Corrections System Fails Female Prisoners: One Woman’s Story
By Michael Pittaro, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University
The number of females in prison, jail, and probation populations has grown at a considerably faster rate than males. Despite this growth, the correctional system is failing to address the rehabilitation needs of women during and after incarceration.
Between 2000 and 2010, the number of females in state or federal prisons grew by 21 percent compared to a 15 percent increase in the male population during that same period, according to the National Institute of Corrections. Since 2010, the female jail population is the fastest growing correctional population, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The National Resource Center for Justice Involved Women, an organization dedicated to helping female offenders, emphasized that although adult women comprise about 7 percent of the total U.S. correctional population, they encounter more challenges than their male counterparts. For example, female offenders experience barriers to suitable housing, have greater difficulty obtaining and sustaining employment, have less family support, and tend to have extensive histories of substance abuse, physical and/or sexual victimization, and mental illness when compared to male offenders.
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While incarcerated, the programs that are offered to women are typically modeled after the programs designed for male offenders, which, of course, do not take into account the specific criminal pathways experienced by women.
The National Institute of Justice reported that reintegration programs and services are insufficient or inadequate and emphasized the need for gender-specific programs and services within the community to create a seamless continuum from prison to the community.
Rae’s Story: The Personal Account of a Female Offender
I had an opportunity to interview a friend’s daughter who is currently on parole after serving five years in a state correctional institution in Pennsylvania for a number of drug-related offenses. Rae (a pseudonym) is a 27-year-old Caucasian female who told me that her drug use escalated the night her father died.
“That aching inside was overwhelming, I craved nothing more than pure numbness,” she told me. Her father’s death gave her “every justifiable excuse to be exactly what I was, an oppositional defiant adolescent. I carried on through my youth teetering on the brink of self-destruction. I remember the first time I got high. I remember the way it danced slowly in my body creating a harmony I had never felt. I remember the way it warmed every inch of my tortured soul. In addition, I had no idea just how far I would go or how far it would take me before I would say that I could not take it anymore. I was in an unparalleled love relationship with heroin. Per the DSM IV, I fit every criterion for being a polysubstance user.”
According to Rae, the addiction worsened by the time she reached adulthood. She was physically abused, gang-raped in juvenile detention, and sent away to residential treatment centers.
“The irony of it all is that you are being sentenced to a correctional facility, yet there is no correction. There is slight opportunity to find help in these programs, but you have to dig through the degradation and belittlement of being labeled a criminal,” she said.
“Being incarcerated gives you few options; it is without a doubt all about survival. From the moment you step foot in an institution, you must learn how to survive. That is quite a backward concept, if you will, because statistically most of the incarcerated women come from broken homes, domestic abuse, molestation, drug abuse, and so on. Women who were just trying to survive on the outside are now trying to survive on the inside,” she said.
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The questions she posed to me as a law enforcement professional were both rhetorical and profound:
- How do criminal justice professionals fathom that we, as the incarcerated, can change our criminal thinking when we are amongst criminals?
- How do we let down our guard and our defenses to get to the core issues that leave us so crippled when we’re put in such an unsafe place?
I talked to her about the programs that were available to her within the state correctional system.
“If you are not mandated these programs, you are not allowed to participate. During my five years, I watched people come in and out of prison like a revolving door. The reason was always the same: addiction. The women who were released could not resist the temptation. There is no single description of the way it feels to fight something so powerful that, even with the knowledge of its consequences, you still succumb to its poison.”
Now that she has been released and on parole, she is experiencing new obstacles within the community. “I am a felon. The justice system has labeled me per my own actions. I have served a five-year sentence. How does one explain that on a job application? I am serving this sentence well out of my incarceration. Society makes it so hard to get back on your feet. I feel like I am constantly backed into a corner fighting for freedom. Moreover, when ask for help, it never comes from the justice system that aimed to correct and rehabilitate me. It comes from family, which is not an option for so many women.”
I asked her opinion as to whether there are enough community-based programs available for women. “There are not enough programs for us. There are not enough people who recognize us for who we could be instead of who we currently are.”
According to the National Resource for Justice Involved Women, appropriate identification of needs, treatment planning, and follow-up are particularly important for community reintegration. Even though there is limited research on female offenders—particularly in evaluating reentry programs specific to women—the factors that appear most important for successful reintegration include establishing suitable housing, finding gainful, sustaining employment, and reuniting with children and family. Additionally, female reentry programs need to emphasize the importance of post-release treatment and counseling for physical and mental well-being, including substance abuse, as well as protect women from reentering into abusive relationships.
About the Author: Professor Michael Pittaro is a 27-year criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of settings. He has been a faculty member at American Military University for 5 years, teaching courses in criminal justice. Pittaro has lectured in higher education for the past 14 years while also serving as an author, editor, and subject matter expert. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate -criminal justice at Capella University’s School of Public Safety Leadership.
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