Thursday, February 25, 2016

Women in PrisonIn July 2013, the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black came to life. It has since captured the hearts and attention of millions of Americans. The show, based loosely on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, has received critical acclaim for its depiction of female prisoners as real human beings with complex lives and experiences. The show and the subsequent raised awareness are timely. The rate of women in incarceration increased a whopping 650% in the past three decades.[1],[2] Women in the correctional system face unique and gender-specific challenges. Consider the following:

  • Justice-involved women are more likely to have experienced physical and sexual abuse than male offenders or women in the general population.[3]
  • An overwhelming number of women in the corrections system have experienced some sort of trauma. Trauma is linked to depression, anxiety, hostility, social anxiety, and substance use.[4]
  • Women are more likely than men to be the primary caregivers for their children, creating a host of obstacles and emotional challenges.[5]
  • The majority of incarcerated women—two-thirds—are in for nonviolent offenses.[6] They are more likely to commit nonviolent crimes but are subject to the same mandatory minimum sentences, often for long periods.

Reentry into the community post-incarceration presents numerous challenges for women, including reconnecting with family, lack of housing and employment, and often limited health care and supports for psychological and addiction treatment. These challenges are further magnified by a host of legal challenges such as a provision in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families legislation that allows for a ban on assistance for persons convicted of a felony drug conviction and the federal government’s “One Strike and You’re Out” initiative, which allows public housing authorities to evict or refuse housing to applicants based on a felony drug conviction.

One of the key indicators of a woman’s success post-incarceration is her ability to find and maintain employment. Recidivism among women is highly linked to a woman’s ability to adapt to life outside of prison. However, finding employment is not as simple as it may sound. Women coming out of the corrections system may lack the skills or work history necessary to secure employment. Perhaps even more limiting is the stigma associated with their incarceration and the structural barriers that can make employment virtually impossible.

In November, President Obama announced several new federal efforts to support the rehabilitation and reintegration of formerly incarcerated individual, including “banning the box” in federal employment. The “box” refers to the box on a job application asking about prior convictions. The box creates stigma, can discourage people from applying, and allows employers to reject an applications without ever noting the person’s skills or qualifications. In doing so, the president joined 19 states and more than 100 cities in recognizing the challenges and moving closer to a solution. These are great first steps.

But we also know that the hard work often takes place at the local, grassroots level. I have had the opportunity to work with a wonderful organization addressing so many of these needs. Together We Bake (TWB) is an empowerment-based job training and personal development program for women in need of a second chance. TWB was developed to help women gain self-confidence, transferable workforce skills, and invaluable hands-on experience to help them find sustainable employment and move toward self-sufficiency. The women participating in TWB gain skills in baking and complete the ServSafe Food Safety Instruction Course. They do not just bake for the fun of it. These women are critical team members in a microenterprise that sells cookies and granola to local businesses, at farmers markets and even local Whole Foods stores. They also gain valuable experience from a business standpoint by working on the website, taking orders, creating packaging, and marketing their goods. The program takes things one step further by providing job coaching, life skills, and empowerment groups.

Stephanie Wright, cofounder of Together We Bake, notes, “Women reentering the community from the corrections system face a myriad of challenges. Not only are they facing the difficult circumstances that contributed to their incarceration—such as history of trauma or abuse, substance abuse, mental illness, low education level, limited work experience, estranged family relationships—but they have been retraumatized while incarcerated and are likely worse off mentally than when they entered. They also now face the stigma of having a criminal conviction, which makes finding employment even more difficult.”

When asked to describe the best part of working with the TWB women, Wright described the transformation that she sees in the women participating: “…the transformation of a random group of insecure, skeptical, isolated women into a team of stable, confident, empowered women. It’s pretty phenomenal to witness the personal growth that occurs. Simply providing a positive environment and the enduring belief in their inherent goodness and abilities is incredibly effective.”


[1] Cahalan, M. (1986). Historical corrections statistics in the United States, 1850–1984. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

[2] Carson, E. A. (2015). Prisoners in 2014. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

[3] Harlow, C. (1999). Prior abuse reported by inmates and probationers. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

[4] James, D. & Glaze, L. (2006). Mental health problems of prison and jail inmates. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

[5] Glaze, L., & Maruschak, L. (2008). Parents in prison and their minor children. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

[6] Carson, E. A. (2015). Prisoners in 2014. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

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