Click here if you don’t see subscription options
George M. AndersonOctober 22, 2001

Leaving prison and re-entering the community pose difficulties for both men and women. Women, however, tend to face even more daunting barriers than their male counterparts in making the difficult transition back to freedom. The barriers, moreover, have been raised several notches over the past few years by federal legislation. One legislative measure that has caused particular hardship arises from the 1996 welfare reform law; among its little noticed provisions is a lifetime bar for ex-offenders with felony drug convictions from receiving public assistance.

According to Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., over 80,000 women have so far been affected by the provision, and twice that many of their children. Since these figures cover only the years 1996 to 1999 and survey fewer than half the states, the total is undoubtedly much higher and will continue to rise in the years to come. The Sentencing Project is currently preparing a study of the impact of welfare reform and other restrictive federal legislative measures on female ex-offenders who are attempting to become re-integrated into society. Ironically, Mr. Mauer said, you could be a mass murderer, and on being released from prison, still be eligible to apply for public assistance. But if you had once sold a small amount of drugs to an undercover agent and were convicted, he added, you’d be banned for life.

The 1996 legislation does allow individual states to opt out of enforcing the provision. So far, though, only eight have exercised this option. A number of others have introduced variations on the way the ban is enforced. Eighteen states, for example, enforce it for drug sale convictions but not for simple drug possession. And if the ex-offender goes into a substance abuse treatment program, the ban may be lifted. But even then, Mr. Mauer said, there is no guarantee of acceptance into a program.

According to a study in June 2001 by the Urban Institute called From Prison to Home, 30 percent of womenas compared to 8 percent of menwere receiving public assistance prior to their arrests. And a higher proportion of women are likely to be convicted of a drug offense than men. Mr. Mauer said that fully one-third of incarcerated women are behind bars for drug crimes, and their numbers have been going up much more rapidly than those of male prisoners. Most female prisoners are women of color. In New York State, with its Rockefeller laws that impose sentences of draconian length, nine out of ten drug offenses, by both men and women, are committed by African Americans or Hispanics.

Besides denial of welfare benefits, eligibility for food stamps has also been negatively affected by the 1996 legislation. As with cash benefits, conviction for a drug felony renders potential applicants ineligible: not just for a period of years, but for life. Yet access to food stamps can serve as an important resource for women leaving prisonespecially if they have children, as a majority do. Although the children themselves remain eligible, the total amount of stamps available to the family of a single-mother household is consequently reduced by what would otherwise be her portion. The author of the report is Patricia Allard, a fellow at the Sentencing Project, sponsored there by the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation. She noted that the amount of the family’s food stamps is reduced still further by whatever income an ex-offender mother might earn after her release.

At a deeper level, emotional issues come strongly into play when a mother tries to reunite with her children after the completion of her sentence, because by then affective bonds may have become seriously weakened by her absence from the home. Over half of incarcerated mothers have not received visits from their offspring since they were first imprisoned. One of the reasons is transportation difficulties. Since there are far fewer women’s facilities than men’s, women are often held in prisons hundreds of miles from their families. Relatives or foster care providers may be unable or disinclined to make the long trips with the children in tow.

During the mother’s absence, the childrenthough innocent themselves of any connection with the mother’s involvement with the lawsuffer from the kind of discriminatory stigma that can adversely affect them in school and community settings. To some degree, therefore, the children are forced to share in the punishment meted out to their mothers. Barbara Baker, an ex-offender who is currently a director of advocacy for the St. Louis-based Center for Women in Transitionan organization that assists women during their re-entry processsaid that re-establishing her relationship with her children had been one of the most painful aspects of her own post-prison experience. Addicted to drugs for years, she served five different sentences for nonviolent drug-related offences like shoplifting to get money for her habit. She relapsed into drug-related activity after the first four, spinning into a cycle of incarceration and release that continually interrupted the bonding process with her children.

I didn’t get to see my children grow up, she said, and added: I wasn’t there for their graduations, and I wasn’t there when my first grandchild was born. The post-release experience with her teenage daughter was particularly painful. My daughter told me how angry she’d get, and how she’d be in fights in school when the other kids would ask her, How come you stay with your grandmother?’ And at family reunions, she’d fight with her cousins because their mothers were there, and hers wasn’t.

Ms. Baker’s son was born in a prison-related setting: After the first five days in the hospital, he was taken out at one door and a guard took me out at the other, back to prison. She did not so much as set eyes on him till nine months later, and when she did, he did not know her: He’d come to everyone in the house but me.

Ms. Baker was luckier than most, however, because during the years of incarceration her mother could provide a caring home for the children. For many, if the suitable households of relatives are not available, foster care becomes the only alternative. But each time on her return, still further complications arose because suddenly the children found themselves dealing with two authority figures, a mother and a grandmother: a situation that fostered a sense of disequilibrium in the household. Nevertheless, a home it was, and in the context of her work at the Center for Women in Transition, Ms. Baker spoke of the struggle other mothers have just to find a place to live where they can be reunited with their children after release.

The struggle has been made all the more onerous by yet another federal legislative measure carried out through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Although some flexibility regarding its interpretation exists among individual public housing authorities, the law stipulates that drug convictions render an ex-offender ineligible both for public housing and Section 8 certificates. Here in St. Louis, Ms. Baker said, your kids may have been under the jurisdiction of the Division of Family Services while you were locked up, if no family members could take care of them. But once you’re out, you can’t get them back till you prove you have a place to live. It’s a Catch-22 situation.

Ms. Allard pointed out that in addition to H.U.D.’s power to deny public housing and Section 8 certificates to convicted drug offenders, those already living in such publicly financed settings can be evicted, because housing authorities have the right to obtain criminal histories and to take punitive action based on what they may discover. Steps of this kind, she observed, restrict still further a woman’s efforts at family reunification following her release. She added that with gentrification and the consequent leap in rental housing costs around the nation, the supply of affordable housing has shrunk to crisis levels over the past decade. Adequate housing, she concluded, is crucial to a woman’s getting started again; without it, she becomes caught in a downward course that can lead to homelessness and further separations from her children.

Yet another punitive barrier to reunification is the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. The act increases the power of the state to terminate parental rights. If the child of an incarcerated woman has been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months, the child can be freed for adoption. While it is true that a caseworker at a foster care agency can obtain a waiver to avert the adoption process, such a step is not easily arrangedespecially given what some advocates see as a bias among caseworkers to move the child out of the foster care system and into adoption as soon as possible. The bias stems from what advocates feel is an unfair perception that a woman who has been incarcerated is incapable of being a good mother.

An additional reintegration barrier in the form of federal legislation is a 1998 provision of the Higher Education Act. It denies financial aid for higher education to applicants convicted of drug offenses. A significant number of women who have only a high school educationor who may have earned a G.E.D. diploma while in prisonmay want to pursue higher education when they get out, Ms. Allard said. But this amendment holds them back, either temporarily or permanently, from receiving needed aid. A first offense for simple possession leads to denial of aid for a year; a second for two years, and a third for life. The penalties for drug sale convictions entail still more stringent barriers to aid for higher education, she said. In commenting on the triple impact of legislation affecting all three areashigher education, welfare benefits and housingMs. Allard observed that taken together, the restrictions faced by ex-offenders underscore the way public policy has become linked to the war on drugs in a manner that goes well beyond criminal justice per se.

If educational opportunities are limited after leaving prison, relatively little is available behind the prison walls themselves: a circumstance that again tends to affect women more than men. Mr. Mauer noted that while educational opportunities for women prisoners have improved slightly over the past two decadeslargely because of litigationthese opportunities remain limited. If you have 20 men’s prisons in a particular state, there’s the possibility of placing a male in one that has appropriate programs, he said. But since the number of women prisoners is far lower than the number of men, a state may have only one or two prisons for female offenders, and therefore a much smaller offering of programs. And yet, as the Urban Institute study points out, prison education programs have been shown to be important factors in reducing recidivism.

Drug treatment can also be limited in women’s facilities. Ms. Baker said that during her own years behind bars in Missouri, none was available. I went back five times and each time, all they had was Narcotics Anonymous. So I’d come out and go back to shoplifting in order to buy more drugs. Now, she continued, the situation is better, but there aren’t enough treatment beds in the special units. At the Vandalia prison where I was, for 1,500 women there are only 250 beds for those in the drug rehabilitation program, even though 80 percent of the women need treatment.

Once a woman is released, free residential substance abuse treatment on the street is notoriously difficult to obtain for those without medical insurance like Medicaid, and often entails long waiting lists. Post-release delays in applying for and receiving Medicaid (most treatment programs accept it if other insurance is not available) can entail further waiting. Treatment delays of this kind can tip the balance in terms of a woman’s falling back into substance abuse and crime. The importance of treatment was emphasized by Mary Nerney, C.N.D., director of a multifaceted New York City program for incarcerated women and those returning to the community, called STEPS to End Family Violence. A woman who has struggled with addiction issues needs to learn how to walk past the drug dealer or the liquor store without stopping, she said.

As the name of the organization implies, a major component involves a focus on domestic violence, a problem closely related to substance abuse. If a woman doesn’t learn how to deal with it, she said, she’ll go back to drugs and alcohol when she’s released, because for many women, being subjected to abuse is part of the reason she became addicted in the first place. Generally more than males, women suffer from physical, sexual and psychological abuse throughout their livesinside prison settings as well as outside. Groups like Human Rights Watch have documented numerous cases of prison rape by male guards. Then, upon release, abusive boyfriends may continue the various forms of domestic violenceeither through old boyfriends or new ones who initiate further abusive relationships. Not having learned to recognize the early warning signs of abuse, the women want someone who will give them affection when they get outand this is why they frequently fall back into abusive situations. The result, said Sister Nerney, is a loss of self-esteem and an accompanying sense of powerlessnessa sense heightened for Latina and African American women by racism. Efforts are made at STEPS to assist an ex-offender in recognizing abuse symptoms, and then to build up her self-esteem through attending groups and the job readiness program. These help her to see the skills she has, and what jobs might be possible once she has completed the job readiness program.

Even then, however, a woman emerging from a correctional setting may find considerable prejudice on the part of prospective employers toward ex-offendersand not always without reason. Unfortunately, some employers we’ve dealt with have been burned when they hired someone with a history of substance abuse, and so they don’t want to take on any more ex-offenders, Sister Nerney said. But others have done well.

Daunting though the re-entry barriers for women are, they could be reduced. The Urban Institute study notes that if a penal facility simply ensures that a woman leaves with needed identification, this obviates a number of potential difficulties. Key documents like Social Security cards may have been lost or destroyed in the arrest and incarceration process, or the woman may never have had them. Having these are important for obtaining the crucially important Medicaid cardnot only for entering a drug treatment program, but also for treatment of other health problems like H.I.V. The percentage of inmates with H.I.V. is higher among women than among men, the study points out. While imprisoned, moreover, almost a quarter of female offenders receive medication for emotional disorders. Its sudden discontinuance after release can lead to new difficulties.

In the United States, there are few programs like STEPS and the Center for Women in Transition. On the West Coast, a program in Los Angeles CountyCrossroadsprovides transitional help for women leaving prison on parole, and can accommodate six women on a live-in basis for six-month periods. The ambiance is oriented toward creating a family-community setting. As is true of the Center for Women in Transition and STEPS, the goal of Crossroads is to help women realize that they do have choices, and to help them pursue those that are positive.

Another program, Our Place, located in Washington, D.C., focuses on the same priorityreducing the likelihood that the women will return to prison. With better funding possibilities, more such needed programs might be developed to help womenpoor, addicted, with histories of abuse and almost no self-esteemwho struggle to become reintegrated into society after serving their sentences.

On a wider level, groups of this kind, along with others like the Sentencing Project, implicitly play an advocacy role, seeking to help move the current criminal justice system from a model based on retribution to a restorative model. But for incarcerated women in particular, such a model remains far off, as measures like bars to welfare, food stamps, housing and higher education continue to affect adversely women leaving prison to re-enter the community. Removing these restrictive measures would at least be a move in the direction of enhancing the possibility of success in the re-entry process.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
17 years 1 month ago
Thank you for your insightful article regarding the struggles that female ex-offenders face upon re-entering the community, “Women Set Free” (10/22). The systemic nature of these obstacles often leaves women feeling overwhelmed to the point of relapse into their former behaviors of drug abuse and criminal activity. Fortunately, there is a growing number of organizations that support and encourage this underserved population. In Missouri, Let’s Start and Mothers and Children Together are collaborative organizations in which female ex-offenders themselves facilitate support groups, mentor one another and advocate for systemic change at the state capitol. These women prove that formerly incarcerated women can be an incredible gift to society if they are given support to make healthy choices and are invited to claim the opportunities available to them.

The latest from america

Pope Francis gives his blessing at the end of the recitation of the Angelus in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Feb. 11, 2024. On March 3, he renewed his call for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza while while speaking to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)
At the noon prayer on Sunday, Pope Francis called for a cease-fire and for “the continuation of negotiations” to bring about the release of hostages taken by Hamas and the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza.
Gerard O’ConnellMarch 03, 2024
Thanks to Jack Serio’s direction and playwright Ruby Thomas’s script, “The Animal Kingdom” falls into the category of a difficult but necessary watch, and the questions we are left with inspire us to think more critically about our mental health and relationships.
Michael O’BrienMarch 01, 2024
A letter criticizing Pope Francis for promoting “ambiguities in matters of faith” and at the same time ruling the Catholic Church with an iron fist, is circulating in the Vatican.
In an exclusive interview with Gerard O’Connell, Archbishop Jorge Ignacio García Cuerva explains why his first three Masses in Buenos Aires were celebrated in a shanty town, prison and cemetery.
Gerard O’ConnellMarch 01, 2024