The United States contains 5% of the total world population — but 20% of the world’s incarcerated population. Women currently represent the fastest-growing prison population, rising 834% between 1978 and 2015 (more than double the rate for men) .
Women’s involvement in the justice system is largely tied to their experiences of male violence. Juvenile girls are likely to be arrested for less serious crimes than boys, often directly as a result of attempting to leave abusive home situations or relationships. Women are most likely to be convicted of drug or property crimes, and the rates of violent crime committed by women are significantly lower than for men. Women are most often first introduced to drugs by their partner, and attempts to quit drugs can result in violence from their partner. When women commit violent crimes, it tends to be against an abusive male partner .
Female prisoners are also twice as likely to have experienced childhood abuse than their male counterparts, and eight times more likely to have experienced abuse as an adult . Some estimate the rates of justice-involved women who have experienced abuse is as high as 80% . According to journalist Alan Waldman:
“Women’s drug use and sales, as well as other criminal activity, may be an extension of their relationship with their intimate partner.” 
In a system designed for men, women (who currently make up 7% of the total US incarcerated population) face unique challenges and greater risks than their men upon reentry, with programs not suited to their needs.
Gaining employment after incarceration is often the biggest hurdle for individuals in reentry. Within the first 10 months after release, men are 14% more likely to find any form of employment than women. For black women, the challenge is even greater. Formerly incarcerated white men face an unemployment rate of 18.4%, versus 43.6% for black women (compared to 23.2% for white women) . The impact of this disparate access is amplified since women are more likely than men to be the caregivers of children. 65% of women in state prisons are mothers, the majority of which are single mothers with an average of two children at home. There are currently an estimated 1.3 million minor children who have a mother under correctional supervision .
The employment gap for women in reentry is a result of multiple factors, including lack of vocational training for women in prison, state licensing regulations which disproportionately limit access to jobs traditionally held by women, and stigma and bias against formerly-incarcerated women (especially women of color).
Resources for vocational training in correctional facilities are limited in women’s prisons compared to men’s. Consider one Texas facility, which offers 21 training programs for men, but only two for women: culinary arts and office administration . In the Philadelphia prison system, twice as many programs are offered in men’s facilities as in women’s.
Even when women do have access to jobs, roles traditionally considered “feminine,” such as care-giving positions, are more likely to require licensure — which states are able to prevent people with criminal records from gaining. Three of the most common jobs for women (teachers, nurses, and nursing aides) all require state licensure and are incredibly hard to break into with a criminal record. Traditionally male jobs, like construction and truck driving, are considered accessible to felons, even though truck driving requires a commercial driver’s license. Pennsylvania has a law requiring cosmetologists to be of “good moral character,” while no such law exists for barbers.
Women are held to a higher standard, and gendered socialization makes women less likely to consider pursuing fields that may be more accessible to people with criminal records. Even if women do apply to be construction workers, there’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t face discrimination in the hiring process or on the job in a traditionally male field. Becoming a truck driver, on the other hand, is likely totally out of the question for single mothers with young children. Even professional cleaning services, a job accessible to women with little education or work experience, generally requires its employees to be bonded and insured — a requirement out of reach for most people with a criminal record .
Mental Health Partnerships (MHP), a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that has assisted individuals with mental health conditions recover for over six decades, is taking an innovative approach to helping women in reentry. A recent grant from Cooperative Agreements to Benefit Homeless Individuals (CABHI) provided funding for MHP to run a Certified Peer Specialist (CPS) program inside Riverside Correctional Facility, Philadelphia’s county prison for women. A Certified Peer Specialist is trained to leverage their own lived experience of incarceration and recovery to help peers like them who are going through similar experiences. For women in reentry facing sexism, racism, addiction, trauma, poverty, homelessness, and the stigma associated with each of these — a peer relationship with someone who has not only been there, but recovered and came out the other side, is invaluable. Terena Amoah, a Certified Peer Specialist who has lived experience in Riverside, says a CPS can provide a unique form of support because, “We’ve been there.”
The CPS program not only provides hope and support for women in reentry, but provides jobs for women both in and out of Riverside. Jobs inside state prisons are hard to come by, and can pay less than $1/hour. These jobs are often labor-intensive, and don’t contribute to the individual’s marketable skills for life after prison. MHP provides jobs for 12 women inside Riverside to act as Certified Peer Specialists for $10/hour, a rate unheard of in prisons. In March, MHP lost part of their funding from CABHI to pay a fair wage to women working as CPSs inside Riverside. WOMEN’S WAY was able to step in and help fill the gap with a $10,000 Immediate Response Action Fund (IRAF) grant in only eight days to make sure that women were able to be paid for their work as promised. Catherine Sui, Director of Development at MHP, explained how important this job is to women in prison:
“The job provides stability for women who are just trying to survive in incarceration. They have to buy items from the commissary, like soap and shampoo because they are aren’t provided enough. The better jobs in these facilities only pay $1/hour. We pay $10/hour. It makes a huge difference, and individuals depend on that job. Women who don’t get paid still have to find a way to survive.”
MHP is already seeing success from their Certified Peer Specialist program. One woman with whom Amoah works had been struggling to reintegrate into society after losing custody of her son while incarcerated. She was living and getting high with family members who enabled her addiction, and having trouble navigating the necessary systems to get the help she needed. Amoah helped her get placement in a home where she could find support and recover. Later, she was offered a job at that home after her exceptional growth and recovery and was able to maintain employment there and regain custody of her son. Amoah’s help in not only navigating difficult and bureaucratic systems, but providing judgement-free support and guidance, was vital in helping this woman have a successful reentry.
According to Sui, women re-enter Riverside and average of three times. The population of largely black and marginalized women can be resistant to traditional treatment methods, such as therapy. The CPS programs helps break down barriers to provide services to people most likely to fall between the cracks. Breaking the cycle of reentry through a trauma-informed approach is vital to not only helping justice-involved women, but breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma and poverty that impacts black families and communities. Grandmothers most often end up taking on the burden of incarcerated family members. As Sui put it, “Grandmothers are crumbling.”
Since its inception, about 20% of WOMEN’S WAY’s IRAF grants have gone to programs for women in reentry. A total of $36,000 has been disbursed to MHP, Why Not Prosper, Community Legal Services, and Baker Industries for this purpose. With the rate of women entering prison rapidly increasing, the need for services to help this population is growing as well. Sui makes a good point about the state of services in general, though, “Why are so many women going to prison in the first place? We should be addressing trauma before it gets to that point.” Providing services like Certified Peer Specialists to women in reentry is vital and invaluable in breaking the cycle of reentry and helping women in recovery, but more needs to be done in communities to end the trauma and violence that is leading to women offending in the first place, “People should not be living in survival-mode.”
You can donate to support the WOMEN’S WAY Immediate Response Action Fund here:
- Hersch, Jonie. “The Gendered Burdens of Conviction and Collateral Consequences on Employment.” Forthcoming, Journal of Legislation, pp. 1–22. Retrieved from https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3397309
- Covington, Stephanie S. “A Woman’s Journey Home: Challenges for Female Offenders.” A Woman’s Journey Home: Challenges for Female Offenders, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2002, pp. 1–31. Retrieved from
- Waldman, Alan. (2015, February 4). Women Face Many Obstacles After Prison Release. Retrieved from http://humaneexposures.com/blog/women-face-many-obstacles-after-prison-release.html