Women, Poverty, and the Criminal Justice System: Cyclical Linkages - Specific Populations of Justice-Involved Women and Girls

Gender, Psychology, and Justice: The Mental Health of Women and Girls in the Legal System - Linda Wolfe 2014

Women, Poverty, and the Criminal Justice System: Cyclical Linkages
Specific Populations of Justice-Involved Women and Girls

Erica G. Rojas, Laura Smith, and Randolph M. Scott-McLaughlin II

A volatile, complicated journey into the nature of relationships at the intersections of race, gender and gender identity, culture, class, and sexuality. It’s about the interdependent nature of our day-to-day social, economic, political, and spiritual relationships with one another. The journey takes us straight into the heart of the inhumanity inherent in declaring vast numbers of people to be expendable—overwhelmingly people of color, poor people, women, youth, and people with mental illness. It is a journey not only into the violence individuals do to one another but also into the systemic violence of the state.

—Solinger et al. 2010

With this passage describing Kay Whitlock’s experience of incarceration in the United States, Solinger and colleagues (2010) highlighted the political, economic, and social underpinnings that perpetuate the oppression of marginalized populations—and specifically poor women of color—through mass incarceration. Women represent a significant proportion of offenders under criminal justice supervision in the United States. In 2001, over one million women were under some form of correctional sanction—making up 17 percent of all offenders (Bloom, Owen, and Covington 2004). Nationally, in 2011, sixty-five out of every one hundred thousand women were in prison, and over two hundred thousand women were incarcerated in correctional facilities (Carson and Sabol 2012). Although men comprise the majority of the population of incarcerated individuals, women are the fastest-growing population of inmates. The number of women in prison increased by 587 percent between 1980 and 2011, nearly 1.5 times the rate of men (Cahalan 1986; Carson and Golinelli 2013). Moreover, current statistics support an inverse relationship between the rates of incarceration based on gender. Between 2010 and 2013, the female inmate population increased 10.9 percent, while the male inmate population declined 4.2 percent during the same time frame (Golinelli and Minton 2014).

An overwhelming commonality shared by many incarcerated women is a disadvantaged socioeconomic status. Pearce (1978) referred to the overrepresentation of women living in poverty as “the feminization of poverty”—a trend with important implications for the economic and political status of women. Although poverty may not constitute a cause of crime in and of itself, it can indeed be considered a source of crime in that it leaves people in positions where they have fewer legal alternatives for meeting legitimate needs (Reiman 2007). Women are particularly vulnerable to finding themselves in these positions: In the United States, women are 32 percent more likely to live in poverty than are men (Legal Momentum 2010). The National Women’s Law Center analyzed the U.S. Census’s 2014 figures to determine that, among the nearly eighteen million poor women (or one American woman in seven) who lived in poverty in 2013, about 43 percent lived in extreme poverty, with incomes at under half the federal poverty rate. Moreover, poverty rates were especially high, at about one in four, among Black women (25.3 percent), Latinas (23.1 percent), and Native American women (26.8 percent); rates for Asian American women were closer (11 percent) to the poverty rates for White women (10.7 percent). Poverty rates for all racial groups of adult women were higher than for their male counterparts (Entmacher et al. 2014).

Women in poverty, therefore, find themselves at the nexus of powerful, oppressive societal forces—including classism, gender discrimination, and racism—as they encounter the criminal justice system. What do we know about the nearly one million women now involved with that system (Ney 2015), and what are the implications for the psychologists and other professionals who wish to serve them? We begin this chapter by introducing a critical review of the psychological and criminological literature using an intersectional framework to explore racial-ethnic identity, gender, and criminal justice encounters (Barak, Leighton, and Flavin 2010; Cole 2009; Gabbidon 2010; McCall 2005). We then introduce the feminization of poverty as a contextual framework (Smith 2010; Smith, Appio, and Cho 2010) in which to understand the marginalization of female offenders and outline the cyclical, mutually perpetuating linkages between poverty and criminal involvement in low-income women’s lives. We conclude our chapter with directions for developing socially just research and practices for use among diverse women in prison populations.

Levels of Intersectionality: Factoring in Racial-Ethnic Identity

Before foregrounding the topics of gender and class, it is essential to note race as an overarching factor in U.S. citizens’ experiences with the justice system. Black defendants are more likely to be incarcerated during pretrial proceedings, more likely to be convicted of their crimes, and more likely to receive harsher sentencing as compared to White defendants of similar charges (Mitchell 2005). Moreover, while 95 percent of felony criminal cases never see trial and result in plea bargains (Cohen and Reaves 2006), most bargained outcomes benefit White and middle-class individuals (Donziger 1996). Zatz (2000) observed that White defendants are the least likely to enter the stage in criminal justice proceedings that would put them at risk for incarceration, let alone to a point where they would be involved in a trial. These statistics dovetail with the fact that adjudicated women are more likely to have lived in poverty, with the consequence that poor women of color are more likely to comprise the low-income female defendants represented in legal proceedings, who remain within the legal system. Until recently, psychologists have contributed little to the psychological theories and assumptions that have informed the responses of justice officials and mental health practitioners, as theorists in the field of criminology have largely contributed to the critical overview of women and crime. In this section, we offer a critique of both the psychological and the criminological literature using an intersectional framework, and comment on some of the implications of the gender-race-class intersection.

Intersectionality and Criminal Justice

The introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing laws has spurred scholars to address the fact that certain races and social classes are consistently overrepresented in the criminal justice system (Gabbidon 2010). Criminologists Barak, Leighton, and Flavin (2010) posited four assumptions that underlie all integrative approaches to understanding the manner in which identity status and criminal justice intersect. These assumptions are based on the understandings that (a) all categories of social difference share the ability to provide both privilege and marginalization in one capacity or another, inherently naturalizing (or masking) the privilege that members of advantaged social groups may be experiencing; (b) multiple forms of oppression do not have a simple additive effect, with certain combinations having a stronger effect than others; (c) ethnicity creates variation in the manner in which oppression is experienced, due in part to the invisibility of power and the uniqueness of individual identity; and (d) since the social roles of oppressor and oppressed are not mutually exclusive, the overlap of such roles provides for a complex experience in which it may be easier for individuals to be more aware of their oppression than their privilege.

Intersectionality is a complex, multifaceted topic that defies many of the researchers who support its theoretical importance (Cole 2009). McCall (2005) helpfully suggested three frameworks by which to organize and choose among emerging approaches to intersectionality: (a) anticategorical, (b) intercategorical, and (c) intracategorical. In the anticategorical approach, no form of labeling or categorization is used, in that adherents are interested in the fluid, individualized nature of social interactions, which they see as incompatible with labeling systems that are inevitably limited in their ability to capture these interactions. At the other end of the continuum, intercategorical theorists accept the need to use current social group—labeling methods, imperfect though they may be, in order to document “relationships of inequality among social groups and changing configurations of inequity” (1773). The third approach, intracategorical, is an intermediate approach that emphasizes the flawed nature of systems of social categorization yet draws upon them in order to critique them and discuss categorical boundary challenges. In the present discussion, we primarily make use of an intercategorical structure, in that we do rely on existing social group categories to discuss the circumstances of women in different racial-ethnic groups, yet, like the intracategorical theorists, we acknowledge the imperfect, nonabsolute nature of such labels.

Poor Women of Color and Criminal Justice Encounters

Given the trends explicated above, it stands to reason that race is a determining factor in low-income women’s experiences of adjudication. In fact, the great majority of incarcerated women are poor women of color. As one woman in prison described,

Most of the women are poor. In all the time I was there I didn’t meet one wealthy woman. A large percentage of Black and Chicana are there. Most of us were defended by the public defenders and couldn’t afford good attorneys. We would hear about middle-class crimes on the TV or in the papers but we never saw the women who had committed the offenses come into the prison. They had good attorneys and connections with the judges. Their charges would be dropped or they would pay fines, which they could well afford, or go into rehab, or just minimum probation sentences. (Faith and Near 2006, 16)

Statistics support this depiction: In 2010, Black women were incarcerated at nearly three times the rate of White women (133 versus 47 per 100,000), and Latinas were incarcerated at 1.6 times the rate of White women (77 versus 47 per 100,000) (Porter 2012). White women charged with crimes are more likely to be referred to drug rehabilitation services, while Black women are more likely to have their sentences lead to incarceration (Barak et al. 2010). Zatz (2000) found that during sentencing procedures for similar offenses, White women received less harsh punishments than Black women.

The experiences of poor women of color with the criminal justice system are not only distinguished by their quantity; they can also differ in quality, often beginning with the ways in which their communities are policed. The practice of overpolicing and underpolicing within economically disempowered communities of color has created a contentious relationship between the police and the people they serve (Russell-Brown 1998). African Americans, Latino/as, and Native Americans are stopped by officers more often than Whites, and these stops more often lead to arrests (Perry 2009). As a result, people of color have reported feeling disempowered and “unwilling to cooperate with a system that reinforces their oppression” (Perry 2009, 78). Along these lines, the policy stance known as the “war on drugs”—a term commonly applied to a set of drug policies used to reduce the illegal drug trade—has been critiqued as a form of social control that criminalizes drug use via an inflexible set of procedures targeted at low-income urban African American communities. These rigid drug policies have catalyzed the imprisonment of racial minorities to such a large extent that they have been considered a contemporary version of Jim Crow laws (Alexander 2012). Similarly, Zatz (2000) contended that mandatory minimum sentencing procedures for nonviolent drug offenses serve to marginalize low-income women and men of color. For instance, prior to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, the possession of five grams of crack cocaine (more commonly used in poorer communities of color) has yielded a mandatory minimum of five years in prison, while the ruling for fifty grams of powdered cocaine (more commonly used by more affluent Whites) amounted to only one one-hundredth the prison time (Gabbidon and Greene 2013). Low-income African American communities have been devastated by mass incarnation as a result of these policies (Alexander 2012), adding to the social marginalization and stigmatization of the women and their families who live there.

Racism exists, therefore, as a catalyst that is crucial to the operations of classism and gender discrimination that perpetuate the cyclical involvement of poor women in the criminal justice system. Within this cycle, the feminization of poverty influences how and why women come into contact with the law, how likely they are to remain incarcerated after arrest, and how they experience further marginalization as a result of institutional practices during and after incarceration.

The Feminization of Poverty: A Contextual Framework

The moral condemnation of poor women sentenced to prison continues to permeate public perception and policy. In 1994, a warden of an unnamed state prison for women elaborated on the prevailing attitude towards incarcerated women:

Poor men stick somebody up or sell drugs. To me, as strange as this may sound coming from a warden, that is understandable. I can see how you would make that choice. Women degrade themselves. Selling themselves, you should hear some of the stuff they do. There is no sense of self-respect, of dignity. . . . There is something wrong on the inside that makes an individual take up those kinds of behavior and choices. (Law 2009, 12)

As the quotation above indicates, poor women who fail to conform to prescribed societal gender roles are often the recipients of increased disdain. Patriarchy and classism are two forms of oppression whose operations intersect in the feminization of poverty (Smith, Appio, and Cho 2010). “Patriarchy” refers to the degree to which society is male-dominated, male-identified, and male-centered (Johnson 1997). Therefore, patriarchal societies tend to have positions of power that are occupied by men, and tend to consider qualities associated with men to be good or normal. “Classism” refers to the discriminatory actions and attitudes associated with social class privilege (Smith, Appio, and Cho 2010). Heather E. Bullock explicated classism as “the oppression of the poor through a network of everyday practices, attitudes, assumptions, behaviors, and institutional rules” (Bullock 1995, 119). Like women across the social spectrum, women in poverty contend with the impact of patriarchy, and classism adds an additional dimension of oppression to their experience (Smith 2010).

These intersecting forms of oppression result in financial deprivation and gender discrimination that increase women’s vulnerability to poverty. Perhaps the most frequently cited example of this intersection is the longstanding wage gap between men and women in the United States (Entmacher et al. 2014). In 2013, median annual earnings in the United States for women and men working full-time, year-round, were $39,157 and $50,033, respectively—resulting in women earning just 78 percent of what men earned for similar jobs (American Association of University Women 2014).

Moreover, women are more likely than men to be supporting children as single parents on these diminished incomes, and the necessary demands of childcare subsequently preclude women’s abilities to work as much as would otherwise be possible (e.g., Albelda and Tilly 1997; Maume 1991). The clear financial deprivation that results from societal gender discrimination and women’s impoverishment is further accompanied by concomitant psychological harm. The mental health research has repeatedly confirmed the damaging impact of poverty upon many aspects of physical and emotional well-being (e.g., Siefert et al. 2000; Siefert et al. 2004).

In addition to their financial deprivation, poor women also face negative attitudes and discriminatory actions as the result of social-class bias. Specifically, social institutions and their policies and procedures function to perpetuate the deprivation and low status of poor people through institutional classism. Individual prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination are perpetuated through interpersonal classism (Lott and Bullock 2007).

Discriminatory practices related to classism can be traced throughout the criminal justice system. A particularly blatant example of classism can be found in the setting of bail, a common practice through which poor people occupy prison cells while affluent people accused of the same crimes go home. Other examples can be gathered from basic assumptions about crime: Reiman (2007) has argued that the criminal justice system is classist in some of its deepest assumptions about what crime is. Crimes tend to be portrayed to the public as the crimes of poverty—burglary, theft, selling drugs, and other street crimes. According to Reiman, these are not, however, the crimes that cause the most death, destruction, and suffering in our country. Rather, those crimes include corporate fraud, hazardous working conditions, the creation of toxic pollutants, profiteering from unhealthy or unsafe products, and risky high-level financial services ventures in which the American public ends up bearing the consequences of the risk—which are, of course, crimes of the affluent. By defining crime in the popular imagination as street crime, and by promulgating images of criminals as poor people (especially poor people of color), the system deflects societal attention away from class-privileged groups and toward the poor (Reiman 2007).

The Feminization of Poverty and Crime: Cycles of Dispossession

Classism and patriarchal oppression operate together and have a profound influence on how women become involved in the criminal justice system. From the beginning, women in prisons and jails are more likely to have been socioeconomically disadvantaged and to have had less access to education before their arrests. For example, nearly half (44 percent) of women in state prisons in 1998 had not completed high school (Bureau of Justice Statistics 1999). Diminished access to education erodes opportunity in the workplace, and inequitable work opportunities maintain women in lower-paying jobs, preventing them from being as able to move up the economic ladder (Albelda and Tilly 1997; Goldberg and Kremen 1990). As noted earlier, gender discrepancies in wage earnings factor into the equation at this point as well.

Other statistics affirm the significant relationship among poverty, unemployment, and crime. In 2000, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that incarcerated women were twice as likely as the general population to grow up in single-parent households, making them more likely to live in poverty. Only four out of ten women were employed full-time at the time of their offense (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2000), with 80 percent of women in prison reporting incomes of less than two thousand dollars per year and 92 percent reporting incomes of less than ten thousand dollars per year (Fosado 2007). Furthermore, 53 percent of female inmates in prison and 74 percent of female inmates in jail were unemployed when arrested (Fosado 2007). The majority of incarcerated women lived below the poverty level, a circumstance that can create vulnerability to criminal involvement as the result of reduced legal options for family support (Richie 1996). For this reason, any discussion of women in the criminal justice system is largely a discussion of poor women in the criminal justice system.

Women’s limited socioeconomic conditions are further reflected in the types of crimes that they commit. Because women offenders are primarily poor, low-income, undereducated, and unskilled, they are more likely to have been convicted of nonviolent crimes involving drugs or property—crimes that reflect their limited socioeconomic circumstances (Bloom, Owen, and Covington 2004). As one incarcerated woman described her introduction to crime, “Our ’apartment’ cost $14 a week and we loved it. I stole a couple of credit cards and a few linens from my mother. . . . When the rent was due again I went home and took an air conditioner and a stereo and hocked them to pay the rent” (Faith and Near 2006). In 2009 the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the most frequently charged offenses among female felony defendants were fraud (37 percent), forgery (34 percent), and larceny/theft (31 percent) (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2013). In general, women are primarily arrested and incarcerated for property and drug offenses, with property offenses comprising 29 percent and drug offenses comprising 25 percent of the female population in state prison in 2010 (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2013).

Low-Income Women in Custody

Upon arrest, women offenders enter an organization whose institutional policies, regulations, and sentencing procedures reflect a patriarchal sociopolitical structure. According to Judge Patricia Wald (2001),

The circumstances surrounding the commission of a crime vary significantly between men and women. Yet penalties are most often based on the circumstances of crimes committed by men, creating a male norm in sentencing which makes the much-touted gender neutrality of guideline sentencing very problematic. (Wald 2001, 12)

As Judge Wald indicated, the majority of current judicial rules and regulations were developed originally for men and, moreover, for more violent male samples. For example, women are required to post the same amount of bail as men in order to stay out of jail despite their relative economic disadvantages. In a study of female pretrial jail detainees, Teplin, Abram, and McClelland (1996) concluded that the majority of women who remained in jail were nonviolent offenders who could not afford to pay bail. Although maintaining uniform bail postings across gender may initially seem to be an equitable state of affairs, it actually penalizes the poorer, less violent group of offenders, women, who are held to the same dollar amounts. In other words, when bail is set equally for women and men, women are more likely to remain in custody for less violent offenses than men.

Legislative efforts to control crime have significantly increased the number of women in state and federal prisons. Tough-on-crime legislation was initially enforced to prohibit violent male offenders from posing a risk in the community (Covington and Bloom 2003). However, these legislative policies have ultimately targeted women, as women who would have previously been given community sanctions are increasingly being sentenced to prison as a result of mandatory minimum sentencing statutes and increased sentence lengths (Bloom, Owen, and Covington 2004; Covington and Bloom 2003). For instance, twenty years ago, nearly two-thirds of the women convicted of federal felonies were granted probation, compared to 36 percent of women given probation in 2010 (Maruschak and Bonczar 2013).

One of the most detrimental trends in sentencing policies for women has been the war on drugs. Since its inception in 1971, the war on drugs has inadvertently become a war on women (Bloom, Chesney-Lind, and Owen 1994), and more specifically, on poor women whose means of entry into the legal economy were limited. These policies have led to an upsurge in women arrested for nonviolent, drug-related offenses. For instance, in 1979 approximately one in every ten women in U.S. prisons was serving a sentence for a drug conviction. In 1999, this figure skyrocketed to approximately one in three. Moreover, the number of women incarcerated for drug offenses rose a staggering 888 percent between 1986 and 1996 (Mauer, Potler, and Wolf 1999). Stricter sentencing laws regarding drug-related offenses distinctively target female offenders, as the literature has consistently revealed that women are more likely than men to have reported drug use at the time of their offenses (Bureau of Justice Statistics 1999), to have committed crimes in order to obtain money to purchase drugs, and to have used more drugs while in prison than men (Morash, Bynum, and Koons 1998). Since women have always represented the minority of individuals who commit violent crimes, the increasing number of women in prison would not have grown as dramatically if not for the changes in drug enforcement policies and practices (Mauer 2013).

Wanted: Adequate, Relevant Services for Incarcerated Low-Income Women

Once women are sentenced to serve their terms in correctional facilities, they encounter yet another environment that serves to perpetuate patriarchal and classist trends in society at large. Correctional treatment has historically adopted a male-oriented focus, with programs, policies, and services that were created to treat the needs of men in the criminal justice system. The past twenty years have witnessed an increase in research regarding the lack of appropriate services available to women in the fields of mental health, substance abuse, and trauma treatment (Covington and Bloom 2003). In an effort to rectify such disparities, the U.S. Congress and the courts have mandated that female offenders be given access to services of the same quality as those designed and provided for incarcerated men (Collins and Collins 1996). However, forcing women to take part in services that are identical to those offered to men can serve to marginalize women further, as such programs are not gender- or culturally responsive to the unique needs and issues that women face.

Well-Being and Mental Health

Issues that contribute to the marginalization of low-income incarcerated women are intricately connected with issues of health and well-being (Jose-Kampfner 1997). Richie (2001) reported that health care needs are among the most common challenges for incarcerated women. In particular, incarcerated women possess many distinct needs that require specialized treatment services. For example, incarcerated women require mental health services, as they consistently reveal high rates of psychiatric disorders and substance use issues (Battle et al. 2003; Jordan et al. 1996; Sanders et al. 1997; Teplin, Abram, and McClelland 1996). Yet the few available treatment programs that do exist are inconsistent or subpar:

Inside, there were some treatment groups, but they only met every once in a while. I’d try to get there, but sometimes the officers forgot to call me out of my housing area. Or, I’d get there and the group would be cancelled for some reason. Other times, we’d just be there talking, but not getting very deep. It was good to get a distraction, but I wouldn’t say I worked on my issues. I’m an addict and have been for 8 years. I really need help, but didn’t get it in jail. (Richie 2001, 372)

The majority of female offenders in the United States are incarcerated for drug-related offenses and were using illegal substances at the time of arrest (Richie 2001). As in the case of the woman quoted above, their struggles with addiction often go untreated and continue to create difficulties during their incarceration. Green and colleagues (2005) found that 32 percent of female inmates in a county correctional facility in Maryland were classified as having an alcohol problem, with nearly 72 percent reporting recent use of an illicit substance and 74 percent reporting either an alcohol or a substance abuse problem. Female inmates were also significantly more likely to have met the criteria for dependence on or abuse of drugs (61 percent) than their male counterparts (Karberg and James 2005).

Due to increased funding and the development of gender-specific programs, services that address incarcerated women’s needs have become more prevalent over the past twenty-five years (White 2008). For instance, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (2009) asserted that the importance of treatment should be emphasized for female offenders through skill-building activities, education, vocational training, and release preparation. This treatment includes drug education, nonresidential programs, the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), follow-up treatment, transitional drug abuse treatment, and counseling for all female inmates who are eligible and willing to volunteer for treatment (Federal Bureau of Prisons 2009).

Nevertheless, the implementation of these programs has proven to be inconsistent, as eligibility standards and enforcement policies are vague and differ across various correctional institutions. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (2000) reported that over 92 percent of female offenders who are eligible volunteer to participate in these programs, with 15 percent less likely to recidivate following release from prison after three years of treatment. Other statistics paint a different picture, asserting that it is estimated that no more than 10 percent of drug-abusing women are offered drug treatment in jail or prison (Freudenberg 2001; Prendergast, Wellisch, and Falkin 1995), with only 20 percent of substance-dependent or -abusing female inmates participating in treatment ever while in prison or jail (Karberg and James 2005). Koons and colleagues (1997) conducted a comprehensive survey of state and federal settings where women were incarcerated to examine mental health treatment programs that were in place. Only 47 percent included substance abuse treatment and 44 percent included parenting interventions. Only 7 percent of the programs addressed other areas, such as mental health. In spite of mandates to provide basic mental health treatment in the criminal justice system, only a portion offered a comprehensive range of services (Steadman, Barbera, and Dennis 1994). Morris, Steadman, and Veysey (1997) concluded, in a study of health services in jails serving men and women, that 50 percent of the jails surveyed provided crisis intervention and psychotropic medication, while other services such as counseling were only offered in about one-third of programs. Research consistently supports that female offenders have experienced a history of serious traumatic experiences (Felitti and Anda 2010; Felitti et al. 1998; Messina and Grella 2006), yet this is rarely taken into account within treatment services to address women’s physical and mental health issues (Covington 2012). Few, if any, prisons are able to offer a comprehensive array of mental health services for all inmates. Limited staffing and resources force prison officials to direct their attention to inmates with the most severe impairments—most of which present with dangerous and disruptive symptoms. Inmates with difficulties deemed less severe may end up waiting long periods of time for treatment, if they receive such treatment at all (Hills, Siegfried, and Ickowitz 2004).

Given that women in prison have frequently come from low-income backgrounds where they have limited access to health care, the unavailability of adequate treatment behind bars builds upon a lifetime of unaddressed mental health needs. Women enter correctional facilities already suffering from treatable diseases such as asthma, diabetes, cancer, late-term miscarriages, and seizures. Prisons may be the first circumstance where poor women have access to adequate health care; however, understaffing, long delays, and poor quality of treatment severely limit the medical attention they receive. Furthermore, many prisons and jails charge inmates for medical visits, making health care even less accessible for already-poor women. Female inmates serving sentences in super—maximum security prisons, where prisoners are not allowed to work for wages, often find it impossible to get adequate treatment (Amnesty International USA 2001).

For women prisoners who receive mental health services, many are routinely given psychotropic medication without the opportunity to undergo psychotherapeutic treatment (Amnesty International USA 2001). This inevitably causes difficulties for poor women who suffer from mental health problems: When they return to the community and do not have access to affordable outpatient services, they run out of medication (Zaitzow 2010) and are at higher risk of rearrest. These women (sometimes referred to as “frequent flyers”) return to prison or jail as a result of not obtaining adequate care to treat their mental illnesses.

Poverty itself has consistently been associated with adverse mental and physical health outcomes of many kinds (e.g., Blazer et al. 1994; Brown and Moran 1997; Siefert et al. 2000). For poor women, the experience of navigating overt experiences of classism and sexism (as well as other forms of oppression they may face on the basis of their race, ethnicity, ability status, or sexual orientation) can be especially depleting and stressful; in fact, Belle and Doucet (2003) referred to poverty in the lives of women as depressogenic. At the same time, as vulnerable as poor women are to emotional distress, they are one of the groups least well served by mental health professionals (Smyth, Goodman, and Glenn 2006).

Given the lack of treatment for poor women in general, and for adjudicated women in particular, it follows that rates of psychiatric disorders among female inmates are higher than would be expected in the community (Green et al. 2005). Incarcerated women have an even higher rate of mental health problems than incarcerated men, with women in state prisons or local jails diagnosed with mental health disorders at three times the rate of their male counterparts (James and Glaze 2006). According to preliminary findings from a national study of women in jail, Dehart et al. (2014) asserted that women offenders self-medicated with drugs to cope with overwhelming trauma, loss, depression, and mental health struggles. Findings indicated that 66 percent of women had histories of substance dependence, 55 percent met criteria for lifetime posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 31 percent for major depressive disorder (MDD), 16 percent for bipolar disorder, 5 percent for schizophrenia spectrum, and 13 percent met criteria for brief psychotic disorder (Dehart et al. 2014).

Depression itself is often associated with violence and early trauma (National Alliance on Mental Illness 2011). Female prisoners have been shown to have very high exposure to a variety of traumatic experiences, especially to interpersonal violence, including childhood physical and sexual abuse (Battle et al. 2003; Browne, Miller, and Maguin 1999; Greene et al. 2000; Jordan et al. 1996; Owen and Bloom 1995; Teplin, Abram, and McClelland 1996). A recent review suggests that exposure to traumatic events may be nearly universal among incarcerated women, with studies showing ranges of trauma exposure to be between 77 percent and 90 percent (Battle et al. 2003). In a study of female incarcerated offenders, Green et al. (2005) found that 98 percent of the women surveyed had been exposed to at least one category of trauma, with childhood trauma reported in 62 percent and interpersonal trauma reported in 90 percent of women. Rates of exposure to lifetime trauma and violence among incarcerated women consistently exceed those of the general population (Kessler et al. 1995). Despite the multiple mental health needs of incarcerated women, treatment programs often fall short in addressing their needs.

Poverty, Incarceration, and Motherhood

The efforts of incarcerated women to mother their children show clearly the impact of poverty-related obstacles. Imprisoned women are continually exposed to noninclusive legislative policies that fail to address their specific and unique needs as caregivers. Halperin and Harris (2004) reported that child welfare policies regarding children of incarcerated women have not been modified despite the rapidly increasing rates of female incarceration. Legislation such as the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) mandates the termination of parental rights once a child has been in foster care for fifteen or more of the preceding twenty-two months—especially detrimental for incarcerated women, as they serve an average of eighteen months (Jacobs 2001). In many cases, the forced separation that results in mothers being imprisoned leads to a permanent termination of parental rights (Genty 1995). Even alternative resources available to imprisoned mothers prove difficult to access. Placing children with relatives instead of in foster homes to avoid the ASFA mandate can be challenging, as state policies provide less financial aid to relatives who are caregivers than nonrelative foster caregivers (Bloom, Owen, and Covington 2004). Consulting with the child welfare caseworkers available to female offenders can also prove problematic or impossible, as they are often overworked, underresourced, and lacking the training to serve incarcerated mothers adequately. These obstacles create obvious disadvantages for imprisoned mothers, as they ultimately impact their chances of reunifying with their children (Correctional Association of New York 2006).

Relatedly, in a study of incarcerated mothers, Allen, Flaherty, and Ely (2010) reported that a remarkably high number of women were homeless prior to incarceration—their rate of homelessness was twenty-five times higher than that of other local citizens. As the population of female offenders increases, so does the number of incarcerated mothers and familial caregivers. Approximately 70 percent of imprisoned women are mothers, most of whom were the primary caretakers for their children prior to their incarceration (Greenfeld and Snell 1999; Mumola 2000; Phillips and Harm 1997). Incarcerated women and their children experience a lack of support via inadequate, or most often nonexistent, policies within correctional facilities that exacerbate the difficulties associated with separation. A report by the Correctional Association of New York (2006) emphasized the lack of resources available for female offenders, including inefficient visitation and parenting programs, inadequate legal representation, and lack of proximity of a mother’s location to that of her child. For example, Bloom and Steinhart (1993) reported that over half of children were found to have never visited their mothers while incarcerated. Among the reasons most cited for the lack of contact with children is geographical distance from the prison (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2000). The consequences of incarceration for mothers and their children are detrimental. As one incarcerated woman described,

Your children look at you like a stranger. When my son’s grandma left him with me he started crying because he didn’t know me, and he felt he was being deserted by the only mother he knew. My little girl was older—she was six when I got out. She remembered me a little, but she has never been able to live with me. She and my sister had grown so attached to each other that it would be unfair of me to snatch my daughter up. (Faith and Near 2006, 18)

Low-Income Women and Societal Reentry

The consequences of institutional marginalization persist and continue to influence the lives of female offenders—especially those living in poverty—long after a jail or prison term has been served. Instead of helping women transition into their communities, many state and federal laws impede access to basic necessities, including education and financial assistance:

Since I was convicted for marijuana, I have to register with the police department in any town I live. When you first come to a new town, in the hope of making a fresh start, it is really frustrating to have to march straight to the police and let them know you are a bad one. You want to make a good impression on a prospective employer, but if you admit that you have been in prison you probably won’t be hired, and it’s against the law to not admit it. (Faith and Near 2006, 17)


As mentioned, a significant number of incarcerated women have a history of low educational access before entering the criminal justice system. As low-income female offenders reenter the community, the few financial resources previously available to them become even more limited. Legislative policies such as the Higher Education Act of 1998, which was created with the intention of providing accessible financial assistance to disadvantaged students pursuing higher education, denies eligibility for any grant, loan, or work-study assistance to students convicted of drug offenses. Most states even allow employers to deny jobs to anyone with a criminal record, regardless of how much time has passed or the individual’s work history or personal circumstances (American Civil Liberties Union 2006).

Public Assistance

Many low-income women released from prison turn to public assistance to help support their reentry into the community, only to find that these resources are unavailable or significantly limited. For example, the Welfare Reform Bill of 1996 not only imposed time limits on the aid that women can receive but has denied services and resources for women with a criminal record, particularly in cases of women convicted on a felony drug-related charge (Mallicoat 2014). Section 115 of the 1996 Welfare Reform Bill, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), stipulates that persons convicted of a state or federal felony offense involving the use or sale of drugs are subject to a lifetime ban on receiving cash assistance and food stamps. This provision applies only to those who are convicted of a drug offense (Allard 2002). The lifetime welfare ban has had a disproportionate impact on female offenders, as women are more susceptible to poverty and are therefore disproportionately represented in the welfare system (Allard 2002). Women who are denied this transitional assistance may not be able to provide shelter and food for themselves and their children while engaging in job training and placement (Mallicoat 2014).


Low-income women who relied upon public housing for their families before their incarceration are often released to discover that their only opportunities for shelter have disappeared. Women convicted of a drug offense are barred from living in public housing developments and, in some areas, a criminal record can limit the availability of Section 8 housing options (Mallicoat 2014). In 1996, the U.S. federal government implemented the “One Strike Initiative” authorizing local public housing authorities to obtain the criminal conviction records of all adult applicants or tenants. Federal housing policies permit (and in some cases require) public housing authorities, Section 8 providers, and other federally assisted housing programs to deny housing to individuals who have a drug conviction or are suspected of drug involvement (Allard 2002). Drug charges are the only offense type subjected to this ban—even convicted murderers can apply for and receive government benefits following their release (Porter 2012). Mallicoat (2014) estimates that the lifetime ban on assistance affects more than 92,000 women, placing more than 135,000 children of these mothers at risk for future contact with the criminal justice system due to economic struggles. Therefore, female offenders end up resorting to behaviors that led to their interactions with the criminal justice system in the first place. The statistics on recidivism provide evidence in support for this: The 2009 recidivism rate for female offenders in New York State was at 30 percent within three years of release (Correctional Association of New York 2009).

Concluding Comments: Directions for Research and Practice

One of the most obvious ways in which psychologists can support poor adjudicated women is to strengthen their own research contributions in this area. The vulnerability of women in poverty to criminal justice involvement is clear, as is the damaging impact of poverty, incarceration, and their sequellae. More research to document these trends is not, therefore, a vital need. Rather, we suggest that psychologists direct their efforts in other directions.

Recommendation #1: Work to highlight the need for gender-sensitive correctional policies and practices.

As summarized by Ney (2015), such practices have evolved in keeping with empirical research focused on male offenders, and do not address the needs and risk factors relevant to women. Incarcerated women face unique discriminatory practices that impact their access to gender-specific treatment while incarcerated, such as access to appropriate health care, mental health needs, and legislative burdens that impact their ability to mother their children. Poverty-related obstacles specific to incarcerated women prevent successful reentry into society, which impacts access to education, public assistance, and housing.

Recommendation #2: Study the current experiences and outcomes of poor women with mental health service providers within the criminal justice system.

Little systematic psychological knowledge currently exists with regard to this work, and the limited research that does exist suggests that service providers are not contributing as much as they could. Recently, a growing body of research has utilized a pathways framework to better understand female criminality. This type of research typically collects data, usually through qualitative interviews, that provide retrospective inquiry into women’s life experiences (Schram and Tibetts 2014). This theoretical approach serves to explore incarcerated women’s own perspectives on the life factors that have led them to jail or prison, and allows for the identification of themes regarding potential pathways to crime. Mental health practitioners stand to gain a deeper understanding of the needs of incarcerated women through this perspective. Studies utilizing a pathways perspective have reported themes within female offenders’ stories, such as lack of familial and social networks, corrupt role models, living conditions permeated with poverty and violence, and multiple forms of ongoing victimization (DeHart 2008). Justice officials can also gain further insight into policy reform via the pathways framework, as many incarcerated women are aware of how their needs could be better met while serving their sentences. Singer and colleagues (1995) found that, when questioned, an overwhelming number of incarcerated women mentioned a need for services such as drug treatment or rehabilitation, mental health counseling, and alcohol counseling within correctional facilities. Similarly, most women described a willingness to participate in drug education/treatment programs, individual mental health counseling, stress management, and health education if these services were available (Green et al. 2005).

Recommendation #3: Develop innovative, socially just practices for use with diverse women that are central to their historical realities.

Van Wormer (2010) emphasized that understanding the familial cultural orientation of female offenders is essential for practitioners working with African American and Latina women in a clinical context. Practitioners must form a personal connection with the women with whom they work, and small-group therapy services can act as a beneficial medium in which clinicians can achieve this type of rapport. Failure to recognize this cultural difference can result in clinicians facing a potentially impenetrable barrier, jeopardizing their ability to experience the client’s reality, to understand which services are most needed, and to deliver these services most effectively to women during incarceration (van Wormer 2010). The incorporation of spirituality in working from the Afrocentric framework has also been explored as essential to working with African American women who value tradition, community, and values taught in the church (van Wormer 2010). Faith (1993) outlined methods of Native American ceremonies and healing circles as a means to reinvigorate imprisoned women. Accordingly, the Correctional Service of Canada (2005) allows indigenous people who are incarcerated to practice culturally specific modes of helping. This program includes a peer mentorship system that includes elders in their native community attending parole hearings and assisting in prisoner reentry upon their release from prison.

One of the most detrimental effects of imprisonment on women and their children is the inability to develop close attachments. Programs such as the Parenting Program at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women (Carlson 1998) was developed in an effort to facilitate secure, healthy attachments between incarcerated women and their children. This program allows incarcerated women to spend an entire day with their children in an uncrowded and private area. These days are spent exclusively between mother and child, creating experiences that are otherwise impossible during general visiting hours, which are supervised, noisy, crowded, and may not allow for mothers to touch or hug their children. Mothers are given the opportunity to develop relationships with their children by spending the day engaged in activities such as baking or playing games. The program also allows for overnight visits. One incarcerated mother explained, “If it weren’t for this program, I think I would have left here much the same person I was when I came in—detached, distracted, lost, and broken. . . . My children don’t just have their old mom back. They have a much better mother and human being in their lives” (Solinger et al. 2010, 96). Such programs serve as models for innovative psychological interventions in prisons that speak to the realities of diverse women. Developing such services can lead to more effective rehabilitation for women while incarcerated, and also allow them to develop social support systems that are necessary for aiding in their successful reentry into society.

Recommendation #4: Use research and practice to combine psychological services with other supports for poor women who are transitioning from incarceration to the community.

Incarcerated women often have family and/or childcare responsibilities as well as diminished employment histories, which helps to explain the 58 percent of women who are rearrested (Cimino et al. 2015). Rearrests often stem from survival needs that are associated with poverty itself, such as difficulty meeting financial obligations or the inability to secure safe housing (Ney 2015). By addressing these issues directly, educational and vocational programming may also serve to improve psychological well-being among poor women in transition. Such a linkage was suggested by focus group members in Foley’s (2012) study of incarcerated women, who spoke of such programming as an empowering and hope-inspiring experience: “Being able to start college and have the revelation that I could make it through, that’s something that I picked up here. That’s been the most beneficial for me” (Foley 2012, 26).

Recommendation #5: Initiate cross-disciplinary collaborations to assess the dynamics of women’s criminal justice interactions.

Historically, much of this knowledge has resided in the field of criminology. However, criminologists have often accepted a legal definition of crime that centers on the idea of an individual, male offender, and much of the literature fails to acknowledge the need for gender-sensitive policies, treatment programs, and legislation. Therefore, the unique needs of poor and incarcerated women of color are often overlooked. Fields such as criminology could strengthen their own investigations through the adoption of counseling psychology’s approach to understanding the well-being of marginalized groups. Racism exists as a driving force in facilitating the marginalization of women, and is even more detrimental when compounded by the operations of classism and gender discrimination, which perpetuate the cyclical involvement of poor women in the criminal justice system. Counseling psychology research focusing on racial-cultural analyses and social justice—based treatment approaches could contribute greatly to the field of criminology in helping to develop these just practices. Strengthening our research involvements in these new directions can allow psychologists to extend their social justice practice in support of some of society’s most vulnerable members: adjudicated women living in poverty, whose crimes are often those of “desperation or survival” (United Way of Calgary 2008, 6).

The recommendations above directly support the implementation of the American Psychological Association’s Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Girls and Women, hereafter referred to as the “APA Guidelines” (American Psychological Association 2015). Specifically, Recommendations #1, #2, and #4 support the application of Section (A) of the APA Guidelines—Diversity, Social Context and Power—which necessitates a framework for the exploration of social identity and gender role socialization issues in diverse areas such as health, education, employment, research, and legal systems. Recommendation #3 supports the implementation of Section (B)—Professional Responsibility—including principles that facilitate culturally sensitive and affirming practices for girls and women. Lastly, Recommendation #5 directly links to Section (C) of the APA Guidelines—Practice Applications—which encourages practitioners to consider the problems of girls and women within the broader sociopolitical context and to employ gender-specific interventions.

As previously discussed, women are the fastest-growing population of inmates in the United States, with an overrepresentation of women living in poverty before their arrest (Golinelli and Minton 2014). Because women in poverty find themselves at the nexus of oppressive societal forces such as classism, gender discrimination, and racism, the feminization of poverty provides a contextual framework in which to understand the marginalization of female offenders. The feminization of poverty influences how and why women come into contact with the law, how likely they are to remain incarcerated after arrest, and how they experience further marginalization as a result of patriarchal and discriminatory institutional practices during and after incarceration. Adequate, gender-specific services for female offenders that address the unique challenges faced at these intersections are necessary to strengthen research contributions in this area and inform gender-sensitive corrections policies and practices. Strengthening our research involvements in these and other new directions can allow psychologists to extend their social justice practice in support of adjudicated women.


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