Women And Incarceration

Megan Kamerick


Albuquerque, NM, United States

Radio Reporter

Years ago I volunteered for a program mentoring people coming out of prison. We were warned that women would be more difficult than men because there is often abuse in their past, there may be children involved, and there's usually trauma. It certainly turned out to be true. My team and I were successful with our first case, but it was a long journey where I saw her almost completely undone when a relationship fizzled. It seemed to undercut her very sense of self-worth, but luckily it did not send her back to using drugs. She graduated from the program. Our next mentee couldn't stay clean and ended up back in prison. Our third had huge trauma issues from years of domestic violence that included a murder attempt by her ex. She eventually did graduate from the program, but it was a rocky journey.

In this collection I wanted to capture the complex reality of many women who serve time in prison, especially since the rates of female incarceration continue to rise. Many women end up in abusive relationships where drugs are involved, and that sets them on a path to prison. Some of the most successful solutions are based on helping them come to terms with what happened in their past and how it drives their choices.  Programs are also focused on helping them build healthy relationships and recovering self-esteem.

In Dallas, a program aimed at sex workers tries to divert women from the prison system. It can be a tough sell for women who are very damaged and feel they have few options, but it helps that the program includes former sex workers who can meet the women on their level and with some credibility since they were also once in the same place.

A program in Philadelphia works with women on something called cognitive shifting to help them understand the forces that determined the choices they made.

One county in Oklahoma is bucking the state's very high incarceration rate for women. Court judges now hand down shorter sentences combined with other types of supervision. This includes a program that offers intensive drug counseling, life skills classes, and connections to employment.

In the San Francisco Bay area, a program reaches out to young women in juvenile detention facilities and offers workshops, as well as a safe haven once they're released. It hires young women for internships and trains them as community organizers. The program addresses systemic issues in society, which helps women put their own experiences into context.

Some states still allow the shackling of women while they give birth in a hospital. However, there is a push to stop the practice. In New York state, at least one prison actually provides facilities for women who are pregnant so they can be with their children for up to a year after they give birth, and receive child care support. It's one of a handful of states that have such programs.

This collection is featured as part of our collaboration with Giving Compass - a nonprofit who aggregates high-quality philanthropic content to make it easier to give well.

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