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“Trying to Get Free”: A Theoretical Centering of Black Women’s Post-Carceral Narratives of Systemic Unfreedom

Published onMay 24, 2022
“Trying to Get Free”: A Theoretical Centering of Black Women’s Post-Carceral Narratives of Systemic Unfreedom
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Abstract

This article examines how Black justice involved mothers navigate the enduring unfreedom of post-imprisonment life. Drawing upon the analytical framework of Black Feminist Criminology (BFC), this paper argues that centering women’s narratives of unfreedom provides a context for understanding and critiquing systemic and structural oppression. Interviews with thirty-three Black formerly incarcerated mothers from two transitional organizations in New York and Massachusetts reveals how women a) Identify instances of structural oppression at the hands of the legal system and the labor market and b) Deploy individual responses that reframe their marginal status by subverting expectations of their roles as mothers and as participants within transitional organizations. Substantively, this study holds implications for identifying how unfreedom persists and is concretized through institutions that regulate women’s post-imprisonment journeys. Theoretically, this paper addresses how a Black women-centered framework, such as BFC, captures the complex and intersectional nature of (un)freedom in marginalized women’s lives.

Introduction

Research on the post-incarceration experiences of formerly imprisoned women has, to date, largely focused on the process of their social reintegration after their release from prison. Broadly, this line of scholarship focuses on a woman’s life experiences after she leaves prison and examines how her identity structures her relationship to society and her social networks (Bui & Morash, 2009; Heidemann et al., 2016). The analytical thread that unites this line of inquiry is the examination of narratives that detail how women navigate the process of acquiring stable housing, finding employment and reuniting with children (O’Brien, 2001; Opsal, 2011, 2012; Michalsen, 2019). A key element that distinguishes narrative centered scholarly appraisals of formerly incarcerated women’s lives from evaluation-based analyses, is the extent to which the latter emphasizes outcomes and correctional metrics, such as recidivism rates, in framing women’s decisions and experiences. For example, in evaluative analyses, like those used by correctional institutions, emphasis is placed on how certain intervention methods reduce the likelihood that women will re-offend (Holtfreter et al., 2004). When outcomes are centered in this way, writing about the lives of justice involved women is framed as an assessment of their ability to meet a particular set of benchmarks within a given time frame. As a result, the complexities of individuals’ journeys, which are seldom linear, are distilled to facts and figures used to rank the effectiveness of programmatic models (Gurusami, 2017).

While outcome driven analyses provide important insight into the scale and reach of carceral institutions, these they also serve another purpose: policy evaluations help to justify continued program development and funding (Sudbury, 2002). Though practical from a fiduciary standpoint, a consequence of the outcome driven manner in which reentry is framed is that it centers correctional and para-correctional institutions’ priorities in ways that overlook the needs of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated persons (Goldberg & Evans, 1998; Lebaron & Roberts, 2010). Specifically, correctional institutions are paradoxical entities, in that the accomplishment of their primary stated goals—low recidivism rates and deterrence—could also mean their increasing irrelevance and financial precarity.

Rehabilitative organizations, which rely on referrals from correctional institutions, must also balance the competing demands of assisting formerly incarcerated persons, while appealing to a carceral system that centers profit, usually at the expense of those entangled within that very system (Gilmore, 2017). As a result, rehabilitation can become a capitalistic enterprise whereby women’s post-incarceration lives are reduced to bottom line priorities and described using paternalistic language (Williams et al., 2021). The paternalistic framing of women’s post-incarceration lives is harmful, not only because it circumscribes their actions and aspirations through restrictions and mandates, but also in the way it extends carceral oversight long after they have left physical incapacitation. Gilmore (2007) describes this dynamic between the carceral state and incarcerated persons this way: “Rehabilitation proposes that the unfreedom of prisons provides an occasion for the acquisition of sobriety and skills, so that, on release, formerly incarcerated people can live lives away from the criminal dragnet.” (p. 14). As Gilmore explains, the criminal dragnet is pervasive, engulfing women and men in ways that do not end once they leave the physical boundaries of the jail or prison site. Rehabilitation, therefore, does not mark the end of carceral oversight, but rather changes the nature and extent of women’s relationship with carceral institutions.

The hurdles that a formerly incarcerated individual faces are difficult across the board, but for Black women in particular, the post-incarceration transition means also contending with challenges pre-dating their imprisonment. For Black girls and women, higher rates of victimization at home, school and within intimate partner relationships are often unaddressed through formal interventions, which creates the contexts for further victimization during and after incarceration (Brazelton, 2015). On the surface, race, class and gender are the readily identifiable triple jeopardies facing Black formerly incarcerated women (Beale, 2008; Collins, 2002; King, 1988; Potter, 2006; Smith, 2000). Added to these structural factors, Black justice involved women are also evaluated and judged by their parental status, the type of crime for which they were convicted, and the aggravating factors related to their criminal charge and conviction (Potter, 2006). Therefore, in order to contextualize the post-imprisonment narratives of formerly incarcerated Black mothers, it is important to center their experiences inclusive of the diverse aspects of who they are as Black women. Specifically, using Black Feminist Criminology (BFC) provides a framework whereby the lives of Black formerly incarcerated women are studied through the unique and necessary lens of Black womanhood (Potter, 2006).

For far too long the most vulnerable of Black women have been studied in ways that frame the entirety of their lived realities as victims. While continued attention to victimization is necessary, so too is addressing how women respond to structural oppression. Black women, particularly Black justice-involved women, are not only acted-upon but can and do challenge their oppression in ways which center their experiences (hooks 1984,1990). This analysis provides much needed insight into how the intersection of gender, race and criminalization inform formerly incarcerated mothers’ understanding of their social location and how they push back against their marginalization. To this end, I explore the following question: How do Black formerly incarcerated mothers respond to structural level oppression in ways that prioritize their individual needs?

Importantly, BFC does not view Black women’s identities as additive factors that alters their life chances by quantitative or measurable degrees. Rather, Black women’s identities are multiplicative in that these sites of oppression typically operate in tandem (King, 1988). In this way, BFC accommodates analyses that view marginalized identity statuses as both intersecting and fluid, changing depending upon social context, power dynamics and the stage in a woman’s life course. Moreover, this approach allows for a holistic centering of the lived realities of Black women in and adjacent to the criminal legal system. As a result, the narratives that women share illuminate the ways in which life after imprisonment is not synonymous with freedom (Williams, 2019; Williams, et al., 2021). Rather, the reentry process, as it currently exists, is often a modified version of unfreedom that women must navigate amid structural barriers and the burdensome expectations of institutional actors. In examining the theoretical importance of BFC, I place the paradigm within the context of scholarship that explores the relationship between maternal incarceration and post-carceral experiences.

Unfreedom in the life course of Black justice involved women

The number of women incarcerated in the United States increased by 823% between 1978 and 2015. This is roughly twice the increase of the male incarcerated population (Sawyer, 2019; Sawyer & Bertram, 2018). While in recent years there have been modest decreases in the rate of growth in the male incarcerated population in states like Texas, Wisconsin and Indiana, the female imprisoned population has continued to grow. Even in states like New York and Massachusetts that have witnessed declines in the female incarcerated population, those declines still lagged behind that of males (Sawyer, 2018). This decades-long swell of the incarcerated population has exacerbated structural inequality in significant ways. Each year, when roughly 1.9 million women are released from prisons and jails across the country, the overwhelming majority of them rank economic precarity as their primary concern (Garcia & Ritter, 2012; Sawyer, 2019). In fact, for women who re-offend, poverty is cited as the leading contributing factor (Holtfreter et al., 2004). Despite the significant economic and social needs of formerly incarcerated women, there are few sources of support. According to the National Institute of Corrections, the number of existing reentry programs for justice involved women are simply insufficient to address the number of women released from jails and prisons each year (National Institute of Corrections, 2021).

The alarming rate of prison growth in the United States has further highlighted the degree to which incarceration reproduces and exacerbates longstanding inequities along racial and ethnic lines. According to the Sentencing Project, Black women are among the most vulnerable populations presently incarcerated (Kajstura, 2019; Sentencing Project, 2020). Overall, Black women have a 1/18 chance of incarceration compared to a 1/45 chance of incarceration among Latina women and a 1/111 chance of incarceration among white women (Goodwin, 2020). As dire as these disparities are, they convey only one dimension of the gendered and racialized aspect of criminalization among Black formerly incarcerated women. For example, in recent years, the rate of incarceration has actually decreased for Black women, while increasing for white women, a trend that some scholars attribute to the rise in opioid related addiction (Herring, 2020; Sentencing Project, 2020). The decrease in incarceration rates for Black women, while notable, must also be viewed within the context of their experiences following imprisonment. Even without a criminal record, Black women are less hirable in the labor market when compared to their white counterparts who possess a criminal record (Ortiz, 2014). Thus, even the decline in Black women’s incarceration rates does not fully capture the socio-historical embeddedness of misogynoir that shape the day to day reality of being a Black justice-involved woman in the United States.

To understand why Black women are incarcerated at disproportionate levels, it is important to place their experiences within the broader context of the systems that create the circumstances whereby abuse and mistreatment occur. Before a Black woman is incarcerated, she is a Black girl and, in this country, Black girls often faced other forms of structural unfreedom within schools and communities (Flores, 2016; Jones, 2009; Shedd, 2011). Existing data on incarcerated women’s abuse histories remains limited, but the research that does exist shows that anywhere from 31 percent to 48 percent of incarcerated women have been victims of child sexual abuse (Raj et al., 2008). Because approximately half of incarcerated women report that their first arrest occurred when they were juveniles, this underscores an important link between childhood abuse and arrests later on: most girls’ first arrests occurred as result of running away from home to escape abusive home environments (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 2012; DeHart, 2008;). For thousands of girls in this country abuse creates the context for later criminalization leaving an already vulnerable population of survivors to battle the toll of trauma alone (Mignon, 2016). For Black girls, experiences of abuse are made worst because those entrusted to intervene often view them not as victims, but as perpetrators of violence. For example, when Black girls fight in self-defense in schools they are often incorrectly identified as the aggressors and punished, thus providing one ancillary to the school-to-prison pipeline (Tonnenson, 2013). Not only can schools become the setting for Black girls’ criminalization, but they can also become sites of abuse, with 60 percent of Black girls reporting sexual abuse as students (Tanis et al., 2017).

The “web of trauma” that begins with abuse and is reinforced by juvenile criminalization, work together to increase the likelihood that Black women will enter fragile relationships (West, 2004). Across all women, research shows that a contributing factor to the rise in incarceration is gender-based violence. Intimate partner victimization not only elevates the risk of individual physical and emotional harm, it also increases the likelihood that women will engage in law violating activities, such as drug use and violent crimes (Browne et al., 1999; Heney & Kristiansen, 1996; Raj et al., 2008). This explanation captures only the reactionary consequences of legislation and enforcement that disproportionately impacts poor women of color. One out of every four Black women has at one time been a victim of intimate partner victimization, a rate higher than that of any other racial group (St. Vil et al., 2017). Put another way, Black women are more likely to lose their lives as a result of intimate partner violence than any other group of women in this country. While it may be tempting to view these experiences solely through the lens of micro-level interactions, mitigated or aggravated by inter-personal relational dynamics, low income Black women are particularly vulnerable to abuse, thus highlighting the intersection of the personal and the structural (St. Vil et al., 2017). It is against this harrowing backdrop of interpersonal conflict and systemic inequity that many Black women enter and exit correctional institutions.

Black Feminist Criminology and the post-prison narrative

Potter (2006) notes that feminist criminology has done much to problematize a reading of women’s life course transitions based upon male-centered studies. The factors associated with desistance among males, for example, don’t necessarily hold the same level of salience for women, who are more likely to be the custodial parent at the time of their incarceration. For some women, parenting seems to provide a type of anchoring, decreasing the likelihood of future criminal involvement (Giordano et al., 2011; Kreager et al., 2010; Uggen & Kruttschnitt, 1998). Other scholars have found that their roles as mother can lead to desistance, though not uniformly across all women (Giordano et al., 2002; Michalsen, 2011). And still, other scholarship shows that for some women motherhood compounds the strain of reintegration, exacerbating the existing challenges of meeting post-imprisonment expectations (Brown & Bloom, 2009; Kubiak et al., 2012; Leverentz, 2014). Given the mixed findings of research that interrogates the role of motherhood on post-imprisonment reentry experiences, it is all the more necessary to understand the extent to which race and gender inform women’s experiences as care takers(King, 1988; Potter, 2006; Cobbina, 2010; Willingham, 2011)

The undercurrent of unfreedom that regulates the lives of Black women once they leave physical confinement exists at multiple levels. Potter (2006), in advancing the significance of a Black feminist criminological approach, outlines four of these areas: First, there are the structural constraints that impinge on Black women’s experiences. Second, the role of the Black community and intra-cultural influences on Black women’s lives. Third, women’s intimate and family relationships. Lastly, Potter examines how at the individual level, Black women interpret and respond to the social forces around them. Drawing upon Potter’s framework, the present analysis attends to the first and last of these concerns, structural barriers and women’s responses to marginalization. Attention to these two areas is not to dismiss the significance of relationships and community-level forces that inform Black women’s carceral narratives. This paper attends to these two concerns because in much of women’s articulation of injustice and marginalization, they referred directly or indirectly to broader structural factors, such as the legal system and labor market. Even when speaking about their marginalization within relationships, they saw the failure of institutions as the reason those interpersonal challenges endured. For example, in instances of intimate partner victimization, the lack of intervention from police or social services was framed as the principal failure, rather than community level or intra-cultural social forces. Furthermore, when responding to oppression, women drew upon their personal reactions, even when the source of their marginalization was structural. In other words, although women identified structural-level oppression, they saw structural-level solutions as abstract or insufficient because their avenues of recourse (i.e. the legal system) were also identified as the source of their marginalization.

Analysis through the lens of BFC not only elucidates the layers and interconnectedness of marginality that impact justice involved Black women, but also calls for a critical reexamination of how post-prison success is defined and identifies the ways in which such definitions are often counterproductive to social reintegration. In examining Black women’s post-prison narratives, the foregoing analysis shows how the structural factors that constrain women’s freedom and the resulting individual level responses to those constraints, challenges the myth that reentry is synonymous with post-carceral freedom. Moreover, the centrality of Black women’s experiences illustrates how formerly incarcerated women subvert the paternalistic rhetoric of reform and rehabilitation by subtle and direct acts of resistance.

Methodology

This analysis stems from a larger project in which seventy formerly incarcerated mothers of different racial and ethnic backgrounds were interviewed across three reentry programs from 2010 to 2011. For this paper, sixteen Black women were interviewed at the first site, Helping Hands Inc. in Massachusetts, while seventeen of the women interviewed were affiliated with Mother’s Love, in New York. There were no Black women interviewed at the third site, Restoration House. The two organizations were selected primarily due to accessibility to the author and their mission to assist formerly incarcerated mothers.

Helping Hands, Inc. is a non-residential organization whose services address the needs of formerly incarcerated mothers. The organization holds weekly parenting and employment workshops and employees place women in contact with social and legal services that assist them with child reunification, employment, housing and ongoing legal cases. The clients at Helping Hands reside in towns and cities in Massachusetts, though several were born and raised in other parts of the country. Mother’s Love, by contrast, is a residential program, which provides temporary housing for women and their children. Women are required to abide by a strict curfew, meet the work obligations set by the program and respect the requirement that no outside guests spend the night in living spaces. While living at Mother’s Love, women participate in an unpaid internship program as part of their work training. On occasion, some women are hired as full-time paid employees, while others find work at off-site locations. Once women find their own housing they can choose to still participate in workshops and training sessions held on the premises of Mother’s Love. For both Helping Hands and Mother’s Love, women’s participation is sometimes a condition of their probation or parole. In those instances, failure to attend workshops or abide by rules holds consequences beyond dismissal from the program. The possibility of returning to prison is the most serious consequence for not meeting post-incarceration requirements.

The most significant difference between the organizations, is the residential component. At the outset, the organizations were selected not based on the residential services they provided, but rather the women they served. Nevertheless, this difference was important because for one group of women the challenge of securing housing after imprisonment was temporarily resolved, while for another group of women, unsteady housing or the frustrating search for an apartment was yet another challenge awaiting them after leaving correctional institutions. As meaningful as these differences were, the narratives women shared were rather similar regarding their experiences with systemic oppression leading up to incarceration.

Each of the thirty-three Black formerly incarcerated mothers included in this analysis were recruited after responding to a flyer posted in the reentry organization or after they learned about the study from another mother I interviewed. The recruitment criteria for participation in this research study was broad, requiring only that women had been incarcerated and were mothers. Because both of the organizations focused their services on formerly incarcerated mothers, virtually all of the women who entered the doors of each organization were parents and had some level of involvement with the criminal legal system.

Once women expressed interest in being interviewed, they were granted confidentiality, per the conditions of the Institutional Review Board at Harvard University, my institutional affiliation at the time. To that end, the names referenced in this analysis, such as respondents’ names and the names of organizations are pseudonyms, used to protect the identity of participants. At the beginning of interviews respondents were informed that they would receive twenty dollars for participating in the study and that even if they stopped the interview at any point, they would still be compensated for their time and participation. Semi-structured interviews were conducted and taped, with the permission of participants. Interviews lasted between one to two hours and were then transcribed and coded using Atlas Ti. qualitative coding software for themes focusing on parenting, criminal history, interpersonal relationships and respondents’ goals for themselves and their children. For this analysis, the most salient themes were those that focused on respondents’ views of legal institutions, the labor market and their post-imprisonment challenges and goals for the future. Data collection was completed once saturation was reached, with the author determining that recurring themes were occurring with each subsequent interview across interview sites. Demographic characteristics pertinent to this analysis are summarized in Table 1.

In addition to interviews, I observed workshops at Mother’s Love and organized administrative files and created monthly newsletters at Helping Hands at the request of the executive director. In total, I spent approximately 100 hours on the site of Helping Hands and 300 hours on the premises of Mother’s Love. Short-term participant observation wasn’t solely about data collection (the findings reported here are drawn from the semi-structured interviews). Rather, observations and informal conversations with program participants and staff members helped me to gain familiarity with the research site and build rapport with women who would later volunteer for interviews.


Table 1. Respondent demographics

Number of Respondents

Race

Black/African American

33

Transitional Organization

Helping Hands, Inc.

16

Mother’s Love

17

Average Age of Respondents

35.9

Instances of Conviction (self-reported)

Drug Use

9

Drug Sales and Possession

12

Homicide (Conspiracy, Felony Murder)

1

Property

4

Kidnapping

1

Sex Work

3

Child Neglect/Kidnapping

3

Violent (Robbery, Assault)

13

Parenting

Average Age of first Pregnancy

18.6

Average Number of Children

2.9


Post-incarceration marginality at the structural level

The manner in which Black women experience structural marginality is not static, and can depend on a range of factors, such as economic positionality, educational background and even society’s assessment of their phenotypical proximity to whiteness in the form of colorism and featurism (Crenshaw, 2011; Garcia-Hallett, 2019; Monk, 2019; Roberts, 2014; Stockstill & Carson, 2021; Viglione et al., 2011). Furthermore, focusing on Black mothers’ legal and employment marginalization highlights how those two sites of formal marginality dominate women’s concerns following incarceration. For example, women are not only expected to avoid direct engagement in criminal activity, but also non-law violating interactions that might result in police intervention. A loud verbal dispute, for example, that results in a neighbor calling law enforcement, can lead to police contact which is perceived as a threat to women’s post-imprisonment progress. Any interactions or behaviors that invite police contact places women, who already occupy a precarious legal position, at the mercy of the legal system. Women’s discussions of their post-imprisonment experiences illustrate how they come to terms with how State actors and institutions relegate them to the margins of justice. In recounting their journeys within jails, prisons and reentry programs, women highlight how the powerful play a role in creating and perpetuating the conditions for their physical and social unfreedom.

For years, Kishana tried to leave an abusive relationship. Yet, despite numerous attempts to report her boyfriend Gary to law enforcement, he never faced consequences. When she learned that she was pregnant she made a final attempt to leave their home. Her plans were derailed, however, when he unexpectedly arrived early from an out-of-town business trip. In the altercation that followed, she used a boxcutter in self-defense, barely missing a vital artery on her boyfriend’s neck. In the criminal trial that followed, Kishana was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon. Reflecting on the perceived injustice of her conviction Kishana states:

Kishana: When I first got it [prison sentence] I was like this is so unfair like they had police reports. They had like thirty-five police reports and he didn’t do a day. I just thought it was unfair. I thought the justice system sucked.

Geniece: Thirty-five reports against him?

Kishana: Yes.

Geniece: For abuse?

Kishana: Yes. And um he didn’t do a day. And I got all of this time and I’m pregnant. I just couldn’t fathom it because there is no self-defense law in New York. So, I had a lot of animosity.

While Kishana was angry that none of the thirty-five police reports that she filed resulted in her boyfriend’s arrest, she wasn’t entirely surprised. Her ex-boyfriend was friends with local police officers and Kishana was on probation for a fight she had at a local bar months before meeting Gary. To Kishana, law enforcement didn’t see her as a battered woman. Instead, they weighed the words of her boyfriend against that of a young Black woman under State supervision. When she was eventually convicted, she entered prison pregnant and alone, feeling forgotten and ignored yet again.

Similar to Kishana, other women saw the criminal legal system’s inability to adequately address the injustices committed to or against them before their arrest as part of the reason they stood little chance in successfully defending their charges. Fifty-one-year-old Rose, for example, felt that part of the reason she was convicted of assault and later lost custody of her baby was because she was naïve about how the legal system functioned.

Rose: He [ex-husband] assaulted me and I assaulted him back. But, see, he already knew the system. I didn't know the system. He spent like 10 years in prison. And I didn't know the system, and I just got caught up. I destroyed his car and that's what I went to jail for.

In this framing, Rose blamed her ex-husband directly for her arrest, but she also implicated the “the system” for not contextualizing her assault as a response to intimate partner victimization. Her frustration with the legal system only increased after her conviction, when she granted her ex-husband temporary custody of their baby. Her hope of regaining custody after completing her sentence was thwarted when her unstable housing status was the basis upon which a judge denied her custody.

Rose: So, by me having given him temporary custody, when I was incarcerated, and all of my family is in Georgia except my children who are here with me … Because the judge sees it as the first thing the judge wants to know: “Well, right now you’re living in a shelter, you know. Where's the child going to live? And you don't have a job right now.” So, it was all these things compounded, you know.

Like Rose, Isabelle, a thirty-one-year-old mother from Massachusetts, also felt the legal system’s mismanagement of her case resulted in her loss of custody. Not long after giving birth to her second child, she submitted a urine sample to her caseworker which tested positive for cocaine. Floored by the revelation because she was sober for months, she pleaded with the caseworker to re-examine the sample. Her initial attempts were unsuccessful but eventually the sample was reexamined and found to be negative. The relief Isabelle felt was short-lived because by then her daughter had been removed from her home and, despite her negative drug test, custody was not reinstated.

Isabelle: Then they [social workers] came back and they took her[daughter]. I felt like I was in a movie. You know what I mean? Putting her in a car and she screamed and screamed. It was horrible. I knew the urine was wrong so I went to have the sample retested. I called everybody. I knew it was wrong I couldn’t get the results but finally I called the next day and a worker finally called me back and said she read the urine wrong. It wasn’t cocaine it was benzoate. I said, “Are you kidding me? Am I getting my kids back then?” And she said “No, we were considering doing it anyways because your relapse history. I know you did something wrong because you’re covering up what you did wrong.”

The compounding nature of disadvantage Rose referenced in her case is also illustrated through Isabelle’s experience. The legal system reinforces marginalization by punishing women even when there was failure to act in a domestic dispute or a caseworker’s mistake led to a mother’s loss of custody. Women’s criminalized identity was viewed as a fixed aspect of their being, wholly constituting their social worth. This unidimensional view of justice involved women provided justification to ignore or deny intervention, assistance or fairness.

Dani, a twenty-nine-year-old mother from New Jersey, also demonstrated how the legal system’s glossing over of underlying issues, meant that her crime was viewed without context or nuance.

Dani: I knew what I did was terrible, but I didn’t understand why they didn’t look into why … they’re so quick to put people in prison. And sometimes I think some people need to go, and I’m not saying I shouldn’t get no prison time, but I think that they never offered me a way … I had no record, only judge I stood before was traffic judge … It wasn’t like I was a person that committed crimes over and over again. The judge was very mad, it was because he felt like I came from a good family.

When Dani assaulted her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend, she described herself as struggling with alcoholism, a response she believed was rooted in her boyfriend’s abandonment after the birth of their first child. While she didn’t justify the assault, she was also critical of the legal system’s unwillingness to examine her criminal act within the context of her circumstances and her lack of a past criminal history.

Twenty-eight-year-old Trisha’s arrest and conviction was not the first time she experienced injustice by institutions. As a child, desperate to escape the turmoil of an abusive home, she immersed herself in school only to be molested by a teacher. Then, when her mother was incarcerated, she and her brother had to live with their emotionally abusive grandmother. Years later, her trial for attempted murder only further concretized her belief that social institutions viewed her with callous indifference. Although there was no physical evidence linking her and her co-defendants to the assault for which they were charged, closed circuit footage showed them arguing with the victim prior to the attack. When I asked her to share her thoughts on the trial she stated,

Trisha: The jury was all white … They don’t want us gay people out there anyway so of course they going to go against us … well they offered me [a reduced sentence] but I said “[a reduced sentence] what’s the catch?” they said ‘well, you got to plead guilty.” I said “I’m not pleading guilty. I have morals and beliefs[.]”

During her trial, her already pessimistic view of the criminal legal system was made worse by inadequate counsel. She expected the judges and jury to be biased against her but realizing that her defense attorney was uninvested in her case meant that she would have to be her own advocate.

Trisha: When I got upstate [in prison] I got into college … On my spare time on the weekends I would be in the law library looking up different cases that the judge [presiding over her case] had and I would make different marks on how they won their case and what errors he made, because I know he made an error. … I put in the appeal for all of my co-defendants so I forwarded … it to their lawyers because even though we had lawyers working for us, they go home at a certain time. They not thinking about us. This is our freedom we talking about. They already free. We trying to get free … And my lawyer was like impressed with it like “You just came up with all this on your own?” I was like “Yeah! I read every single sentence in that transcript” … And I submitted it and sent it to them [co-defendants] and they sent it to their lawyer and we all ended up winning our appeal. And one of them [co-defendant] got her sentence overturned.

Trisha’s criticism of the legal system was not only based on her belief that it was inept, but also that it was discriminatory. She felt that her identity as an openly queer Black woman made it all the more likely that the jury would view her as guilty, regardless of the facts of the case. For Trisha and other women who described their experiences with the legal system, the feeling of being silenced and unheard by systems and structures that determined their freedom status was a reminder of how society unjustly categorized them.

Employment marginalization

Perhaps the single most important expectation set by correctional institutions, aside from crime avoidance, is that formerly incarcerated women secure employment. This expectation is often challenging for formerly incarcerated women, given the competing demands that they face after confinement. Particularly for Black women, the expectation to meet a certain set of goals while on the labor market is not only difficult but also counterproductive in ways that exacerbates their oppression (Gurusami, 2019). Gurusami’s (2017) analysis of rehabilitation labor, finds that Black women are expected to engage in work that is reliable, recognizable and redemptive. In my interviews with women, they shared that not only were employment opportunities limited due to these expectations, but it was clear to them in both explicit and implicit ways that self-actualization, or engaging in work that aligned with their goals and talents, was either unrealistic or unavailable to them.

When I asked women to describe the goals they had for themselves, securing employment was a top priority. Employment was framed as a requirement of the State, as well as a pathway towards independence, housing, and a way for them to support their children. Twenty-year-old Grace conveys the frustration and fear typical of women trying to find a job with a criminal record.

Grace: When I first got out, I was kinda like that, like, “Oh, my God. I’m not gonna be able to get a job. Nobody’s gonna wanna hire me,” you know. But my mother’s like, “You can’t think like that.”

Collette, a forty-five-year-old mother from New York echoes Grace’s feelings about her post-prison employment prospects.

Collette: But you have options like you know it’s up to you how you deal with it, you know. And it’s not like when you come out it’s going to be so easy to reenter into society because it’s not … it makes it hard … to get a job … It makes it hard for a felon to adapt back to society.

Breanna, a forty-seven-year-old mother from Massachusetts confided that she had a warrant for her arrest in connection with a robbery. She shared the news with her pastor and a few other women, but was afraid that seeking employment would attract attention from authorities.

Breanna: Because I never stole. that’s the one thing I was not a part of and then my daughter would treat me like crap. So ain't no need me going there. I’m not be able to get a job because I'm going to be on the run.

Breanna’s case is exceptional in that she was the only woman I interviewed who mentioned that she had an outstanding warrant. What her concern revealed was how employment can act as a form of State surveillance. So, while necessary and desired, women may either feel excluded from opportunities due to their criminal record or have additional concerns related to future sanctioning, like those facing Breanna.

Dani’s experience illustrates that even when taking steps to overcome the stigma of a criminal record through training and education, imbedded biases at the structural level may still persist. Hoping to work in medical billing, she trained with a company that assured her she would be able to find employment, even with a criminal record. However, once she completed the program her hope was met with disappointment.

Dani: I even went back to school quickly, to do a medical billing trade. Because I had, I have some experience in that. But I wanted to refresh myself, ‘cause I was away [in prison] so long, I wanted to refresh myself on the program. And I went to school for that … and they slammed the door in my face, and they knew that I was a felon beforehand. Told me to take the class, and they would chance me, and they did … like I’m doing everything I need to do. I mean it’s very discouraging, you get very discouraged at times.

Another woman, Elise from Massachusetts, shared her concerns about employment:

Elise: And I really want to work with people who have HIV. Because you don’t need any type of certification training in New York. And I don’t want to get a job that I’m not educated in because when it comes time for me to apply for a job I’ll always be at the bottom of the list because I have no type of educational background.

In addition to the impact of a criminal record on hiring, some women faced the added hurdle of little work experience or training prior to incarceration. Those gaps in their résumé coupled with their criminal history made the need for training and work experience a key priority after leaving prison. When I asked Trina, a twenty-two-year-old mother from the Bronx, if she had any work experience prior to incarceration, she replied:

Trina: No. That's why I've been this [work training] program to help me build my resume … But I never used to work. I probably worked in that the deli … And that was only for like a month. If that … I think I did for close to a month and it was like $5.50 and at that time it was way under minimum-wage. I was like, I'm not working!… and I left. That was like the only job I could say I had besides off the book jobs. So, I only had one job.

A likely critique of how women frame the barriers that they encounter on the labor market is that those barriers were self-imposed and deserved. After all, critics may argue that women committed a crime and therefore should not expect “handouts” from the State or private employers. This critique assumes that women are unaware of the stigma of a criminal record and do not anticipate the road blocks awaiting them. However, those barriers run counter to expectations created by the State, in the form of probation and parole requirements. Women know that their options will be few and far in between, but they also know that failure to meet the expectations set for them jeopardizes what they hold most dear: A life outside of prison, reuniting with their children and, one day, a semblance of normalcy. In this way, the unfreedom of carceral institutions extends its reach and threatens the freedom of the embodied self.

Agency and counternarrative through mothering and critique

In earlier iterations of feminist criminology, the centrality of the Women’s Liberation Movement often meant centering the priorities and experiences of middle-class white women to the exclusion of minoritized women (Potter 2006, 2013). As a result, critical claims leveled against male-centered criminology were often appraisals that emphasized gendered concerns, while overlooking the intersection of race and gender (Britton, 2000; Potter 2006; Belknap, 2020;). A key strength of BFC is that by drawing upon critical and intersectional frameworks, the counternarratives presented by Black justice involved women are framed not as one-off experiences, but viewed as legitimate critiques of larger scale social injustices (Potter, 2006; Wing, 2003). This is significant because the way Black women reframed structural oppression within the criminal legal system and the labor market is seen within the context of their individual lives, which provides a site for agency driven criticism and resistance. Two ways women challenged their marginalized status was through their identities a mothers and articulating critiques of transitional organizations. The manner in which women approached mothering and the practices and behaviors associated with the role, was a way to resist State expectations (Gurusami, 2019). Similarly, the critiques women provided of their experiences within transitional organizations, illustrated that they were willing to prioritize their own version of agency even it if it meant criticizing institutions that provided social support and assistance.

(Re)defining mothering

When Aaliyah was arrested for petty theft and forced to spend the first part of her pregnancy in jail, it wasn’t the first time she experienced a flawed criminal legal system. After giving birth to her first daughter at the age of thirteen, she told a hospital social worker that her pregnancy was a result of sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of a close relative. Rather than providing her with resources or placing her in alternative housing with other relatives, she was expected to return to the same home where the abuse occurred. Her immediate family viewed her confession as an act of betrayal and she and her newborn were kicked out of her father’s home. Reflecting on her severed relationships and incarceration, Aaliyah’s response was one that centered her parenting and Blackness, viewing her role as a Black woman and a Black mother as an act of resistance. By the time she arrived at Mother’s Love, Aaliyah began to counter the pain of her childhood experiences, by centering Black women in her understanding of the world. Her lived experience as a Black woman was connected to those of other Black women, even those with markedly different lives. To her, being Black was no longer a justification for her dismissal, but a source of strength.

Aaliyah: I was writing about Harriet Tubman, about black women being strong. This was what I was writing when I was younger. Like strong women have always influenced me. There is something about strength, it’s beautiful … Obama, yeah he the president, but you always hear about how Michelle Obama she was a better lawyer … She felt strong. Even I watched my grandmother. My grandfather was the provider. He went out and made all the bread. But I’m telling you, she controlled how he spent that bread … What she said goes. She was firm in her word. She was a strong woman. Like her family was together because she was alive.

Acknowledging injustice and how one was wronged is not synonymous with internalizing the labels associated with those acts of injustice. Aaliyah was a survivor of abuse and an ex-offender but, as Potter notes, there is a distinction between “situations which women encounter” and those that are “endemic to their identity” (Potter, 2006, p. 110). This is not to say that women don’t want institutions and individuals who wronged them to be held accountable. Rather, women desire not to be defined by their pain or by punitive measures against them, but to be seen as whole beings with complex journeys.

The counternarrative Aaliyah describes—centering an experience and self-appraisal that contradicts previous representations of her Black womanhood—was not uncommon among the woman I interviewed. Some women spoke about changing their method of parenting to foster a nurturing environment for their children. For example, Cadence, a twenty-eight-year-old mother from New York, challenged the discipline centered method of parenting she witnessed among Black mothers in her community. When asked about her goals for motherhood, she offered a description that centered tenderness and relational bonding.

Cadence: I’m baking, my kids have cookies, you know, and … and I’m also working and I’m getting them everything that they want, plus I’m giving them kisses and I’m reading bedtime stories and for some reason that just can’t happen. Like it’s just not, I don’t know from where, you know, but then women really didn’t work. Betty Crocker stayed home and cooked like, you know, all day and cleaned house and I want to be all that in one, but you know, so … I don’t know. Just finding my balance in it and just … doing the best that I can and also just learning more patience because it takes a lot of patience.

Another mother, twenty-eight-year-old Wendy from Brooklyn, also shared how her approach to mothering was influenced by defying the model of motherhood to which she had grown accustomed.

Wendy: I don’t only think that I’m a great mom, just because I try to be the mom that my mom wasn’t, you know. So, just is really simple things like writing my daughter notes. My whole thing is my daughter feel loved and I know it … and I spend time with her. It’s about me and her, so not about anything else, it’s not about buying good stuff, it’s about museums, it’s about Central Park … picnics.

Facing the interventions and requirements of post-imprisonment life, formerly incarcerated women are expected to engage in motherwork under the surveillance and scrutiny of State actors (Gurusami, 2019). Despite these pressures, women are reflective about what they want for themselves and their children. The oversight they receive at the hands of the State, is called into question by their ability to define motherhood on their own terms and by centering their love for their children.

Subversion through critique

For most individuals, criticism of one’s employer can be a risky endeavor. Criticism of an employer or those who hold supervisory positions can result in retaliation in the form of promotional denial, poor performance evaluations and even termination (Milliken et al., 2003). For women of color, the risk associated with employer criticism is even greater (Hall et al., 2012; Ortiz & Roscingno, 2009). This is what makes the criticism women shared about their experiences within reentry programs all the more significant. They were not only risking temporary economic security or a job promotion, but the social capital needed for future employment, assistance with child reunification and, in some cases, positive feedback to their probation and parole officers. Even so, some women felt slighted by their organization and voiced their concerns. One example of this form of resistance was 24-year-old Krystal, who felt Mother’s Love’s organizational identity as a place that centered women and children was as odds with her interactions with staff members.

Krystal: And they told me, they were instructing me … “Listen, Krystal, if you don’t get your daughter back by the time you go to trial then we’re going to have to take you out of program.” And I am like, “Well I thought this is the program for mother and children to help you get your child back, and I am not going [to continue] thinking that.” One of the girls called me the other day. She told me she’s been here for a year. They’re not giving her a chance to - they don’t have any other solution for you to go to, but the shelter system … this is all very business.”

Like Krystal, Trisha also provided a pointed critique of institutional actors who she believed failed to live up to their stated claims of advocacy for women.

Geniece: Do you think your perspective of the program has changed … over the course of the year you’ve been here?

Trisha: It’s dramatically changed. Like I can’t stand it. I can’t stand it … Once you get plugged in their working programs you’re basically working for the food stamps that you’re getting and they’re slaving you. You’re in the parks, cleaning up parks and stuff like that.

Once optimistic about her future in the program, Trisha’s assessment, made a year after our initial conversation, was sharply critical of staff members and Mother’s Love’s work training program. To her and Krystal, the initial honeymoon phase they experienced as new members at Mother’s Love had worn off and was replaced with a callous indifference similar to what they experienced within correctional institutions.

Trina also provided an assessment of her experience that was critical of the transitional organization:

Trina: Where I’m at right now with myself I'm kind of content being here Monday to Friday but on the weekends it's fuckin’ boring … I think there's more rules than parole rules … And I feel like overall parole has the most higher authority of any … But in their eyes they feel that they have power over parole … And if they kicked me out I'm just going have to go somewhere else. In the bigger picture it's like damn! … It's just like I said-a double-edged sword. Yet the balance every situation you go through.

Though less critical than Trina, Krystal or Trisha, Faith, a twenty-five-year-old mother from Brooklyn, also felt that the constraints of the transitional organization added to her post-imprisonment stress.

Faith: I’ve never seen a place like this before, they really help you a lot, they go above and beyond. The only issue that I’m having right now is with the working program, because it’s inhumanly possible for me to live off 248 dollars every two weeks. I was close 400 pound when I went in prison, I have lost a whole person, I had nothing, so I mean, I have to start all over from scratch. It’s frustrating wearing the same cloths everyday and its frustrating having to rush into the house early to wash out something so you can wear it the next day. It’s humiliating and it’s stressful[.]

The work training program that Faith references was a requirement for women at Mother’s Love and the small stipend it provided made it difficult for her to purchase clothing necessary to accommodate her weight loss. It wasn’t just the inability to buy clothes that bothered her, just as it wasn’t solely the lack of activity at the program on the weekends that frustrated Trina. For each woman, it was the lack of autonomy within the transitional organization that made them feel that post-incarceration wasn’t about beginning a new chapter, but rather a continuation of some of the same restrictions that governed their lives while in prison. An important aspect of women’s critique is that most of it was directed at the residential program, Mother’s Love. Women at Helping Hands, Inc., the non-residential program, seemed to understand that the organization’s purpose was to point them towards other resources or serve as the setting for parenting workshops. By contrast, Mother’s Love wasn’t merely a place women visited once or twice a week. It was home. The intimacy that home represented stood in sharp contrast to the rules, check ins and work requirements women were expected to adhere to while at Mother’s Love.

Discussion

The manner in which Black formerly incarcerated women frame their relationship to institutions, underscores the implicit and explicit ways that carcerality permeates post-imprisonment life. For example, Trisha’s explanation of how her court case was handled could not be decoupled from the issues of systemic racism and homophobia. The same institutions that failed her as a Black girl, were also failing her as a Black woman and the promise of blind justice would remain, as it has for so many others, elusive. Likewise, Kishana’s conviction meant she had to face the possibility of placing her infant son in foster care or with his father, the very man who abused her for years. Her dilemma illustrated how structural oppression reproduces itself in the lives of justice involved women, not just for themselves, but also for their children. Facing the indignity of this choice, Kishana weighed the risks of foster care, a system that disproportionately harms Black mothers and their children, against placing her child with his father (Clifford & Silver-Greenberg, 2017; Roberts, 2011). Ultimately, her boyfriend was granted custody.

The employment marginalization women experience bears some similarity to their experience with the legal system. The denial of work opportunities illustrates how exclusion does not exist within a vacuum, but rather is rooted in socio-historical factors. Even without a criminal record, Black women, when applying for jobs, are often perceived as combative, unreliable and antagonistic to mainstream norms (Jones, 2009; Mondé, 2018; Roberts, 2014). In her audit study Pager (2007) examined the extent to which Black and white men with and without criminal records were denied call backs for job interviews. What she found was that while a criminal record reduced the chances that Black men with criminal records received job interviews more than it did for their white counterparts, a criminal record was less of a barrier for white men with a criminal record than it was for Black men who did not have a criminal record. This finding also holds true for Black women.

Ortiz (2014) found that not only were Black women with a criminal record less likely to be called back by prospective employers than their white counterparts, but that Black women without a criminal record had a 37 percent lower chance of being called for a job interview than white women who did have a criminal record. The neoliberal stereotype of The Welfare Queen has made poor Black women an easy target for institutionalized discrimination (Ortiz & Briggs, 2003; Power, 2005; Roberts, 1994). When compounded with a criminal record that bars women from positions that require state licensure, such as cosmetology and child care work, the odds stacked against Black justice involved women are significant. Thus, when placed within the context of reduced job opportunities and anti-Black hiring practices, the formidable challenges set before women exist, in part, because the very people and institutions that penalize them for failing to reach required benchmarks have also created the criteria many will be unable meet.

When women leave jail or prison, they are instructed to have a laser-like focus on meeting goals that conform to standards set by judges, parole boards, probation officers and reentry staff. Even when methods claim to elevate the needs of women and children, it is difficult to fully disentangle the experience of incarceration from the surveillance of reentry programs that mandate curfews, staff-client meetings and training programs. While women’s own vision of the future may align with the goals set by others, the obligatory aspect of those goals combined with the punitive consequences for not adhering to those goals, means that decisions made about their lives by others are imposed upon them against their will (Cobbina, 2010). In this way, defining mothering and engaging in motherwork on their own terms provides women a way to exert agency (Gurusami, 2019). The child-centered approach to mothering illustrated by Cadence and Wendy, for example, were direct challenges to the version of motherhood they believed that they were expected to reproduce. As Middlemiss (2003) notes, poverty not only impacts the tangible economic status of a family, but it takes a toll on the emotional bonds strained under its weight. This in turn can impact relational dynamics in historically marginalized communities (Brazelton, 2015; Miller-Loncar, 1998).

While women did not conflate the unfreedom of incarceration with the restrictions of a transitional organizations, they believed that some requirements created a subtle form of unfreedom. For Black women, whose tenuity in society precedes their criminal record, the pressure to prove that they are fully rehabilitated places their self-hood as tangential to the requirements they are expected to fulfill. In response to this pressure, some women call into question the authority of their evaluators. It should be noted that not every woman offered critiques as pointed as those offered by Trisha or Faith. This in part due to the fact that depending on a woman’s experience with reentry programs they may have varying levels of familiarity with the expectations set for them. Trisha, for example, initially thought of Mother’s Love as a type of benefactor, giving her housing after prison. Once she became aware of the requirement to work and secure welfare benefits, her view of the organization shifted from that of benevolence to one of transactional oversight.

Black women who enter the criminal legal system are aware, more than most, that the decisions made about their lives and futures often ignore their existing vulnerabilities. As a result of previous failed state interventions and non-interventions they experienced as children, in foster care, or as survivors of intimate partner victimization, they know the limitations of institutions and how those institutions perpetuate their marginal status (Potter, 2008; Richie, 2012). So, when women are told to trust the defense strategy of a disinterested public defender or a post-release care plan that prioritizes institutional objectives above their self-development, they hope for the best, while bracing themselves for disappointment. Throughout their life course women witness and experience the iterative nature of unfreedom in the way that the vested interests of those in positions of power appear to prioritize fiduciary concerns and institutional reputation. To counter this reality, they respond by contextualizing their social location through the critique of people, places and institutions they perceive as upholding structural oppression.

Implications and future research

In highlighting the importance of centering Black women’s experiences, this paper illustrates the need for future research which draws upon BFC to examine how marginalized women explicitly discuss their Blackness as a site of oppression. One of the limitations of this paper is that women were not directly asked to discuss if or how they felt their status as Black women exacerbated their experiences. Understanding how Black justice involved women understand the legal system within the context of being Black women and mothers can further illuminate how intersecting sites of oppression shape a person’s relationships with social institutions. Another limitation of this paper that can be addressed by future research is the manner in which women were selected for the study. Future studies might use a comparative national approach to examine women’s journeys after they have left transitional organizations. A comparative study of this type can provide insight into how differential levels of state support, laws and policies limit or expand the opportunities available to women.

At a theoretical level, this paper underscores the analytical utility of concepts and frameworks that center the marginalized populations under study. The framing of post-carceral narratives, from the vantage point of Black women is crucial to capturing the full picture of how Black women experience systemic unfreedom. Through the application of a Black women centered theoretical framework, the narrative descriptions women offer show how they measure their journeys, not exclusively by the metrics of reentry programming and correctional entities, but by their own understanding of who they are and where they exist along the margins of society. Furthermore, BFC privileges the narratives of marginalized women and thus shifts the conventional researcher-study participant relationship. Researchers are not “giving voice” to women’s concerns, but rather centering their voices by illustrating the ways in which they have been historically unheard or silenced. In sum, one of the most meaningful contributions of BFC is that it acknowledges the agency of Black women in the midst of repeated and intentional societal exclusion.

At a substantive level, this paper highlights the false trichotomy between the pre-incarceration, incarceration and post-incarceration stages of life. So often when women enter prison they already have intimate knowledge of unfreedom, such that the physical unfreedom of imprisonment exacerbates the existing trauma of those prior experiences. Upon leaving prison, women recognize the reverberating echoes of State paternalism in rehabilitative rhetoric that tells them what they should value and how they should comport themselves. From a policy standpoint, the question that must be answered is this: Is it possible to disentangle the expectations of post-carceral transitional organizations, correctional surveillance and labor market reticence to hiring formerly incarcerated people from the formal unfreedom of carceral institutions? If so, how?

The first step to answering this question is to take a sober look at the criminal legal system and recognize that the enduring unfreedom of incarceration in the lives of Black women is, to use the colloquial phrase, not a bug but a feature. A legal system that codifies the second-class citizenship of incarcerated persons within its most hallowed legal document, the Constitution, will no doubt be reticent to grant full social inclusion to those same individuals once they leave carceral institutions (U.S. Const. amend. XIII). Secondly, in order to address and ameliorate how marginality is perpetuated, it is important to invest in organizations led by formerly incarcerated women, with representation across the staff and board of directors. The insight of women who have traversed the hurdles of a criminal record is certainly no panacea for the diverse problems that women face after imprisonment. However, by prioritizing the needs and voices of formerly incarcerated women, organizations can structure policies in ways that do not further marginalize women seeking support. Thus, in order to understand the extent of what Carla Shedd calls the carceral continuum—the spectrum of carceral and carceral adjacent institutions that marginalize already vulnerable populations—it is important to take women’s accounts seriously and continue to center their narratives in scholarly analyses (Shedd, 2011). In this way, the totalizing nature of the carceral state is more fully understood as exacting unfreedoms upon the women who’ve left prison and those who remain.

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Contributor

Geniece A. Crawford Mondé is Associate Professor and chair of sociology and criminal justice at Wingate University. She received her PhD in sociology from Harvard University. Her research interests included maternal incarceration, social reintegration of formerly incarcerated persons, consensus decision-making and Black women studies. She is the author of the book This is Our Freedom: Motherhood in the Shadow of the American Prison System and has published in journals such as Social Service Review, Feminist Media Studies and Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Religion.

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