Incarcerated Women and Institutional Captivity

by Brenda Baker

In the television series, Orange is the New Black the topic of incarcerated women brought to light the life of women behind bars. Prior to this popular book and television series, very little attention was given to women in correctional settings. The Hollywood version of female incarceration provided by the popular series, challenged our common stereotypes about women as caretakers, maternal figures, and gave us a glimpse into the reality that women have been impacted by numerous conditions resulting in time behind bars.

Popular phrases coined by presidents and law makers including, “War on Drugs” and “Tough on Crime” pushed policy agendas, expanded the prison complex, changed sentencing and probation laws, and resulted in mass incarceration of millions in the US. Other conditions influencing mass incarceration of women include the current opioid crisis and lack of mental health services. The opioid crisis has devastated many families and communities, especially women as women experience addiction differently than men. Neurobiology has demonstrated that opioid addiction affects the female brain differently than the male brain; female brains are more susceptible to addiction and more frequent relapse. Furthermore, trauma exposure as children and young women often leads to substance abuse to manage depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition, the elimination of mental health services by the 1963 Community Mental Health Construction Act led to the increased deinstitutionalization of individuals, contributing to the prison population. The CMHC act was intended to provide better care in the community however, community resources were never fully funded or developed leaving millions without treatment for mental health conditions and substance use disorders. The lack of community mental health resources for individuals led to “trans-institutionalization” into the prison system for many individuals who were unable to live successfully in their communities.

Currently over 225,000 women are incarcerated in the US, with women of childbearing age (18-40 years) the fastest growing segment of the prison population. This is a result of numerous social conditions including the opioid crisis, poverty, and failed programs of the state. Incarceration exacerbates mental illness, loss of job skills and income, and social isolation and stigma. Female incarceration also impacts families including termination of parental rights and displacing young children into the care of family members and the foster care system. Additionally, many women who encounter the criminal justice system often live their life cycling through jail and/or prison, drug treatment programs, homeless shelters, and other institutions created by the state. Fragmented and poorly coordinated services, programs, and communication among institutions of the state result in individuals becoming “institutional captives”. A condition where needs are never fully addressed and the individual cycles between settings.

Through volunteer work in a state prison I have witnessed the lives of women impacted by poverty, substance use disorders, poor mental health, and violence. I often wonder how could this happen to so many women, who is taking care of their children, and how do we change a system that is so harmful to women, families, and communities? The answers are not easy, however application of vulnerability theory does provide direction.

In applying vulnerability theory, we acknowledge the universal characteristic of existence; we recognize resiliency is key to building resources, relationships, and skills to navigate life events; and without resiliency, life events often lead to behaviors that result in reincarceration. Incarceration should only be an event in the life course, not an endless cycle. Opportunities for education, acquisition of job skills, safe homes and communities, and effective treatment for mental health and substance use disorders are the resources the state should provide women in order to develop resiliency and thereby live productive lives in the community.

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