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Women In The Prison: Punishment Or Rehabilitation?

As presented at ImpactPrisons 2017, when citizens become involved in the U.S. prison system, their lives take a rapid downward spiral from which there is no return. The system is even harsher toward women in the prison than it is to men. While women are incarcerated at lower percentages, they tend to serve longer sentences for the same crime. And they suffer far more psychological damage from family estrangement and social guilt.

There were was a time that there are few women in the prison system; the issue did not attract much notice. They certainly suffered, but the numbers were too small to create a society-wide ripple. As is well-known, the rate of incarceration for all groups in the U.S. has exploded, and the numbers of women in the prison system are increasing dramatically.

As a society, the U.S. may want to step back and reconsider the policy of incarceration for every offense. When citizens are locked up, it has disruptive effects throughout society. It becomes a terrible time mostly in women in the prison and upon release, the family of that person is also destabilized and traumatized. When the convict is a mother, the family destabilization is crippling to her children, who are forced to live in foster care or with relatives and will face a lifetime of abandonment issues that will impact them throughout their lives.

Women Face More Difficult Re-Entry Upon Release

Women in prisonWhen women are released from prison, they face a myriad of challenges particular to their sex. For example, the majority of women in prison have children living at home. If they still have any rights to their children (many states strip parental rights even under relatively short prison stays) reuniting is difficult on an emotional and psychological level. The mothers almost always have guilt issues, and the children have been subjected to abandonment, financial insecurity, and often abuse. Most of the women in the prison will find it very difficult to get a job, and next to impossible to access public housing.

Due to changes in food stamps and welfare laws under Bill Clinton, convicted felons are banned from receiving food stamps or government grants for their lifetimes. One wonders how a newly released ex-convict is supposed to feed, house, and care for her children with no job and no government support? It would be next to impossible for an educated, psychologically, and physically healthy person to begin a new life with no jobs and hardly a penny to their name. How do we expect traumatized, and often uneducated, convicts to do so?

The question is if we want ex-convicts to integrate into society, why do we make it impossible for them to do so?

Conflicting Purposes in the Prison System

Our view of women in the prison system in the United States have given three conflicting goals; deterrence, punishment, and rehabilitation. These goals are at odds. Ultimately, they fail one goal that liberal, conservatives, and every ideology in between can agree upon; we want to reduce crime, not increase it.

The Clinton Administration changed policies regarding food stamps, public housing, student loans, or access to job training and other government welfare programs as part of welfare reform. Part of the purpose was to make the penalty for crime sufficiently harsh that it would act as a more significant deterrent.

Of course, most drug addicts or petty criminals aren’t thinking about the fact that they are going to lose potential government benefits at the time they commit their crimes. Thus, it is hardly an effective deterrent. The extremely harsh socio-economic position faced by persons released from prison may leave no avenue except crime open to them upon release from prison.

Many people believe the purpose of incarceration should be rehabilitation. Our overcrowded prisons massively fail at this goal. Prisoners do not have access to training programs in most states and counties. The social norms of imprisonment are not conducive to rehabilitation whatsoever.

However, when it comes to the third goal, punishment, U.S. Prisons accomplish this in spades. The entire experience is one of degradation and punishment. We may wish to reform prisons as a society, but we can at least admit that prison does succeed in one small aspect. And it also protects the community from the convict, at least during the time they are locked up.

Life After Prison

What happens upon release is an entirely different matter. We like to say that ex-cons have served their debt to society, but they lose almost all benefits and protections granted to all other citizens. They often lose the right to vote, will find it extraordinarily difficult to access jobs and housing, are monitored during probation, and are forced to live a second or third class existence for the remainder of their lives.

Impact, Women in Prison, Rehabilitation, Criminal Justice
Women in prison – Marilyn Reyes-Scales speaks about her prison experience with Gabriel Sayegh and James Eleby, Jr. at Impact Prisons 2017

In the case of ex-convict women with children, the damage to the woman is also visited upon her children. These are children who will require more support from society to survive and thrive than children from privileged homes. They are marginalized and forced to make do with far less material advantage, even less government support, and rely upon substandard schools and a parent who is damaged and demoralized. They will have far higher odds of becoming criminals themselves and almost no chance of rising above poverty and entering the mainstream middle class.

Marilyn Reyes-Scales recently spoke out about her prison experience at the Impact 2017 Conference. Reyes-Scales was moderated by Gabriel Sayegh and joined on-stage by James Eleby, Jr. Scales who discussed her return to civilian life after incarceration for drug use. She is a success story, a heroic one. But she is the exception. It is simply too tall an order to expect the majority of convicted women to succeed with the odds so stacked against them.

The bold idea is that if we want to reduce crime and improve well-being, we must realign our purposes and goals. We need to support justice systems that reward hard work and effort, rather than reliance on punishment and incarceration.