Academic journal article Social Justice

Confronting Gendered Pathways to Incarceration: Considerations for Reentry Programming

Academic journal article Social Justice

Confronting Gendered Pathways to Incarceration: Considerations for Reentry Programming

Article excerpt

Pathways both into and out of the criminal justice system are gendered, and research finds that reentry can be particularly challenging for women. Community programming has the potential to address important issues in the lives of women during this crucial time of transition, but reentry efforts pay scant attention to gendered pathways before and after incarceration. This study employs findings from interviews conducted at a women's reentry program to examine women ex-offenders' perceptions of their pathways into crime and related struggles upon reentry. Our analysis identifies three major pathways to incarceration, each with its own enduring implications for reentry: intersectional vulnerabilities, abuse and neglect, and substance abuse and compromised mental health. After examining how participants identified and described each of these three pathways, we suggest an action agenda to better address women's unique reentry needs.

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THE IMPRISONMENT RATE FOR WOMEN HAS INCREASED IN RECENT years, in contrast to the modest overall trend of decline (US Department of Justice 2014), and nearly all incarcerated women are released back into the community (James 2015). A growing number of them will accordingly be concerned with reentry, a process that research finds can be particularly challenging for women (Cobbina &Bender 2012, Doherty et al. 2014). Knowledge and practice in the area of women's reentry still lag behind men's, reflecting a legacy of gender-neutral approaches to crime that use men's experiences as the standard (Belknap 2015). Feminist criminologists have engaged the pathways approach to understand gender differences in criminal behavior, emphasizing the relationship between women's backgrounds, life histories, or experiences and their risks of criminal offending (Belknap 2015, Chesney-Lind & Pasko 2004, Kruttschnitt & Gartner 2003, Pollock 2002). Whereas this approach originally focused on women's gendered pathways into criminal activity, scholarship has increasingly identified how women ex-offenders' pathways both into and out of the criminal justice system and back into the community are gendered (Cobbina 2010, Heidemann et al. 2016). Despite the potential of such knowledge to inform reentry services, there remains scant attention to the role of women's gendered pathways in existing programming (Brown & Bloom 2009).

We also know very little about how women ex-offenders themselves frame their lived experiences of gendered pathways, as well as the link between these pathways and the programming they see as beneficial during the reentry process. How do those who aim to become productive community members perceive the barriers they have faced before and after incarceration? How do they feel reentry services can best address their struggles after release? Herrschaft et al. (2009, 469) find that "few of the discussions surrounding the specific needs of female offenders involved speaking directly with these women." In this study, we focus on addressing that gap by utilizing in-depth interviews to explore the experiences of women ex-offenders currently in a community reentry program. Specifically, we aim to foreground participants' perceptions of their pathways into and out of incarceration and how these intersect with their perspectives on the gender-responsive women's reentry program in which they are engaged. The essay first examines the existing literature about gendered pathways, reentry needs, and programming for women ex-offenders. Based on our analysis of the interview data, we identify three major pathways to incarceration derived from participants' experiences, each with its own enduring implications for reentry. By unpacking the relationships between participants' perceptions of gendered barriers and reentry needs, this study clarifies the key role of gendered pathways in service considerations for women ex-offenders. We next explore the women's assessments of a reentry program in which they were all participants at the time of the research, particularly in terms of how the program addressed gendered pathways into and out of incarceration. …

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