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«COPING WITH REENTRY BARRIERS: STRATEGIES USED BY WOMEN OFFENDERS Susan V. Koski, LP.D.* and Kathleen A. Bantley, Esq.** Department of Criminology and ...»

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Susan V. Koski, LP.D.*


Kathleen A. Bantley, Esq.**

Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Central Connecticut State University

Keywords: coping strategies, gender, reentry, life course theory, qualitative methods


Recently released offenders face multiple barriers during reentry from prison to society. The coping strategies of female offenders differ from those of their male counterpart. The goal of this research was to explore female offenders’ coping strategies during the reentry phase. Although some health professions commonly research coping, there is little known about coping mechanisms used during reentry for women offenders. The participants in the study were dual diagnosis women offenders who had been recently released from prison (n=20). The research question examined was, “Which coping mechanisms do women reentering society from prison commonly use to address their barriers?” The research question was derived from a similar study conducted with male participants, but our study sought to analyze a gendered approach to this phenomenon. In an effort to capture how women cope with reentry, interviews were used to investigate themes surrounding coping strategies once released.

Data analysis for this study was primarily qualitative. The Coping Inventory for Stressful Situations [CISS; Endler & Parker, 1999] was used to further support the interviews to determine specific coping strategies used during stressful situations.

Introduction Literature on coping consistently informs us of the ways in which individuals cope in stressful situations such as school, work, parenting, dissolution of marriage, etc. however it fails to specifically address how women offenders cope with reentry barriers. Spjeldnes & Goodkind provide a comprehensive review of the literature on gender and coping. Their work reflects the notion that women and men face different barriers as well as react differently to such barriers [2009]. This research investigated the barriers women face as well as the ways in which they began to cope with their respective barriers. Current research in this area falls short in understanding how coping strategies may be related to criminal behavior both before a period of incarceration and during the reentry phase. This study focused on female coping during the reentry phase. The transitory event of reentering society from prison raises concern for one’s ability to cope in a healthy and productive manner [Zamble & Porporino, 1988;

Sampson & Laub, 1992, 1993]. This event along the life course as well as those events preceding it may contribute to the difficulty women face during this time. Historically, research has shown that those who engage in criminal activity often lack the ability to cope in an effective way when faced with challenging situations [Phillips & Lindsay, 2009].

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Relevant Literature Gender-Neutral Barriers to Reentry The process of reentry impacts both male and female offenders. Although the unique barriers women face will be highlighted in this paper, it is also important to discuss the general barriers that all offenders may encounter. Establishing an effective reentry plan is paramount for an offender’s success.

Historically, prisoners were prepared for release under the medical model. This model provided rehabilitative programs addressing basic needs such as education, vocational skills, counseling, and substance abuse. These programs were developed to ease the transition back to society [Seiter & Kadela, 2003; Belknap, 2007; Covington, 2001]. These programs were based on a male-centered model.

Vocational skills such as carpentry, auto-mechanics, and construction management were the focus.

Counseling services focused primarily on anger management for male offenders with a history of domestic violence, uncontrollable behaviors, and impulsiveness. Although perhaps effective for males, these programs were not gender-specific and fail to consider the needs of women offenders during reentry.

During the 1980’s our approach to inmate programs began to shift. “Tough on Crime” rhetoric, “truth in sentencing”, mandatory minimums, and “three strikes” policies played a role in these changes.

Women offenders often bear the brunt of such policies. Conservative in nature, these policies have resulted in longer prison sentences, fewer opportunities for parole, and they often target single mothers, those who are already financially and emotionally struggling [Belknap, 2007; Chesney-Lind, 1998]. In 1974, Robert Martinson’s article, “What Works? Questions and Answers About Prison Reform” addressed the idea that nothing was working in terms of rehabilitation. The question, “what works?” began a movement in a new direction for our system of “corrections” in the U.S. According to Seiter and Kadela [2003] “the current model of prison operations and prisoner reentry does not focus on inmate rehabilitation and preparation for release, but on punishment, deterrence, and incapacitation to prevent future crimes” [p. 363]. This is concerning as the surge of inmates being released yearly continues to increase for both males and females. In 2006, approximately 713,000 offenders were released [Sabol & Couture, 2008]. In 2007, almost 800,000 offenders were in the parole system [Glaze & Bonczar, 2008].

Based on this increase, it is necessary to investigate coping mechanisms used when faced with a stressful or challenging situation in particular those faced with when reentering society from prison.

Petersilia [2003, 2005] discusses the challenges male parolees face in terms of education, employment, housing, substance use, mental health care, and access to rehabilitative programs. These barriers can make the process of reentry a difficult one for both males and females. In terms of education, Harlow [2003] found that nearly half of state inmates (about 41%) have not earned a high school diploma or GED. This study supports literature that suggests there is a relationship between one’s level of education and likelihood of recidivism. [Brennan, Dietrich, & Ehert, 2009; Horney, Osgood, & Marshall, 1995;

Jensen & Reed, 2006; O’Connell, 2003; Ulmer, 2001]. In addition to the literature on education, research has also shown that employment is linked to recidivism [Brenda, Harm & Tombs, 2005; Kim Joo, & McCarty 2008; O’Connell, 2003]. This is evident as many employers are hesitant to hire people with lower education and in addition, those who have been convicted of a felony [Petersilia, 2003, 2005]. Makarios, Steiner, and Travis [2010] provide evidence that there is a relationship between education, employment, and recidivism. The authors state, “inmates who fail to succeed in school or obtain stable employment are less likely to successfully reenter society” [p.1387].


In terms of housing as a barrier to reentry, Petersilia [2005] found that many landlords refuse to enter into lease agreements with an inmate once the inmate’s felony record has been discovered during a background check. This presents further challenges for inmates as they leave prison with limited education, poor finances, and lacking employment and now a lack of housing options. For example, finding adequate housing in an area free of drugs and crime is difficult with no job, limited income, and poor education. In addition, many inmates return to the community they were living in prior to incarceration which is often riddled with difficulties discussed. Many inmates are also released with a history of substance use and mental illness [Rosenfeld, Petersilia, & Visher, 2008] and access to rehabilitative programs for this population is weak creating further barriers [Petersilia, 2003].

Petersilia’s conclusions are supported by additional research on reentry. For example, Seiter and Kadela [2003] refer to a study done in 1999 by the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City where 88 recently released inmates were randomly selected to be interviewed in terms of issues they confronted upon release [as cited in Nelson, Deess, & Allen, 1999; Makarios, Steiner, and Travis’s, 2010]. The barriers identified include securing housing and employment, creating ties with family and friends, substance use, and the effect of parole supervision.

Gender-Specific Barriers to Reentry Although men and women offenders do face similar struggles during reentry, there are some important differences in the barriers they face, they type of programming offered, and how they cope with their situation.

Richie [2001] conducted a qualitative study interviewing 42 minority women who were living in low-income areas. The challenges and barriers identified in their process of reentry included those identified in the Vera Institute of Justice study of 1999 such as education and employment, housing, family reunification, and substance use. Additional barriers identified in the Richie study included those associated with health care, mental health issues, and preventing domestic violence. In another study examining women who identified as being “successfully reintegrated” O’Brien [2001], found that their success was a result of finding housing, obtaining a legal income, redeveloping social connections, gaining confidence, and developing community membership.

In addition to the barriers previously mentioned, the following barriers uniquely impact women.

Family History Women offenders often find themselves in the midst of a generational prison cycle. Many women report that at least one of their relatives has been or is currently incarcerated [Covington, 2001]. Since women typically are the primary caregivers for their children in both single and coupled homes, their experience may have a greater impact on their children. According to Dallaire [2007] “Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to drop out of school, engage in delinquency, and subsequently be incarcerated themselves” [p. 440]. Enhancing reentry efforts to incorporate reunification plans will likely decrease future generations of criminal involvement.

Employment Socioeconomic issues seem to impact women more as they are less often employed full-time and more often than males already receiving welfare benefits prior to arrest. More women (60%) report not having full-time employment at the time of arrest, compared to males (40%) [Mumola, 2000]. Almost half (44%) of women have not completed high school at the time of arrest [Greenfeld & Snell, 1999].

3 Susan V. Koski and Kathleen A. Bantley

Health Physical and mental health issues are another concern for both males and females, however, for females, more than half (57%) report being sexually or physically abused before their arrest [Mumola, 2000].

Women were also diagnosed with mental illness more often (23%) compared to men (16%) [Ditton, 1999]. Women (40%) were also more likely to report drug use than males (32%) at the time of arrest [Mumola, 2000; Greenfeld & Snell, 1999].

Parenting Unique challenges for women also include childcare while incarcerated, maintaining familial bonds, and loss of parental rights. Children are left with either their father (28%) or a close relative (grandparent, sibling, or close family friend) during their development stages making the transition difficult for child and caregiver [Mumola, 2000]. Women are often faced with difficulties maintaining family bonds since most prisons are over 100 miles from their family [Mumola, 2000]. More than half of women inmates have never had a visit from their children [Lapidus, Luthra, Verma, Small, Allard, & Levingston, 2005].

Longer prison sentences have made it difficult for women to maintain their parental rights while serving time. Typically most states terminate parental rights after 15 months and nearly 60% of mothers are serving sentences longer than 24 months [Mumola, 2000].

These barriers are met by males in some instances, but perhaps impact women offenders differently. Women in general cope, process events, and problem-solve differently than men do and women offenders present another layer of difficulty than those who do not engage in criminal activity.

An exploration of coping has been studied and may enlighten our understanding of how women offenders cope.

Coping with Reentry Barriers Offenders face a number of barriers as part of their reentry. How they cope with these obstacles to successfully stay out of prison is important. Coping, defined by Lazarus & Folkman [1986] is “constantly changing cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage specific external and/or internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of a person” [p. 141]. There are a number of ways in which an individual will “cope” with a demand. Drawing from a variety of literature on the subject, the research consistently shows women offenders tend to utilize strategies that are problem-focused (task), emotion-focused, or avoidance-focused [Lazarus and Folkman, 1986; Endler and Parker, 1999; Phillips & Lindsay, 2009].

Folkman and Lazarus [1986] define the three type of coping explored in this study. Problemfocused is defined by: “Purposeful task-oriented efforts aimed at solving the problem, cognitively restructuring the problem, or attempts to alter the situation. The main emphasis is on the task or planning, and on attempts to solve the problem.” [p. 993] For example, a woman who seeks substance abuse treatment for 30 days per the recommendation of a treatment provider is performing a task or problem solving strategy to her substance use.

Emotion-focused is defined by: “Reactions that are self-oriented. The aim is to reduce stress (but this is not always successful). Reactions include emotional responses (e.g., blame myself for being too emotional, get angry, become tense), self-preoccupation, and fantasizing (daydreaming reactions). In some cases the reaction actually increases stress (e.g., become very upset, become very tense). The reaction is oriented towards the person.” [p. 993] For example, substance abuse treatment hasn’t worked in the past so there is no reason to try again.


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