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Guiding Incarcerated Women Toward Reentry
By Susan Chapman, MFA, MA, C-IAYT
Social Work Today
Vol. 22 No. 3 P. 22

By all indications, the current safety net system is not up to par. What hurdles must be cleared to allow these women a better chance at leading successful lives?

Social workers and social programs play critical roles in helping incarcerated women reenter society. However, these women face hurdles when returning to society and, in many cases, family life. State resources are lacking, and the system often falls short when addressing the needs of those who hope to return successfully to their families and communities.

Maintaining Bonds Between Women and Their Families
According to The Sentencing Project, over the past four decades, “the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 475%, rising from a total of 26,326 in 1980 to 152,854 in 2020.” Also, “[o]ver half (58%) of imprisoned women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18.”

The challenge for these parents begins during their time in prison. From the time women are first incarcerated, it becomes difficult to raise their children and maintain strong bonds with their entire family. “Incarcerated women are monitored on visits and phone calls. The phone calls end after 15 or 20 minutes. Some facilities have e-mail systems, and people have to pay to communicate in that way,” explains Katherin Hervey, writer, director, and producer of the 2020 documentary The Prison Within. “Visits are hard because people are moved within and out of the state, which makes it very difficult to maintain relationships. A lot of that relies on resources. First of all, for that person who is incarcerated, is a family member even willing to bring their children to them, to expend the resources? Sometimes, families don’t have the resources to do that. Sometimes, it requires buses. It’s a huge endeavor for everyone involved to maintain and keep those relationships. People have told me that it’s one of the hardest parts of being incarcerated: how little they can be in their children’s lives despite their best efforts. When people talk about the hardest part of being incarcerated, it’s the toll on their families, not on themselves.”

Hervey describes the typical experiences families face as they try to visit their loved ones in prison. The journey often takes all day over a great distance. Many families, who may not have their own transportation, travel by bus. They wait in lines, go through searches, and then wait for the person they’re there to see. After spending as much time as they can with their loved ones, they have to return home by bus.

“How long can people keep that up, considering how long we incarcerate people? People do it. They give it all that they can. But it’s never enough,” Hervey says.

Koren Carbuccia, CHW, is a reentry program coordinator/case manager with OpenDoors, a Rhode Island–based organization that provides reentry services, such as advocacy; employment coaching; housing assistance, including a new women’s transitional home; a women’s speakers bureau; and other vital resources for individuals with criminal records. Carbuccia notes that social workers are often involved in keeping incarcerated women connected with their children, but how well this works depends on the organization.

“For example, the Department of Corrections is its own entity. Their social workers are supposed to assist while a woman is incarcerated if she has children. If the children are taken away, they would have visitation, and Corrections would coordinate that,” she says, adding, “It also depends on how long a person is incarcerated.”

According to Hervey, when mothers are released, unless another legal guardian has stepped in, they are typically the guardians of their children again. “A mother I know with two kids went into prison when they were very young. The grandparents took over. They didn’t take legal guardianship because they felt she was the mother, despite her 27-year sentence. She was released under the CARES Act and reintegrated with her family and her kids. That is what is most common. It would be unusual for family members to keep the kids from their biological mothers, because people do change. Even if the parent was incompetent when they went in, when they come out, they want to be good. When people come out, the family welcomes them and wants them to succeed and wants to help,” she says.

Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, a nonprofit organization that offers housing, legal, advocacy, leadership, and workforce development services to formerly incarcerated individuals, says that social workers often play the role of advocate, helping mothers understand the laws associated with their parental rights. “But there are two sides to this,” she notes. “Some social workers are part of the institutions that are working to substantiate formerly incarcerated individuals’ parental rights, and some understand that parents have rights. These are two opposite sides. One side is about institutional separation, and one side enforces the right for blood-line parental rights. Those two sides can be really adversarial.”

Hurdles Women Face
Burton, who was in and out of prison for nearly 20 years on drug-related convictions after childhood sexual abuse and her 5-year-old son’s death, shares her experience following her release from prison, one that she notes is common. “In California, people are ejected from prisons and jails without any social safety net system. They’re given $200 at the gate—gate money—and it’s been the same amount for 40 years. They’re without housing, ID, Social Security cards. If you’re incarcerated for more than 10 years, you need a birth certificate to get a driver’s license,” she says.

In Rhode Island, Carbuccia says women do not receive any type of stipend upon their release. “If I’ve been incarcerated for some time, and I’ve worked at my assigned job, I can either use those funds to purchase food from the store that they have or save it for when I leave. You can get a check or have the money go into your inmate account. If you don’t have money in your inmate account, then you don’t get money.

“On top of that,” Carbuccia continues, “People are given forms to complete that they can’t fill out. Some people can’t read. Basically, they leave with a manila envelope with some resources, the case manager’s number, and two local bus tickets.”

Hervey adds, “When they come out, not only do they not have things like driver’s licenses but they also have the stigma of a conviction while trying to do things like find employment. The felony conviction hangs over everything. And, sometimes, they’ve been in for so long, it’s a very different world. What knowledge do they have to operate in a world that is entirely based on tech that wasn’t that way when they went in? Driving, childcare, finding a job—all of that is extremely different when they come out. If they get out and have children to raise and have no family or community resources, it’s next to impossible.”

According to Carbuccia, social workers are supposed to assist with housing, employment, and Social Security, if necessary, within a favorable time frame before an inmate’s release. “This is what all of this is supposed to look like. The disparity here, is that Corrections does not provide this to a woman, as an individual, in a timely fashion. Much too often they end up in a shelter or in a home where there is still domestic violence or a new partner with whom she did not use the best judgment, which can then lead to reincarceration or substance abuse or alcoholism,” she says. “The goal of the social worker is to implement these services for each woman to avoid recidivism. There is a huge disconnection with members of the community with what goes on with women who are incarcerated and their reentry.”

Carbuccia points to her own experience with incarceration and reentry as her inspiration for her more than 15-year career in assisting women as they return to their communities. “I’m an example of appropriate services available on release to avoid recidivism. That’s where my work comes from. I share that with medical students and other organizations so they can learn. I use this to build trust in the community,” she explains. “But not every woman who returns to society does this work. So many women have beautiful talents. Incarceration takes away this right to use our talents by removing our choice. The disparities for women with a record is worse than what women without a record face. The same people who say, ‘You should do this,’ are the same people who close the door.”

Women face psychological hurdles as they return to their communities. Burton, who was pardoned in 2019 by California Governor Gavin Newsom, describes women who have been incarcerated as having been through the equivalent of torture. She says they are subjected to strip searches and are denied choices in food, clothing, and how they identify, in effect stripping them of their dignity and rights while in prison. These experiences make reentry into society and reunions with family more difficult. “There is a real adjustment for people who are coming back into their community,” Burton says. “Sometimes, family doesn’t understand what has happened to someone when they’ve been incarcerated.”

Burton believes the terms trauma and trauma-informed care can be overused in the social work profession. “I had a lot of traumatic events that I was able to cope with throughout childhood and early adulthood. I would disassociate from the event. But when my son was killed, at that point, I could no longer deal with it and face the traumatic loss of my son. I drank and used drugs. That coping mechanism was harmful, but at the time, it was helpful. I did end up an alcoholic, and now I’m 24 years sober,” she says. “But trauma is increasingly used as a broad figure to say that anyone who has had an experience of harm walks away with trauma, and that’s not always the case. People develop coping mechanisms that are never considered to address traumatic events, whether it be some type of processing with family, friends, or a professional, or stress relief through meditation or yoga. They have different coping mechanisms, which sometimes can have long-term adverse effects, like drugs and alcohol. Trauma has gotten too large in the social work field. It almost feels like when people are coming and saying, ‘You have trauma. You’re broken. We’ll fix you,’ it takes away all of my agency, my ability to have agency in my own life. And I need to have that power to improve my own life.”

Finding Resources
Resources that formerly incarcerated women have available to them can vary depending on where they are released. For instance, in states such as California and Washington, Hervey notes there are a number of reentry nonprofit organizations to help bridge the deficit between what the state can offer and what is needed.

“Any help that is available to them is not necessarily coming from the state. It’s more from nonprofit organizations, which are run by formerly incarcerated people, who help with employment, cars, and other resources,” she says. “Whatever the state is offering is not going to be enough, which is why you see so many of these nonprofits popping up and operating on limited resources. And it’s crucial that they’re run by formerly incarcerated individuals, which creates a trust. Women are underrepresented when we talk about incarceration and reentry after incarceration because they have different needs.”

A New Way of Life Reentry Project is often contacted while women are still in prison, but resources remain lacking. “I really think our government is at fault for the amount of money they put into prison and jails vs the money provided for our community, reentry, retraining, and such,” Burton says. “Our society is taught to give punishment and retribution, rather than compassion, understanding, and resources to heal. Our society works in a way that seeks revenge. But social problems cannot be resolved with incarceration. Mental illness, poverty, and addiction can’t be corrected through punishment and incarceration, yet that’s what we do.”

How the System Can Be Improved
Hervey and Carbuccia agree with Burton that real help comes from a place far deeper than that of resources and retraining. “We, as a society, need to see people who are incarcerated as human beings, for whom punishment does not really work, but who need to be restored,” Hervey says. “Not having enough feminine hygiene products in prison for these women, for example, is somehow OK to us because they need to be punished. And I would especially say for women, there are thousands, over half, who are in prison because of men in their lives, who drove a car somewhere, while some man was committing a crime. Or it’s drug use or poverty, all of these factors. Why are we punishing people because of where they were born or what they were born into? It’s a paradigm shift of how we look at crime and incarceration in the first place. Punishment doesn’t work.”

“We need to be heard on a bigger level,” Carbuccia says. “For most of these women, there is no reason they need to be incarcerated. The level of nonviolent offenders among incarcerated women in Rhode Island would blow you away. Substance abuse, prostitution, not having the appropriate mental health services—there are only so many places women with these issues can go, based on the insurance they have. They deserve, like everyone else, the proper care.”

“We start with being able to value one another and also understanding that mistakes happen, correcting mistakes and not punishing mistakes,” Burton says. “We have to create the services and the processes that would correct mistakes rather than creating more harm.”

Carbuccia echoes Burton’s belief that agency—helping individuals become empowered to help themselves—goes a long way toward helping women reenter society and lead fulfilling lives. She also shares Hervey’s understanding that formerly incarcerated women need to work with peers who have shared their experiences. Working from a place of trust to help women access their own power is key.

“Whatever peer-recovery specialists like myself can do to help these individuals live like human beings is valuable. We can get the information from these individuals that a regular provider can’t. We’re building that level of trust to see that it’s working,” Carbuccia says. “I can provide educational and peer support for a woman in reentry, but I can better empower her to eliminate her disparities by gaining the confidence and tools needed to get the services she really needs.”

— Susan Chapman, MFA, MA, C-IAYT, is a Los Angeles–based writer, yoga therapist, and well-being coach.