Breaking Women: Gender, Race, and the New Politics of Imprisonment

Breaking Women: Gender, Race, and the New Politics of Imprisonment

Breaking Women: Gender, Race, and the New Politics of Imprisonment

Breaking Women: Gender, Race, and the New Politics of Imprisonment

Synopsis

Since the 1980s, when the War on Drugs kicked into high gear and prison populations soared, the increase in women's rate of incarceration has steadily outpaced that of men. In Breaking Women, Jill A. McCorkel draws upon four years of on-the-ground research in a major US women's prison to uncover why tougher drug policies have so greatly affected those incarcerated there, and how the very nature of punishment in women's detention centers has been deeply altered as a result. Through compelling interviews with prisoners and state personnel, McCorkel reveals that popular so-called "habilitation" drug treatment programs force women to accept a view of themselves as inherently damaged, aberrant addicts in order to secure an earlier release. These programs work to enforce stereotypes of deviancy that ultimately humiliate and degrade the women. The prisoners are left feeling lost and alienated in the end, and many never truly address their addiction as the programs' organizers may have hoped. A fascinating and yet sobering study, Breaking Women foregrounds the gendered and racialized assumptions behind tough-on-crime policies while offering a vivid account of how the contemporary penal system impacts individual lives. Jill A. McCorkel is Associate Professor of Sociology at Villanova University.

Excerpt

In January 2009, then governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced plans to close a $19.9 billion budget gap in California. His proposal to make massive cuts in social services like health care and welfare-to-work programs had all the familiar markings of the Republican Party’s brand of fiscal conservatism—with one radical exception. Schwarzenegger took direct aim at prison expansion and overcrowding, promising a constitutional amendment that would prevent the state from spending more than 7% of its annual budget on corrections and plans to reduce the size of the state’s prison population by forty thousand persons over a period of two years. Schwarzenegger’s proposal was certainly a logical one given that much of California’s budget troubles are directly linked to the state’s commitment to “getting tough” on crime by incarcerating more people, even those convicted of minor drug offenses, for long periods of time. What made it radical was that in the course of the last three decades few politicians, certainly none of Schwarzenegger’s prominence, were willing to risk their political careers by offering anything less than enthusiastic support for the law and order campaign to “lock ’em up and throw away the key.” While Democrats and Republicans alike have sought to reduce government spending by gutting social welfare services, they have simultaneously (and unironically) continued to spend staggering amounts of money on prisons. California’s budget crisis is the tip of the iceberg. Across the country, states are now scrambling to find solutions to myriad problems associated with costly and overcrowded prisons.

For the first time in nearly thirty years, Americans are rethinking what it means to punish and to incarcerate. Much of the debate has focused on nonviolent drug offenders, since they represent a significant proportion of the increase in the size of the nation’s prison population. Proposals include sentence reductions for drug crimes, expanded use of drug treatment programs in prisons and community-based correctional settings, and granting the private prison industry an even greater role in the management and control of prisoners. As a sociologist who studies prisons, I am encouraged by efforts . . .

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