A Call for More Research on Women’s Post-Incarceration Reentry Programs
Zoe E. Ferguson
Women have disproportionately negative post-incarceration outcomes compared to men, ranging from higher likelihood of homelessness1 and unemployment to less likelihood of familial support.2 Between 1980 and 2020, women’s prison population increased at a rate of 775%, an increase 50% faster than men’s population.3 As of 2020, 222,455 women are incarcerated with 99,140 women on parole.4
Racial/ethnic disparities found in rates of arrest, conviction, incarceration, and recidivism between women are just as pronounced, if not worse than these rates for men.5 In 2019, Black women were imprisoned over 1.7x, and Hispanic women over 1.3x, the rate of imprisonment for White women. Intersectional factors (e.g., gender, socioeconomic status) significantly impact women, their rates of arrest and conviction, experiences while incarcerated, and recidivism.6 68% of adult women in the U.S. criminal justice system reported having been abused, molested, beaten, or burned when they were young girls.7
Women are being overlooked in research on reentry programs. Women have unique histories prior to incarceration and obstacles to face post incarceration. However, there remains a lack of research on the specific needs of formerly incarcerated women and research dollars disproportionately go to men and men’s outcomes.8 Post-incarceration reentry programs are important sources of support for formerly incarcerated individuals, and, when implemented successfully, can provide assistance finding employment, mental health services, and housing, as well as reduce recidivism.9 However, women often report receiving un-useful advice from parole officers, as the advice given revolves around research done with men, neglecting to consider the experiences of women, particularly women of Color.10
Researchers should focus on investigating the ways that incarceration uniquely impacts women. Further research is needed to develop and validate gender-responsive risk assessments, as well as to create assessments that are specific to women’s needs at different stages of the criminal justice process. Researchers hoping to reach policymakers should focus their efforts on gathering data that illustrates the impact of reentry programs on communities and society at large, not just on formerly incarcerated individuals.
1 Sawyer, W. (2020, Jul 27). Visualizing the disparities in mass incarceration. Prison Policy Initiative. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2020/07/27/disparities
2 Belknap, J. (1996). The Invisible Woman: Gender, Crime, and Justice. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company; O’Brien, P. (2001). Making it in the “Free World:” Women in Transition from Prison. Albany: State University of New York Press.
3 National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women & the United States of America (2016). Fact Sheet on Justic Involved Women in 2016.
4The Sentencing Project. (2020, November 24). Incarcerated Women and Girls. https://sentencingproject.org/publications/incarcerated-women-and-girls/
5 Carson, E. A. (2020). Prison in 2018. US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ, 253516.
6 Owen, B., Bloom, B., Covington, S. (2002). Gender responsive strategies: Research, practice, and guiding principles for women offenders. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections.
7 Acoca, L., & Austin, K. (1996). The crisis: Women in prison. San Francisco: National Council on Crime and Delinquency, the Women Offender Sentencing Study and Alternative Sentencing Recommendations Project.
8 Carter, L. M., & Marcum, C. D., (2018). Female offender and reentry: Pathways and barriers to returning to society. Routledge.
9 National Institute of Justice (2013, June 7). Overview of Offender Reentry. https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/overview-offender-reentry
10 Roddy, A. L., Morash, M., Adams, E. A., Holmstrom, A. J., Smith, S. W., & Cobbins, J. E. (2019). The nature and effects of messages that women receive from probation and parole agents in conversations about employment. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 46(4), 550-567.