develop their parenting skills (Women’s Prison Association, 2006).

The Women’s Prison Association (2006) association notes Rose and Clear’s “groundbreaking research” drawing upon interviews and focus groups with former male and female inmates, community leaders, and various community stakeholders from two neighborhoods in Tennessee; the findings indicate that the removal of women from their neighborhoods through incarceration has had a disproportionate negative effect on the community because of the multiple roles women play.


When women are released from prison, they face many of the same barriers to re-entry as men—social stigmatization, lack of adequate housing, few or no employment opportunities, discrimination in gaining employment based upon their conviction records, and denial of public benefits and services. Social re-integration is difficult enough when people return from prison, very often to the high-poverty neighborhoods they left behind when they entered prison. Caught in a “catch-22,” many women cannot obtain government aid to secure adequate housing because they do not have custody of their children—and they cannot secure custody of their children because they do not have adequate housing (Allen, Flaherty, & Ely, 2010)

As a matter of public discussion, the corrections system is often referred to as broken, as evidenced by high rates of “recidivism,” or failure to “make it” after release from prison. Recidivism is measured by criminal acts (or violations of parole) that resulted in re-arrest, re-conviction or return to prison during the 3-year period following the individual’s release. While every state compiles these statistics, on a national level the most recent survey of released individuals by the Bureau of Justice Statistics draws from a 1994 analysis of released individuals from 15 states (Langan & Levin, 2002). According to that analysis, released women (as compared to men) were less likely to be re-arrested (57.6% to 68.4%), re-convicted (39.9% to 47.6%), returned to prison for a new crime (17.3% to 26.2%) or returned to prison with or without a new prison sentence (39.4% to 53%). It is important to note the percentage of women who returned to prison with or without a new charge; these are returns that include the number of parole revocations due to a technical violation of conditions of release on parole, such as failing a drug test, missing an appointment with a parole officer, or being re-arrested for a new crime. Parole in states, or supervised probation in federal jurisdictions, requires continued surveillance in the community after release. The strong correlation between drug use and women’s re-incarceration is well established and recognized internationally. The World Health Organization and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime published a Declaration on Women’s Health in Prison (2009) that signifies in its title the need to address gender inequities in the provision of services and address the complexities of intertwined needs for the provision of health and social services and drug treatment after women’s release from incarceration.

An early examination of the Forever Free substance-abuse program for incarcerated women in the California system (Hall, Prendergast, Wellisch, Patten, & Cao, 2004) demonstrated that in-prison treatment coupled with aftercare following release was efficacious for promoting sustained recovery and desistance. Matheson, Doherty, and Grant (2011) describe a similar national substance-abuse treatment framework in Canada that includes an aftercare component (Community Relapse Prevention Maintenance—CRPM) that combined cognitive-behavioral treatment, experiential exercises, and coping skills. Their follow-up evaluation of the 361 women released from Canadian federal prisons from 2003 to 2007 found that women who did not participate in the CRPM were 10 times more likely than women in the treatment program to return to custody within one year of re-entering the community. More than a third of the women in the comparison group (no CRPM treatment) returned to prison within the first six months after release. The rate of re-incarceration within one year after release for women who participated in CRPM was only 5%. The authors note that eight of 10 women offenders in Canada have a substance-abuse problem. Substance-abuse treatment is a necessary component for reducing women’s odds of returning to prison.

As women make the critical transition from prison to the community, they need a support system to help them meet multiple challenges that are both internally and structurally derived (Flavin, 2004; O’Brien, 2001; Spjeldnes & Goodkind, 2009). These categories are similar for men and women and include gaining employment (or a source of income), stable and safe housing, meeting parole or court conditions, addressing physical and mental health concerns, and re-establishing relationships with children, family members, and pro-social friends. The challenges that women experience often look different based on race, age, ethnicity, and other social factors that intersect with gender to have a differential effect on their access to the range of social capital (Flavin, 2004) that they need to extract themselves from the cycle of addiction and criminalization. Structural discrimination related to gaining employment is particularly crucial for women who are already disadvantaged because of less employment experience and fewer acquired job skills prior to prison. Employment is essential for people transitioning from incarceration to re-entering society. Barring such people from getting a job increases the odds that they will commit another crime. The overly broad use of criminal background checks has a disproportionate effect on formerly incarcerated women, preventing them from an opportunity to work legitimate jobs, many of which, in the gender-segregated labor market, are irrelevant to the nonviolent offenses for which women are most often arrested or convicted. Officials and advocates at the national, state, and municipal levels have implemented multiple ways of addressing employment barriers, including trying to “ban the box” on employment forms that discourages automatic rejection at the first step of application. (See National Employment Law Project, 2013 for a full list of cities and counties that have done so). Other legislative initiatives include a range of record-sealing approaches that prevent automatic disclosure of a simple arrest or conviction (in some cases).

Linkage from prison to the community to provide aftercare treatment and support is a critical component of helping women through the transition from prison to home. Many women, however, do not participate in aftercare treatment for various reasons, including reduced access to services (especially in rural areas), lack of transportation, physical and mental health problems, and difficulties obtaining affordable child care. Addressing these barriers to treatment and aftercare can reduce recidivism and improve the health and well-being of women. Considering re-entry as a process to be coordinated rather than a signifying event is crucial. Ann Jacobs of the Women’s Prison Association suggests that planning must not prioritize one or two dimensions over other dimensions such as trauma or family reunification that, if left unaddressed, can lead to relapse and recidivism. The WPA has devised a re-entry matrix that incorporates strategies that simultaneously address at least five domains, or basic life areas (subsistence or livelihood, residence, family, health and sobriety, and criminal justice compliance), keyed to moving women through three phases of reintegration: survival, stabilization, and self-sufficiency (see Women’s Prison Association, 2013).

Reform, Alternatives to Incarceration, and Abolition

In the grip of recession and too-high recidivism rates, there is increasing recognition that the financial and social costs of incarceration are unacceptable. Policy reforms to roll back harsh sentencing, as well as the development of more treatment courts are surfacing in various communities on a regular basis. In some states—particularly California, which is under court order to reduce its inmate population—creative alternatives to incarceration using noncustodial sanctions or community-based support services are being tried, with some success. The Women’s Prison Association observes that the prevalence of nonviolent convictions and their lower recidivism rates after release from prison (Langan & Levin, 2002) would indicate that decarceration efforts targeting women would present few risks to public safety.

Other, albeit gender-neutral, reforms include the following exemplars. Adult Redeploy in Illinois incentivizes local jurisdictions for programs that allow diversion of nonviolent offenders from state prisons by providing community-based services. Project HOPE (Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement) delivers high-intensity supervision on probation for drug offenders and other high-risk individuals that provides swift, predictable, and immediate sanctions for detected violations with repeated short jail terms but not revocation of probation (sending individuals to prison). Evaluation of the model indicates that the program is highly successful at reducing both drug use and crime. What began as a pilot program has received national attention for replication.

Kansas was one of four states showing a marked decrease in recidivism among releases in 2007 following its implementation of a comprehensive state plan. The Kansas plan implemented two pilot programs targeting parolees at high risk of reoffending, implementing intensive training for parole officers and strengthened supervision to link parolees to community-based treatment, and collaborative partnerships to assist individuals to connect to housing and employment services. All the strategies were focused on decreasing revocation (and return to prison) (Council of State Governments [CSG] Justice Center, 2012). While the CSG highlighted 6 states that had documented marked decrease in recidivism rates, it also pointed to planning processes that were ongoing in all states to reduce recidivism.

These policy shifts and the results provide a strong context for the re-examination of strategies to more effectively respond to women. Chesney-Lind (in Mauer & Epstein, 2012) urges us to draw upon Abigail Adams’s statement to her husband, to “remember the ladies,” and to the complex interaction of race, class, and gender that drives the over-harsh control of women. She suggests that interventions that consider “the ladies” recognize the particular circumstances of women who have a history of being abused and an obligation and desire to parent minor children. Recognizing the difficulty of thinking our way out of “a criminal justice system that has lost its way” (p. 43), Chesney-Lind recommends that activists join with advocacy organizations as well as those committed to racial equality to refocus the criminal legal system so that it operates with an awareness of the harms of victimization and crime, and increased individual and community safety, while also seeking approaches that minimize further social, community, and economic damage.

Angela Davis, one the primary founders of the abolition-of-prison movement, says, in the same collection of essays (Mauer & Epstein, 2012), that any prison-reform movement must be embedded in and linked to radical movements for economic equality in the free world, especially as related to workers’ rights.

Finally, in her powerful and insightful examination of black women in the U.S. prison nation, social worker, sociologist, and activist Beth Richie (2012) argues that we must work to dismantle the prison nation that has been constructed in the United States. She compellingly makes the case that we must turn back the over-reliance on the criminal legal system to respond to women who are harmed by male violence. Richie recommends instead that a black-feminist theoretical analysis is most beneficial for teasing apart the layers of harm in state-sanctioned public agencies that are in fact complicit with male violence. In the context of helping, culturally competent services recognize the intertwined nature of black women’s experience of violence in disadvantaged communities and the nonverbal cues and different interpretations of social reality that can ensure their fair treatment. Richie emphasizes that dismantling prison nation requires determined community organizing to address the concentration of disadvantages that conservative state policies have had on women.


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