Exploring Women's Re-Entry Issues
Last month we celebrated women all around the world, reflecting on the many revolutionary contributions they’ve made. It is also critical that we explore the unique social, cultural, and personal issues that impact women. Because the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana has committed itself to raising visibility on criminal justice topics, we pivot this week’s discussion onto re-entry and the specific concerns that community re-entry can have on women as well as the uncertainty of such transitions.
According to data from 2015, the rate of incarceration in the developed world was highest in the United States with 707 persons per 100,000 with 63.5 of those being women. This rate was nearly 2.5(x) the rates of the 2nd highest, Chile, and the third highest, Israel. Tough on crime penal systems and proclivity towards re-offending because of poor re-entry opportunities are a big part of why populations continue to rise annually. For women, point-of-entry is often through drug and property crimes, both aggravated by histories of abuse and drug and alcohol dependence. It should be central to any re-entry effort to mitigate the substance dependence and mental health issues that accompany imprisonment and later release. This includes also preparing people economically, socially, and civically. However, most prisons are not designed this way and are certainly not prepared to do so with the unique demands of gender in mind.
Simply put: the prison system fails to adequately prepare people for re-entry transitions
A particularly insightful read I recently came across, Routledge’s Community Re-Entry “Innovations in Correction” text authored by Pedlar and colleagues (2018) offers an in-depth first-hand account of incarcerated women and their experiences in and out of prison. Issues of financial security and housing, physical/sexual abuse, and drug and alcohol dependence all come forward. Each of these is fleshed out in greater detail as the topic of women’s re-entry is examined. After prison, a natural cycle occurs where the stigma of incarceration – the offender identity – must be tackled and managed. Women are especially vulnerable to these labels and the negative experiences that emerge post-incarceration. This stigma creates deep challenges for people looking to reconnect into conventional systems in society. From this, escaping exclusion and internal division becomes central to reconnection. We now explore topics that are special interest to women during re-entry and explore what might be done to improve re-entry outcomes.
Women are particularly at risk for cycles of poverty and income insecurity upon re-entry as they find themselves without the typical state-entitlements. Like many researchers have shown, socio-economic status is cyclic, and both precedes and follows imprisonment. In other words, you come in poor and you stay poor. For those newly-single stay-at-home women and part-time working women, access to support is central to any efforts to be self-sustaining, especially if they don’t have a spouse or attempting to escape an abusive relationship. Escaping poverty is a big challenge. Studies highlight the stark gender differences between men and women on poverty, showing that women are often less likely to be employed, less likely to have a high school degree, and more often homeless prior to arrest. This immediately puts women at a greater disadvantage and less prepared to take on the adversity that will arise post-prison. Unlike men, most women coming out of prison have special needs like securing habitable housing for like their children. Approximately 70% of women being held in prison or jail have children under 18. Providing food, clothing, medicine, and care not only becomes an individual issue but one for an entire family. However, doing so is often difficult because access to federal assistance is often contingent on criminal record. For those with felony or drug-related offenses, applying for food stamps or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program is entirely barred. This restricted access galvanizes poverty and dependence. Housing becomes a concern for anyone re-entering and transitioning out of prison.
Among the primary keys to breaking the cycle of poverty is ensuring that people have access to affordable housing that is also safe and affords opportunity for growth. Going from a highly structured prison life to one on the outside that is unbounded, can be chaotic for many and create risk. The transition is often so abrupt that few are prepared to accommodate their housing needs, especially housing that is safe, clean and offers easy access to continued therapy and counseling. The options available to those in reentry include: community-based correctional housing facilities, transitional housing, HUD-financed housing, or the private market. The only remaining option is homelessness. Those in re-entry are at special risk for homelessness. Langan and Levin (2002) found in their study of state prisoners expected to be released within a year, that 12% were homeless prior to conviction and that the rate of risk for women to become homeless following prison far exceeded that of men. For those without a family or friend network prepared to absorb a newly released woman (and potentially her children), females carry a baggage that makes them disproportionately at risk. For those without state-aid and lacking options from personal others, the private market is often the only viable point of access. However, the stigma of prison – along with affordability – become major barriers. For those released from prison, affordability is almost secondary. The label of “criminal” follows the individual long after incarceration and can impede one’s ability to secure housing even when it is found. If you manage to find housing, the next concern becomes “is it affordable?” Studies show that in general, low-rent housing is in great shortage. Places like Las Vegas, Nevada have only 12 affordable housing units for every 100 households, while cities like New York lack nearly 638,000 affordable housing units needed to cover demand. This all translates into fewer points of access for everybody.
II: TRAUMA/DRUG DEPENDENCE
Many women both inside and outside the prison environment have histories of physical and sexual abuse, of which can occur in childhood or adulthood. Childhood abuse among women, for example, is twice the rate of that of men, while risk of abuse into teenage and adult years is higher among women due to violence in interpersonal relationships. Spousal abuse, harassment, and other physical abuses, particularly when sustained, raise the risk for other forms of internalized harm like self-harm (e.g. cutting) and alcohol/drug abuse – all of which are common among women both before and after incarceration. There exists a real difference that falls on gendered lines, particularly regarding sexual and physical abuse and substance dependencies. In some way, these two are related. Women who are abused turn into themselves by seeking internal coping mechanisms, while men might be more likely to turn outward and become more physically threatening. Women will seek ways to alleviate the pain and trauma, with drugs, alcohol, and self-mutilating behaviors. In Pedlar and colleagues (2018) study of Canadian women, it was substance dependence which were most often the disruptions in their life that put them back into prison. Further, of those women in state facilities, nearly 80% have addictions to drugs or alcohol. The co-morbidity of damaging behaviors, accompanied by mental health problems further complicates re-entry. A Bureau of Justice Statistics Report (1999) found that much like addiction, 80% of incarcerated females with trauma histories have mental illness. This may come in the form of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, or more complex long-term emotional conditions.
CREATING A REMEDY
Of the many challenges that must be considered when newly released, women have additional needs that often do not go addressed. Prison programming is designed with men in mind, largely because they account for more than 90% of all incarcerated individuals. However, wrap-around programming targeted towards women may be better positioned to successfully reintegrate women. Because prisons often lack gender-responsive services that cater to the needs of women, even within female facilities, re-entry success can be maximized through greater attention to specialized direct care, counseling, and assistance. The existing lack of support fails to offer women struggling with trauma and substance dependence, of whom desperately need mutuality and peer support. To foster success both in and out of prison, supportive networks are needed for extended recovery. Social workers and program managers have suggested that a therapeutic culture must blossom in prisons which focuses on five fundamental elements of community setting: (1) Attachment; (2) Containment; (3) Communication; (4) Involvement; and (5) Agency. Each of these tenets is included to foster a culture of belonging and openness, empowerment, and safety. From this perspective, women must be offered a restorative pathway that helps maximize their positive transitional outcomes. This form of restorative justice – as one type of approach to re-entry – would include establishing relationships between women and their community, allowing for “healing,” restitution, and community service.
Tangible solutions also provide promise. Having health insurance, for example, can be critical for successful reentry, in providing counseling services needed to manage drug and alcohol problems, maintain and remediate the effects of mental health, and provide regular health screenings. Another is building and offering greater affordable housing opportunities. A report produced by the Urban Institute back in 2004 highlighted the critical need for programming that linked transitioning inmates to housing and employment organizations. In once instance, a program was piloted in California that aimed to care for mentally ill people recently released from prison, provide them permanent housing, and secure long-term treatment and recovery plans. The plan demonstrated the efficacy of such programming, as estimated savings from reductions in inpatient hospital services and fewer arrests as high as 7.3 million. Programs like this are especially promising for women and mothers because of their high risk for developing mental health problems. Another program, specifically serving women is the Sarah Powell Huntington House (SPHH) – a transitional residence that offers safe and secure housing as well as counseling that emphasizes healthy choices. The residence in Lower Manhattan works to take homeless women and their children off the street and offers them case management, substance abuse counseling, life skills training, and permanent housing placement. With 80% of women transitioning into permanent housing, SPHH has been largely successful in providing full-care services.
While both programs have been incredible impactful for those participants lucky enough to secure entry, their scope is tiny compared to the greater need. The single greatest problem with similar programming is also their greatest strength: comprehensiveness. While both the California program and SPHH provide all-around holistic care, costs are high and can’t possibly be extended given current restrictions on available funding. Providers, advocates, and non-profits must reorient their efforts to design programming that is more affordable and can be more widely applied so that all women can be given equal access to re-entry success. The Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana is an organization that was envisioned and is currently operated by mostly women. Our central mission is to explore policy that integrates success in re-entry and reduces the collateral consequences of prison. With both women and re-entry in mind, we look to and hope to collaborate with organizations in our own community who emphasize the importance of such creative programming throughout Southeast Louisiana.
 Walmsley, R. (2015). World female imprisonment list (3rd ed.): Women and girls in penal institutions, including pre-trial detainees/remand prisoners. Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Retrieved from http://prisonstudies.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/world_female_imprisonment_list_third_