Confronting Gendered Pathways to Incarceration: Considerations for Reentry Programming.

AuthorWesely, Jennifer K.

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.


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. Ultimately, we propose an action agenda that suggests how we can reroute gendered paths for the better in the lives of women ex-offenders.

The findings presented here derive from research the first author conducted at a women's reentry center that successfully appealed to participants by acknowledging the challenges they faced prior to, during, and after their incarceration. We contend that the women who participated in this study offered generally positive views of the program because its staff and program model recognized that each of the women defines success differently and achieves success, however defined, by overcoming significant obstacles, including poverty, struggles with addiction, and, of course, a criminal record. In this approach, the program differs from dominant criminal justice and social services paradigms that promote individual responsibility without consideration of the structural factors that constrain participants' lives and choices. We accordingly argue that successful models for programs that offer reentry support to women must incorporate holistic considerations of the women's life circumstances by: fostering community and social support structures; defining realistic services provision parameters; and thinking critically about how both ex-offenders and the social service and criminal justice professionals tasked with their oversight can best address the gendered issues women face upon reentry.

The Pathways Approach

The pathways approach challenges the application of so-called gender-neutral mainstream theories of crime derived from research on men to women's offending, instead emphasizing the relationship between women's backgrounds, life histories, or experiences and their risks of criminal offending (Belknap 2015, Chesney-Lind & Pasko 2004, Daly 1994, Kruttschnitt & Gartner 2003, Pollock 2002). For example, childhood trauma, particularly in the form of physical and sexual abuse, is one of the most common factors among women offenders (Belknap & Holsinger 2006, Bowles et al. 2012, Browne et al. 1999, Chesney-Lind & Rodriguez 1983, Gilfus 1992, Richie 1996). (1) Belknap and Holsinger (2006) and DeHart (2009), among others, have since expanded meanings of trauma to include adverse events like parental desertion, mental illness, addiction or imprisonment, and family member loss. Pathway theorists further identify interrelated deprivations in familial, relational, and economic realms among women offenders (Hackett 2013). The nexus of factors they identify ranges from the individual level, such as victimization by violence, to the structural level, such as gender inequality and discrimination.

The effects of such victimizations are gendered. Childhood sexual abuse can put girls on a trajectory that increases the likelihood that they will run away, creating additional vulnerabilities to sexual exploitation as they try to survive on their own. Sexually abused female runaways are more likely than males and nonabused females to engage in activities such as substance abuse, petty theft, and prostitution (McCormack et al. 1986,Tyler et al. 2004). In general, the measures girls must take to survive in desperate conditions are a form of criminalized victimization (Chesney-Lind 2002), and they are more likely to engage in "sexual solutions to nonsexual problems" (Schaffner 2006, 81). In a review of the impact of feminist pathways research on gender-responsive policy and practice, Wattanapom and Holtfreter (2014, 200) summarize that, for women, "a variety of negative, early childhood experiences lead to juvenile delinquency, adult offending, and adult victimization." Some scholars note that the boundaries between women's victimization and offending are blurred (Belknap 2015, Chesney-Lind & Pasko 2004, Owen 1998, Wesely 2006). At the same time, it is important to remain mindful that not all women have the same lived experiences that lead to criminal behavior; as groundbreaking pathways theorist Daly (1994, 260) notes, "in theorizing about crime, we cannot work outside gender constructions, but we can be aware of how such constructions work on our theories."

While incarcerated, both women and men face a host of concerns that can include mental health issues, addiction, parenting, a lack of education and vocational preparation, and histories of violence. Research demonstrates that women suffer from these issues at significantly higher rates than men (Herrschaft et al. 2009). For example, Bergseth et al. (2011) found that although all offenders have less education and employment experience than the general population, such deprivations are more pronounced among female offenders. Further, incarceration does little to erase adverse effects of pathways that lead women into criminal activity (Bloom & Covington 2003, Scrogg ins & M alley 2010), and historically, correctional programs have not been gender responsive (Belknap 2015, Holtfreter ScMorash 2003, Mallicoat 2015). Although scholars have increasingly engaged the pathways approach to inform their analyses of the risks and needs of women while incarcerated (Covington 2002; Van Voorhis et al. 2008,2010), correctional programs for women still tend to focus on individual deficits rather than the complex intersections of social contexts and how these can constrain choices (Hannah-Moffat 2010).

Gender, Reentry, and Program Considerations

Literature that examines obstacles for women during reentry finds that this population continues to struggle with many of the (unaddressed) gendered problems that shaped their pathways into criminal activity (Doherty et al. 2014). Further, gendered pathways out of incarceration are compounded by obstacles associated specifically with the reentry efforts of women. In general, the social and economic marginalization that contributes to pathways into...

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