Getting Out: Women In Transition

A multi-media exploration of women's successful transition out of prison


The United States has the highest prison population in the world, with over 2 million individuals who are currently incarcerated and almost 5 million under some form of supervisory or custodial control of the criminal justice system. Although, only 7% of this population is female, the amount of women incarcerated has risen almost 700% since the 1980s. This dramatic rise means that there is also a significant increase of those transitioning back into society when they are released from prison. However, 66% of women are released from prison are re-arrested within three years. "Getting Out: Women in Transition" explores this transitional period and how it specifically affects women, asking the questions of why the recidivism rate is so high and how it can be lowered through appropriate transitional programming. 

Two women, who have previously been incarcerated and have transitioned back to the great St. Louis area, were interviewed for this project and asked what success during this time in their lives means to them. Their words and secondary research on transitional policies, laws, and programs have been combined and synthesized into an article that examines the unique challenges that women face upon re-entry and the possible solutions to these issues. These findings show that although men also have an extremely difficult transition, women’s issues upon re-entry are often magnified by the necessity to support their family in conjunction with finding housing, employment and battling with addiction. However, these challenges can be significantly alleviated through the productive creation of relationships and the correct transitional programming, leading to a significant decrease in the recidivism rate and an increase in previously incarcerated women leading successful lives. 

This article is interspersed with videos of the two women that I interviewed in order to allow for their voices to be heard, not just quoted. With the help of Dave Walsh and the greater American Culture Studies department, I created a website to display my article and the accompanying videos. I wanted to create a space that was easily accessible for the women who I interviewed so they could clearly see the significant impact that their stories had on my work. Furthermore, being in the Visual, Material and Digital Cultures concentration has helped me understand the importance of accessibility when creating impactful content. I wanted my thesis to reach people and I believe that this combination of the written word, videos and online access is the most beneficial way to do so in an academic setting.


Every Tuesday night, in the lobby of St. Vincent’s Church in downtown St. Louis, a group of women gather to tell their stories and listen to those of others. Women of all ages, occupations, and parts of the greater St. Louis area come together in a circle. Despite being in a church, these meetings are not religious; they are meant only for support. The meetings are run by Let’s Start, an organization which operates out of a small office on the second floor. Let’s Start is a non-profit dedicated to assisting women in transition from prison life to society, and helping those who were previously incarcerated navigate the many challenges of re-entry. Those running Let’s Start, some who have even been through the criminal justice system themselves, recognize the unique difficulties that women face when transitioning. The organization seeks to affect change through large and small scale initiatives, from helping its constituents with mundane daily tasks to larger scale initiatives and policy reforms. These Tuesday night meetings have proven to be one of their most successful programs. Although not all of the women who attend have been incarcerated, the majority of women have served time in prison or jail and are recovering addicts.

I was first introduced to the women of Let’s Start through a class that I was taking my junior year. Our professor wanted us to understand our city beyond the walls of our school. She tasked us with creating a documentary in partnership with a local organization. Recidivism had never been a core interest of mine, but as I read more I became enthralled and saw the significant impact organizations like Let’s Start could have on issues surrounding mass incarceration. So, with the encouragement of my professor and the intent to learn more, I decided to attend a Tuesday night meeting.

On this particular Tuesday in October it was raining out and women were shaking off the wet as they come through the green double doors. I had gotten there early and claimed a seat not too close or far away from those around me, trying to draw as little attention to myself as possible as a new comer. But the circle of chairs soon filled in and the meeting began. The group allowed women to share the ups and downs of their everyday lives and get advice and support from their peers. As many of the women around the circle shared, I was struck with the similarities in their issues and how their criminal record seemed to permeate into every factor of their lives.

I listened silently and intently as every lull in the conversation was filled with a new voice and story. At the end of the meeting, feeling both emotionally exhausted and invigorated from the stories and responses, I gathered my things and slipped out into the rain soaked streets.

Let’s Start was founded in 1989 when Sister Jackie Toben began informally meeting with previously incarcerated women. She recognized that their needs were not being met within the justice system and wanted to create an organization that would be run and implemented by those that had actual experienced the challenges they were trying to address. The organization realizes the importance of consistency during the otherwise tumultuous transition period, so the support groups begin before women are even released through meetings in the Clayton Jail. 

In addition, Let’s Start  brings children to visit their mothers at Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia, Missouri (often referred to simply as Vandalia) and assists with referrals for housing and employment. Once a woman is released, the weekly support groups continue in addition to monthly parenting sessions and as needed legal clinics. Let’s Start does a significant amount of outreach and advocacy by talking to the community about issues that impact the lives of the women they serve and advocating for policy changes.

Let’s Start’s mission to raise awareness and change policy is not unique in the United States. In recent years, the issue of mass incarceration has come to the forefront in the media and the public’s attention. There have been numerous articles written, Netflix documentaries made, and books published to bring the United State’s Justice system into clearer view. Most of these pieces focus, albeit compellingly, on the flaws of the legal system and the prisons themselves, but many fail to address the issues regarding the re-entry process, and furthermore, the issues that women specifically are plagued with. I was curious why over two thirds of the women released from prison are re-arrested within three years.  I wanted to know more about what the women in the circle were going through and how both government programs and non-profit organizations were helping them transition back into society. In addition, I wanted to know what it meant to the women who were in these programs to be successful in their transition and how they personally measured that success.  In an effort to answer these questions, I went to the women themselves and recorded their personal narratives while also learning as much as I could about the transitional process for women within the United States.

One of the first women that I met was Lia, the women’s coordinator for Let’s Start I was first introduced to her one night before a group meeting. At that time she had recently been promoted to her current role and was signing in the women as they entered the lobby. Lia welcomed everyone to the weekly meetings, joking with the regulars, reassuring the new comers, and smiling widely at the children who would play in a room next door as their mothers attended the meeting.

 Lia is one of only three full time employees at Let’s Start, along with the Executive Director. Together, with the help of some part time workers, the two of them run Let’s Start and conduct all of its programming. Similar to many of her colleagues, Lia was previously incarcerated. After many years of struggling with addiction and being shuffled in and out of the city jail system for drug-related crimes, Lia was given a sentence of seven years at Vandalia for shoplifting. After serving thirty months, she was released in 2006. Immediately following her release, Lia went through multiple federal and locally funded programs to help her transition back into society, finally landing at Let’s Start a few years later and staying ever since.

Lia describes her upbringing in St. Louis, her introduction to drugs, her struggle with addiction and what subsequently led to her incarceration. 

I’ve also had the pleasure to meet Rebecca.4 Although she does not directly work for Let’s Start, she never misses a Tuesday night meeting. “It’s not just a Tuesday night meeting, it’s a dedication.” She told me when we first met. After struggling with addiction and being in and out of the city jail system seventeen times, she was sentenced to prison, She served for a year, six months of which was in treatment. Rebecca took advantage of the services in prison and the transitional services once she left, coming to Let’s Start after being incarcerated.

Rebecca describes her struggle with addiction and her experience being released and re-arrested multiple times in jail before finally being sent to prison and receiving treatment.

Although they do not speak for all women who have transitioned out of prison around the nation, Lia and Rebecca served as my guides through the process of learning what programs, initiatives and policies are in place to help women re-enter society. Their stories and perspectives created a window through which I caught a glimpse of the larger system and learned, to these women, what it means to be successful.

By watching the videos embedded throughout this article, I hope to link the reader to Lia and Rebecca and create a connection to the stories being shared. The center of this piece is their voices. If this project succeeds, it will be because more people have heard their story and can begin to appreciate the nuance of this pernicious issue. This online space was created to put actual faces and voices to the abstract numbers and statistics swirling around about mass incarceration and to bridge gaps between those who want to learn and those willing to teach. I did not want to co-op what Rebecca and Lia have to say through my own writing, but wanted them to tell their stories straight out into the wider world. While reading, please make sure to watch the videos to bolster the experience and assist in this mission.

In order to fully comprehend Lia and Rebecca’s journey however, one first needs to understand the historical, political and economic context in which the United States has created the justice system and why women have a harder time than men when transitioning out of prison.

Historical Context

War on Drugs

Understanding women’s incarceration in the United States is integral to appreciating the transitional process. Since 1980 the number of women in prison has increased 700%. Similar to Lia and Rebecca, the majority of the women incarcerated in this country are sentenced for drug-related non-violent crimes that they commit in order to support their addiction. In order to combat drug related crimes, the country started prosecuting drug users, increasing the sentences and punishments at an incredible rate in order to discourage the buying and selling of drugs. Regardless of the intention, these laws led to the mass incarceration we see in the United States today, and has created a dangerous web in which the poor, people of color and women are disproportionally getting trapped. 

On July 14th, 1969 Richard Nixon addressed congress with a special message on “The Control of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs” in which he explained that the abuse of drugs had grown into a “serious national threat to the personal health and safety of millions of Americans.”  He called for the creation of both federal and state legislation that would work to deter the use and sale of narcotics. Nixon used New York City as an example for one of the worst cases in the country. He stated, “New York City alone has records of some 40,000 heroin addicts, and the number rises between 7,000 and 9,000 a year.” He claimed these statistics were only “the tip of the iceberg” however, when examining the use of drugs in New York and the rest of the country.

Almost exactly two years later, President Nixon decided to launch a full out attack on this rising epidemic. In 1971 he took up arms and declared a War on Drugs proclaiming, “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.” Again he laid out his vision to take down those who made, sold and used drugs in an attempt to help the nation and stop the drug related crime that was sweeping the nation.

On the heels of President Nixon's sentiment was New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a liberal Republican who had seen drugs as a social problem, not a criminal one. He had advocated for drug rehabilitation programs, creating the Narcotic Addiction and Control Commission in 1967, which aimed to help addicts get clean. Once that was deemed ineffective and too costly, he worked on another initiative called the Methadone Maintenance Program, which also proved to do little to aid in the reduction of drug use.10 After failing to succeed in his left-leaning ways, Rockefeller starkly changed his attitude and adopted Nixon's ideals. In 1973, he enacted a set of laws that created minimum sentences of fifteen years to life for possession of four ounces of any narcotics regardless of one's previous record. These harsh laws, the precursor to mandatory minimums, amounted to a similar punishment to that of second-degree murder.

The trend of severe drug sentencing and punishment swept the country.  For example, in 1978, Michigan passed their “650-lifer” law, which convicted drug offenders for delivering more than 650 grams of narcotics. The War on Drugs was in full swing and the prison population was growing steadily.

New York once again came to the forefront of the drug problem in America when the New York Times published a cover story in 1985 about the flourishing crack, a cheaper and smoke-able version of cocaine, in the New York region. The article, entitled “A New, Purified Form of Cocaine Causes Alarm as Abuse Increases”, cited the uses of crack and claimed that it was spreading out of impoverished neighborhoods and now was “infecting” wealthier suburbs.

Dr. Washton, a doctor at the Stony Lodge Psychiatric Hospital, was quoted in the article claiming that this epidemic was affecting vulnerable populations. He stated, “These were kids from upper-middle-class families in Scarsdale and Mamaroneck [wealthy New York suburbs], kids with no history of addiction or psychiatric illness. They were the top half of their class, college bound, and they were addicted almost instantaneously.” Mr. McEneaney, the director of rehabilitation centers around the nation, was also quoted in the article stating that crack would cause "uncontrollable, outrageous sexual activity" in women, another vulnerable population according to the author of the article, Jane Gross.

This article signified the peak of drug abuse related hysteria that rose rapidly throughout the 1980s. A Gallup poll that asked Americans the question “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?” taken throughout the 1970s and 80s exemplifies this trend. In 1973 twenty percent of those polled declared drug abuse as the most pressing problem. As the decades wore on, the poll showed just how drastically the population’s feeling changed. From 1979 to 1984 the answer of drug abuse did not even appear in Gallop’s survey. The New York Times’ article once again sparked a dormant fear in the country. In parallel surveys conducted by the newspaper and CBS News in September of 1989, a staggering 64 percent of Americans thought that drug abuse was the most important problem facing the nation.

Seeing these astounding numbers, Reagan decided to continue the war that Nixon had started and set aside billions of dollars for the federal government to fight the country’s enemy. In October of 1986 Reagan signed The Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which allocated $1.7 billion to fight the drug epidemic, $97 million of which was devoted to building new prisons.

The bill’s most consequential mandate was the creation of mandatory minimums for drug offenses. Possession of one kilogram of heroin or five kilograms of cocaine became punishable by at least ten years of prison. Because of the widespread panic surrounding the crack epidemic, sentencing of those in possession of the substance became especially strict. The penalty of crack versus cocaine became one hundred to one. Therefore, a person in possession of five grams of crack cocaine could now receive the same sentence as someone who had five hundred grams of powder cocaine.

These intense laws and minimum sentences disproportionally affected low-income African-American and Latino/a communities throughout the country. In Julia Sudbury’s essay “Unpacking the Crisis: Women of Color, Globalization and the Prison Industrial Complex” she explains that the media during this time worked to “present the ‘crack epidemic’ as a crisis that posed a far greater threat to public safety than did the drugs more commonly used by middle class users… In addition, although the majority of crack users are white, the use and retail marketing of the drug was depicted as a black phenomenon." Therefore, the policies and law enforcement tactics were concentrated fare more heavily on these lower socioeconomic status communities with a greater non-white population. Due to the sever mandatory minimums, non-violent and non-criminal users were being arrested and sentenced for more than ten years for just having the drug. 

Effects on Women's Incarceration

Over the past forty years there has been a 500% increase in the number of people imprisoned in America. The United States has the world’s largest incarcerated population, with a staggering 2.2 million people currently serving time. Although both the number of men and women who are incarcerated has increased significantly during this time, the number of women in prison has increased at a rate 50% faster than that of men. As of 2014, the number of incarcerated women in both prison and jail has increased by more than 700% since 1980, rising from 26,378 to 215,332.

As the numbers indicate, the sharp change in policy in the 1980s disproportionally affected women, especially African Americans with a lower socioeconomic status. Many women were arrested, charged and sentenced for just being around drugs. If a woman was dating or married to someone who was dealing drugs, and they were using them, then that woman was given a similar sentence to her partner regardless of her involvement. Even women who wanted to cooperate with police had trouble doing so. While men could give up people to the police to negotiate better sentences, many women were so uninvolved that they didn’t know who to give up and therefore could not get a deal.

Only 1 in 5 women with a substance abuse history in state prisons receive drug treatment.

These laws failed. Allegedly created to get people off the streets and stop drug related crimes, they did not help women get over their addictions. According to research done by the Sentencing Project, an organization working to create a fairer criminal justice system, as of 2007 60% of women in state prisons

(prisons run by the state with its own rules and regulations) had a history of drug dependence. However, only 1 in 5 women with a substance abuse history in state prisons receive drug treatment, and only 1 in 8 receive rehabilitation in federal prisons (prisons run by the federal government for mostly drug-related, white collar, or political crimes).

Substance abuse treatment in prisons were originally meant only for men, and when the programs were finally adopted for women they were based off of these male programs, and the specific needs of women were often ignored. Recently, the treatments in prison are becoming more responsive to women and their needs. Now, many prisons have more comprehensive programs that address substance abuse in addition to mental health issues and sexual abuse histories that can be contributing factors to the addiction. However, it is hard to both get in and stay in these programs while in prison and they've not had a material effect on recidivism. 

As shown in the videos above, Rebecca and Lia’s stories follow similar trajectories in which they fell prey to addiction and then the criminal justice system. Like so many of her peers, Rebecca was introduced to drugs through a romantic partner who was using.

“I ended up going from snorting dope to shooting dope, to smoking primos to hitting the pipe. Eventually I lost my kids, my house and the good job that I had and ended up on the streets.” She did everything she could to support her addiction, from prostitution to shop lifting and was in and out of institutions for years.

After being in the city jail seventeen times, Rebecca was eventually incarcerated in a prison. 

“I was at my lowest. I had been to treatment so many times and I would just run and go get high.” She explained to me that she had been constantly running from the police and her problems and she was tired of it. When she speaks of the day that she was arrested for the last times she explains, “I was so tired of running. I had blisters on my feet. I weighed 96 pounds. My eyes were black underneath. It was just so so bad, and I knew if I didn’t get any help I was going to end up dying out there.”

Women's Barriers to Re-Entry

Prison in this country is used as a holding pen for those that society doesn’t know how to handle. Instead of investing in programs that will help those that have fallen get back up, the prison system in America works to keep everyone down and beds full. 

 Although prison is still seen as a deterrent or those that have never served time, it doesn’t seem to ring true for those that have already been incarcerated. Despite only consisting of only 5% of the world’s population, the United States has 22% of the world’s prison population.  Over 2.2 million are incarcerated currently in state and federal prisons, averaging about in every 110th person in the United States.  Not shockingly, the number of people on probation or parole is more than double that number. In 2013, 4,751,400 adults were under some form of custodial or supervisory control of the criminal justice system. This is one in every 51 people.

Much of the focus in scholarship, media and popular culture today is on what happens before the initial arrest and the circumstances that got someone to that point. However, far less attention is paid to those who were incarcerated once they leave. In 2010, 750,000 people were released back into society. That is three quarters of a million people who are now seeking employment, services and housing. A majority of those leaving prison are unsuccessful in their efforts and most end up back in prison. Within three years, 67% of those released return to incarceration.

This struggle of re-entry is especially difficult for women because they are most often the primary caregivers for their children. The added stress and necessity to re-enter quickly in order to support or reconnect with ones family is a unique aspect for women. Although both men and women struggle to successfully transition back into society after prison, women have an added burden that compounds will all of the other barriers to re-entry explored in this section.


The title of “criminal” follows a previously incarcerated individual long after they have served their time. The association creates stigma, prejudice and a multitude of barriers to success for both men and women. However, the burdens that befall women are often greater than men. In this chapter, I explore these challenges and how they affect those trying to create a new life for themselves.

When re-entering society, one must rebuild their entire life. They must re-establish a home and connect with their family, regain legal and physical custody of their children, find affordable housing, adequate employment and often establish a new social network that differs from the one that they had before their incarceration. The obstacles of imprisonment do not end once a woman’s sentence is completed, but instead a new group of emotional, legal and financial challenges arise once they return to the “free world”.

"When putting ‘oh, yes, I’m a convicted felon’, I felt that all the time my application got thrown in the trash. I never got called back.”

When leaving prison, the two most significant problems, and ultimate barriers to success, for both women and men is housing and employment. These two issues work together in a viscous cycle. It is often impossible to find employment without a stable living situation and it is hard to find a stable home without employment. Completing either of these incredibly important reintegration steps is inextricably linked to the success in obtaining the other.

Finding employment can be difficult as an ex-offender. Many formally incarcerated people are unable to obtain adequate employment because of their past criminal activity. Lia put it succinctly:  

 “It was very discouraging,” she told me, “because when putting ‘oh, yes, I’m a convicted felon’, I felt that all the time my application got thrown in the trash. I never got called back.”

Unfortunately, felony status is often not the only thing standing between formerly incarcerated women and a job. Devah Pager, a public policy professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, studied former prisoner’s employment. She sought to understand the effects of both race and a criminal record on a man’s employment. She took four adult 23-year old males, two white and two black, and had them apply to over 350 jobs. The men were divided into teams based on race. One “tester” on each team sent in an application saying that they had a criminal record and the other would apply for the same job saying that they did not. The four men were all given favorable work histories and a high school diploma in order to represent the more than 70% of federal and nearly 90% of state prisoners who have not continued their education passed high school.

Pager’s study found that despite many employers not being allowed to use criminal backgrounds in hiring decisions, 75% of employers asked explicit questions about criminal histories on their application. In the end, similar to Lia’s experience, she found that both black and white men with criminal records were unlikely to get a “callback” from the employer. Pager found that white men were 50% less likely to receive a callback with a record than their white counterpart without one. An African American male with a criminal record is even less likely, and out of the two hundred jobs that the pair applied to, only 3% sought to further their application process. This study shows how the stigma of being formally incarcerated strongly influences employers and how difficult it is for former prisoners to get a job. Because there were no other studies that I found like Pager’s focused specifically on women, this study also shows that the work and research being done about re-entry revolves around male experiences and are not considering the unique needs of women.  

In addition to the prejudice implemented by employers against ex-offenders, multiple states have bans that restrict previously incarcerated people from obtaining important licenses that would help them find employment. Paradoxically, a lot of these skills are actually taught to them in employment skill training programs in prison. For example, many prisons offer inmates the chance to become certified in cosmetology and barbering, but the majority of states do not allow people with felony records to obtain a barber license. Therefore, even those that are preparing for re-entry by pursuing certification in prison are unable to use their training once they leave.

Luckily, Lia was able to find a job using the skills that she learned in prison. After learning how to sew, she was hired by a dancewear company in St. Louis where she made leotards.  She describes being extremely thankful for the job because it started the process of fully re-entering society and allowing her to stay out of prison.

“I used to tell God to do something with these hands, to just cut them off, because I didn’t think I could back out here [sic] and have a life without picking things up again, and I didn’t want to do time again. I thought that was the way of helping, but when I went to the [company] and made these awesome little leotards and dance wear items with my hands, I was so amazed at what I could do, I was just really like ‘Okay!’”

Because Lia’s first place of employment had already employed other convicted felons, they were much more willing to hire her and others like her to help them regain their footing and start anew.

Social Programs and Benefits

One of the most confounding facets of this problem is how hard it has become for felons to access the social safety net programs for the unemployed. A majority of those reentering society are banned from accessing social programs and support that would normally help people in similar situations. Twenty years ago congress created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families  (TANF) block grant through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 as a part of the federal effort to “end welfare as we know it”.  Although each state uses the grant differently, TANF dollars are mostly spent for income assistance, childcare, education and other services to help low-income families. However, thirty-eight states, including Missouri, ban any individual with a felony drug conviction from receiving food stamps or cash assistance through TANF. Twenty-one allow for the reinstatement of these benefits after a certain period of time, but seventeen enforce a lifetime ban. Because of these severe drug laws discussed above, anyone caught in possession of just five grams of crack cocaine is classified as a felon and therefore banned from these programs. This results in people who are just addicts and not criminals being unable to obtain services that they need to be successful upon release.

These bans were originally created as an incentive for young people to stay out of crime, but in reality they have done much more harm than good. This policy disproportionally affects women because the majority of female inmates are convicted for drug related offenses. According to the Women in Prison Project completed in 2006, when coupled with nonviolent property offenses, drug felonies account for 80% of the female prisoner population. In contrast, no similar ban of benefits is imposed on people who have not committed drug related offenses. An individual who is convicted of murder, rape, or child molestation can still receive government assistance and begin their reentry process significantly more easily than a woman who was imprisoned for possession.

The complications and difficulties that a criminal record brings extend to public housing as well. 

With the War on Drugs came the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 that required public housing authorities to include in their leases a clause prohibiting tenants or guests from engaging in “criminal activity, including drug-related criminal activity, on or near public housing.” If such activity occurred, the tenant could be evicted. More legislation restricting access to public housing from those with criminal histories was created well into the 1990s when welfare was reformed under President Clinton. The Housing Opportunity Program Extension Act of 1996 and the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998 created restrictive policies that targeted past offenders and their families. The legislation states that a “family is ineligible for federally-assisted housing for three years if evicted by reason of drug-related criminal activity or for a reasonable time (as may be determined by the PHA) for other criminal activity.” Furthermore, these laws laid the ground work for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) “One Strike and You’re Out” Initiative, a straight forward policy created under Clinton that mandates public housing residents who engage in illegal drug use or other criminal activity on or off public housing property be promptly evicted.

Although this initiative was originally designed to create a safer environment for those in public housing, it ultimately has worked to exacerbate the difficulties faced by those trying to successfully re-enter society. Moreover, these create a precedent for other laws and harsh policies that discourage reintegration into the community. These laws continue to punish individuals far after their sentence by making it difficult for them to get and maintain housing even if they are both drug and crime-free.


These employee and housing policies are discouraging for both men and women who are trying to regain their footing in society. However, when women leave prison their need to succeed is often far greater than men because they are frequently burdened not only with their own responsibilities, but also with those of their children and families.

Rebecca had her first child when she was 16 and two more by the time she was 19. Because of her addiction and criminal record, all three were taken away from her before she went to prison. Similarly, Lia had five kids before becoming incarcerated, four of which were drug exposed during their pregnancy. Both mothers had to face leaving behind their children when they were incarcerated, the consequences of severing relationships, and the struggle to not only gain back custody, but also the realities of rebuilding the personal relationships that were indelibly affected due to their prison time. 

When Lia and I met to discuss her time in prison, she was extremely even keeled about her experience, reciting her story as she had obviously done many times before. The only time she became emotional was when she spoke of her children and what they endured while she was incarcerated. Lia’s children motivate her to stay clean and out of jail and she is still devastated by the time they lost together.  

“I couldn’t be there, controlling Lia couldn’t be there, to support those children at a time when they needed some support and some love and some nurturing.”

Lia discusses her relationship with her children before, during and after prison. She explains how hard it was to be separated from them and the difficulties of re-establishing those relationships after she was released. 

Obviously not only women are parents when they go to prison – men leave behind approximately five million children when incarcerated – but there are significant and unique challenges that shape a mother’s time in prison far differently than a father’s.

To begin, about 75-80 percent of incarcerated women are mothers of minor children, with an average of 2.11 children under the age of eighteen per woman. Prior to incarceration the majority of women (64%) lived with their minor children, where as only 44% of men lived with theirs. 6% of women are pregnant when they enter prison. When a woman is incarcerated often their primary concern is who will care for their children while they are away. Nearly every time (89% of cases) a father is incarcerated his children live with their mother and only 2% are placed in foster care.  In stark contrast, only 28% of children are like Lia’s kids and live with their father. The majority live with their grandparents and 20% are placed in foster care or with a “friend”.

These statistics show that mothers hold more of a responsibility to their children and therefore must deal with far more stress during both their time in prison and after. In addition, the emotional despair that comes from being separated from one’s children is significant and mothers who are incarcerated face far more legal hurdles than men concerning custody of their minor children.  Once women have been imprisoned, the threat of losing legal custody of their children is material. The 1997 federal Adoption and Safe Families Act states that if a mother does not have contact with their children for six months she can be charged with "abandonment" and lose rights to her child. Furthermore, if a child has been in a foster care for fifteen of the prior twenty-two months, the state is legally allowed to file a petition that would terminate the mother's parental rights. Although 6 months seems like a long time, women are often transferred from one facility to another, which causes them to miss important deadlines and court dates which can result in loss of custody.

Moreover, keeping in contact with children from inside prison is extremely difficult. Lia felt this during her time spent behind bars. Even though her children were living with her husband, they were not able to visit her at Vandalia, a 2 hour drive from St. Louis where they lived, for eighteen months.

Due the scarcity of female prisons in the United States, women are often incarcerated far from their homes. In fact, over 60% of mothers in prison are incarcerated more than one hundred miles from their children, making visitation financially prohibitive and often impossible. Even when children are able to visit some mothers and caregivers choose not to have these visits due to embarrassment felt by the mothers and fear that it will harm the children to see their mother in these conditions. When these visits do happen, women are often required to walk in shackled or wear handcuffs while talking with their kids. Even talking to one’s children when they are together is strained by prison. Some women report that conversation can be extremely awkward and complicated because they do not want to have to discuss prison with their children, but they do not have access to much of the “free world” so they don’t know how to proceed or conduct small talk.

Lia explained that when her kids visit she knew that they were hurt and confused, “Coming [to visit] and being told to take your shoes off, walk through this machine and to do all that just to see mom was probably a little traumatizing.”

Even when mothers rely on phone calls instead of visits to keep in touch with their children, doing so can be extremely difficult. Many prisons have partnerships with the local phone companies in the area that charge the prisoner up to three or four dollars a minute to make a call. Thus, an individual with little canteen money cannot afford to use the phone, and even if they do gather enough funds to do so, they often are only allowed fifteen minutes and face the unfortunate possibility that no one is home to answer the phone when they call. All of these obstacles combine to make six months of no contact an extremely realistic possibility even for a caring and responsible mother. The harsh deadline of six months makes it imperative that women maintain contact with their children in order to regain custody when they are released, but they often face large hurdles that prevent them from doing so.

Even when a woman is able to find a family member to care for her children or maintains contact with them throughout their time in foster care, getting them back and reintegrating into familial life once released is yet another barrier to success that she must overcome. Re-entry theorist Roderick Willis explains that many of the women coming home must psychologically learn to deal with society and prepare for some level of rejection because some are not immediately accepted back into their communities or homes.

Lia expressed to me that “If a woman has children and is trying to step back and regain that relationship, sometimes it is not there for them. I didn’t know if my [relationships] were going to be like that, but I was sure hoping and praying that it was because I wanted to step back into that role.”

Sometimes, in order to regain custody of their children, women must first prove to the state that they are capable of parenting. To do so a mother must have a proper living situation and she must have a paying job, for which she often needs adequate sobriety and effective rehab. As shown, acquiring all of these is difficult and further impeded on by so many laws, policies and stigma that are stacked against mothers. The demands are multiple and compound one another, often making it impossible to quickly gain success at re-entry, making it more difficult specifically for women. Once again women find themselves in a vicious cycle that leads closer and closer to recidivism.

What's Being Done


The barriers to re-entry that formally incarcerated individuals face in the United States are immense. As previously stated, women re-entering society need to find employment, housing, often overcome addiction, and reunite with their children. These tasks are difficult and often insurmountable, causing two thirds of those released to return to prison within three years. Beginning in the 1980s, The United States' prison population skyrocketed in an attempt to reduce crime and drug use. However, the War on Drugs, harsh sentencing laws, and significant barriers to re-entry have led to mass incarceration and release, leaving millions of people without the adequate resources to lead productive lives once they have served their time.

In 2013, eleven states spent more on corrections than on higher education.

In more recent years, the government has begun to recognize the faults of mass incarceration and begun to investigate ways in which to curb its scope and effects. Besides for the obvious moral obligation, there is a significant economic argument for reforming the judicial system.. According to a report produced by the Obama’s administration Council of Economic Advisors in April of 2016 entitled “Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System”, the amount that the government spends each year on corrections has actual effect on the crime rate. Real expenditures on the criminal justice system total over $270 billion and have grown over 70% since the 1990s.  In 2013, eleven states spent more on corrections than on higher education.60 The same study found that keeping people in prison longer, due to things like mandatory minimums and harsh sentencing laws, and therefore spending more money on them, does almost nothing to reduce crime. Through a cost benefit analysis the committee found that if they were to increase spending by $10 billion on incarceration it would only reduce crime by 1% to 4% (55,000 to 340,000 crimes) and have the highest chance of a net societal benefit of only $1 billion dollars with the same chance of actually spending $8 billion more. However, they also found if they were to increase the minimum wage to $12 by 2020 and work to raise the poverty line, crime would decrease 3 to 5% with a societal benefit of $8 to $17 billion dollars. The numbers are clear; neither increasing the prison population nor the average prison sentence reduces the crime rate and doing so is wasteful.


In addition to the White House’s report, countless other organizations have set out to analyze crime and prison data to determine best practices for keeping people out of prison. The best known of these tactics is the Risk-Need-Responsivity Model for Offender Assessment and Rehabilitation (RNR) created by James Bonta and D.A. Andrews, prominent psychologists in the field of Criminology. The model was first theorized in the 1980s and formulated in the 1990s in Canada in order to predict the treatment of criminal behavior, the risk that an individual will reoffend, and the best way to prevent them from doing so. The first risk principle,  which assesses criminogenic needs and targets them in treatment. Criminogenic refers to a system, situation or place that causes or is likely to cause criminal behavior such as social supports for crime, education and employment. The final principle is that of responsivity which works to maximize the offender's ability to learn from rehabilitative intervention by providing cognitive behavioral treatment and then tailoring the interventions to the individual. When combined, these principles create a comprehensive understanding of what remediation would best fit an individual’s needs by assessing his or her past and looking to the future.

Through the use of the RNR model Bonta and Andrews found that it is necessary to create programs that accurately match the need level of the offender. In other words, the higher risk offenders need more intensive treatment.

Although this may seem obvious to some, in everyday practice a large portion of the resources are focused on lower risk offenders because many believe that they are most likely to comply with the treatments and demands. 

Bonta and Andrews’ model show that in order to create the best results, the offender most be matched with the right treatment and services. The most successful of these programs include in-prison and jail treatment, with a community and cognitive behavioral component, vocational education, training programs and job assistance. In addition, evidence show that focusing on individual level change and catering to one specific person's needs and future plans increases her road to success. Out of 374 tests of the risk principle, treatment delivered to high-risk offenders associated with an average 10% decrease in recidivism. 

Due to the RNR model’s results and the economic impact, the United States government took action to curb the incarceration and recidivism rates. On April 9, 2008 the Second Chance Act: Community Safety Through Recidivism Prevention was signed into law. The goal of the act is to “break the cycle of criminal recidivism, increase public safety and help States, local unites of government, and Indian Tribes, better address the growing population of criminal offenders who return to the communities and commit new crimes." The government recognized that helping those with addiction would reduce the number of prisoners dramatically, thus law focused on getting the correct substance abuse treatment disseminated across the country. According to data collected in concordance with the bill passing by the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors, Inc. "for every dollar spent on addiction treatment programs, there is an estimated $4 to $7 reduction in the cost of drug-related crimes. With some outpatient programs, total savings can exceed by ratio of 12:1"

Because women are so often incarcerated due to drug-related crimes, recognizing the need for substance treatment is essential woman stay out of prison, and it's working. Since the law passed in 2008, more than 112,000 people have benefited from the grants during their return home from prison. Although this is only a small part of the larger prison population, the results of the grants have been impressive. In Ohio, the Second Chance grants helped to reduce recidivism by 11% since 2005, bringing the total rate down to 27.1% more than half the national average. The Second Chance Act was put for reauthorization in  2015 and is currently waiting in committee.

The Obama Administration's Response

Throughout President Obama’s time in the White House, he was committed to reforming America’s criminal justice system and implemented many programs in addition to the Second Chance Act. He spoke out against mass incarceration and its disproportionate effect on people of color and in poverty, claiming that the system “remains particularly skewed by race and by wealth.” In his speech at the NAACP’s 106th national convention, the former President acknowledged that the high incarceration rates in the United States for low-level non-violent offenses, such as those many women are currently serving time for, was detrimental to the larger community. He stated, “our nation is being robbed of men and women who could be workers and taxpayers, could be more actively involved in their children’s lives, could be role models, could be community leaders, and right now they’re locked up for non-violent offenses.”    

In order to combat these issues, the Obama administration worked hard to change sentencing laws and to shorten sentences of those already in prison. In 2010, congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which reduced sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1, therefore significantly reducing the amount of time one must serve in prison. As discussed earlier, the harsh laws surrounding crack disproportionately affected poor people of color and women who received long sentencing for possession of a small amount of drugs. Although many say that crack sentencing should be reduced further to equal that of powdered cocaine, the reduction in sentencing was significant. As of 2014, the number of cocaine offenders sentenced in the federal system has been cut in half. In addition, more than 13,000 federal prisoners received sentence reductions based on the retroactive changes made to crack guidelines through this law. The law had unanimous bipartisan support; both sides of the aisle recognized that it was time to change.

In addition to the numerous individuals who were granted shorter sentences, the Obama administration also granted clemency to over 1,000 people, mostly to prisoners serving unfair and lengthy sentences mandated during the War on Drugs. Obama granted more clemencies than the previous eleven presidents combined and was the first ever president to leave office with a smaller federal population than when he entered.

Due to the influx in people leaving prison and the change in sentencing laws people began serving less time and therefore returned to society more quickly. The government recognized that it needed to continue to the set up a greater number of reentry programs in order to ensure that people wouldn’t become re-incarcerated. he offenders being released could go through reentry training programs while still in prison. 

The Obama administration also created numerous new programs to help make the transition back into society more successful. These programs included education, job training and parenting initiatives. One of the larger programs that was announced shortly before Obama left office was the Pell Pilot Program. The Department of Education selected 67 universities around the country who will partner with more than 100 Federal correctional institutions to enroll roughly 12,000 incarcerated students into educational and job training programs. Recent studies show that those who participate in similar correctional education programs are 43% less likely to return to prison than those who do not participate. Other programs include a housing publication in order to help serve as guideline for communities who are interested in creating their own reentry housing, a grant program through the Department of Labor that would provide $6.5 million to non-profits and local governments to help create training and mentoring programs for at risk children and another grant to help link those who are previously incarcerated to employment. 

 Due to economic needs and data analysis the government finally recognized the need to change how people re-enter society. It became clear that it would benefit them to facilitate a better transition process so that they could reduce incarceration rates and try to correct the mass incarceration issue that is plaguing the United States. By creating these transitional programs and federal grants in order to help people re-enter, the Obama administration set in motion a necessary movement to understand the wants and needs of a largely ignored population and help promote successful citizens. Perhaps the most important legacy of the Obama administration is that they studied this population to better understand its needs. Simply recognizing that this group of people is unique and requires special attention will hopefully go a long way in alleviating this pressing issue. 


Successful Transition Programming

Even before the government started to truly pay attention to the issue of re-entry, grassroots non-for-profit organizations were trying to find ways to solve this issue. They were the first to recognize the need for both women and men to be helped through transitional process in order to decrease their likelihood to return to prison. In doing so, families would be reunited, prison populations and the amount that the taxpayers pay would decrease, and society would regain a productive member of society instead of paying for them to not contribute. Places like Let’s Start specifically understood the lack of concern and services for women and worked to create a space that would help women battle addiction and maintain relationships with their kids.

Let’s Start provides a variety of services that help women before and after they are released. As mentioned earlier, these services include weekly support groups at Let’s Start’s offices and the Clayton jail, monthly parenting sessions, free legal advice, therapy sessions for children, prison visitation programs for children to visit their moms in prison, a variety of outreach and advocacy programming and much more. In the last year alone, Let’s Start brought almost one hundred kids to see their mothers, had 29 children participate in therapy and hosted 538 women in their various support groups. An astounding 85% of women who participate in Let’s Start's services do not reoffend.

Although there are many transitional organizations that provide equally effective services around St. Louis, such the Center for Women in Transition, which provides mentoring support and has its own housing facilities, or Connections to Success, an organization working to break the poverty cycle through innovative programming, I was drawn to focus on Let’s Start because of the community that they foster in the Tuesday night meetings. Both Lia and Rebecca attribute this community and feeling of support and acceptance that the Tuesday night meetings offered as the number one contributor to their successful transition.

Rebecca describes what Let's Start means to her and how she hopes to spread their message to all women in need. 

As Lia and Rebecca described, the community that Let’s Start fosters and the support systems that it creates through the Tuesday night meetings are the key components of what makes a women’s transition out of prison successful.

Creating Connections

Women are seeking connections.  Although this seems like an obvious concept, it is a relatively new one. In 1976 Jean Baker Miller, who was a part of the Stone Center in Wellesley, Massachusetts, created and published the Relational Model. Through this work, Miller proposed the traditional psychological development models, which strongly emphasized independence and self-reliance, as being more representative of the male developmental experience. Miller wrote, “that women feel a sense of self and self-worth when their actions arise out of connection with others and lead back into, not away from, connections… Connection is experienced as a feeling of mutual presence and joining in a relational process. The ‘relationship’ that develops a new, unique, and always changing existence that can be described, experienced and nurtured."

As seen in Rebecca’s video above, she could not have transformed into who she was today without the connections that she fostered during the Tuesday night meetings. She explained, “You have to get connected because you cannot do this alone.”

According to this model, when a women is disconnected with others, such as being in prison and not being in a supportive and reciprocal environment once released, “she experiences disempowerment, confusion, and diminished zest, vitality and self-worth.” When one lacks these vital components of self-esteem and self-assurance, she will not be able to create a successful life for herself during the re-entry process. However, with the support and creation of healthy relationships do the exact opposite and instead foster zest and vitality, empowerment, self-knowledge, self-worth and even produces a desire for more connections.

Lia describes what success means to her and how Let's Start has helped her get healthy, happy and connected. 

As Lia explained, the most important component of transitioning successfully is re-discovering oneself and wanting to live a healthy life again. “It is mostly building myself up on the inside, which helps my outside look much better.” She explained, “That goes as far as what I eat, being healthy, having healthy relationships. Just being healthy all around, having a balance.”

When in prison women are deprived of connections, self-esteem, self-care and self-worth and need to find a way to gain all of this back when they are released. These quantitative needs are almost impossible to capture with statistics, but are the most important components of the process.

As both Rebecca and Lia made extremely clear, Let’s Start is a place where they feel these important relationships are being fostered, their voices are being heard, and they are being accepted for who they are and who they used to be. Being surrounded and supported in a constructive and productive manner and being free to share your thoughts and listen to others while creating important and impactful relationships is what makes a women’s transition from prison back into society successful.

Conclusion and Recommendations

When I first met the women of Let’s Start, I was focused on their pasts. I was caught up in where they had been and what they had done. But, as I sat in that circle at the first Tuesday night group, I realized I was the only one looking backwards. As Lia and Rebecca taught me, a successful transition is of course predicated on understanding and coming to terms with one’s past, but in the end it is about embracing the future, change, and improvement.

As has been shown, there are multitudes of barriers and outside factors that prevent women from transitioning successfully. However, there are organizations, such as Let’s Start, that are pioneering examples of ways in which the programs are tailored to address these needs and provide the support and connections that women necessitate as they transition.

My research and my time with Lia and Rebecca have helped isolate the characteristics all organizations seeking to help women through this transitional process need to possess.

“I belong to Let’s Start. And as long as I keep going and keep going I hopefully will be able to help someone else out."

To begin, programs must provide some sort of rehabilitation services or have the resources to connect women with such service providers. The majority of women in prison are incarcerated because of non-violent drug related crimes. Both Lia and Rebecca are examples of getting caught up in the using world and suffering the consequences. Women must be able to face their addictions head on before they can move forward without fear of returning to prison.

At the outset of my research I would have expected this to go without saying, but women are not men. The nuances of a woman’s transition out of prison, from the relationship with her family to the available job market is vastly different than that of a man. It is necessary to provide programming that is specifically tailored for women. Effective programming will provide services that keep the entire family in mind. In addition, women develop and cope very differently than men do and are more prone to seek connections when trying to improve their lives. Creating a space in which women feel safe and are able to foster these important connections is key  when establishing transitional programming. These connections and support systems are the basis for success and must not be ignored.

Rebecca exemplifies the importance of connections. She told me, “I belong to Let’s Start. And as long as I keep going and keep going I hopefully will be able to help someone else out…I want to save the world. I want to help all of the females that have ever been affected by a drug addiction or abuse or rape or anything. I want to let them know that there is some hope. You don’t have to be ashamed of anything because there are females out there that have done it before.”

It is important that women who have been through the system and have successfully transitioned must be involved in the creation and execution of transition programs. They provide support and serve as role models for those that are going through the process. As a peer specialist and coordinator, Lia has a direct effect on how Let’s Start is run, and because of her experiences, knows exactly what women need to be fully successful. Lia also provides a great service to the women who are in the programs by showing them what future success looks like and lighting the path to get there.

Addressing each barrier to success individually is not an effective solution. Instead, organizations must recognize all of the intersecting historical, economic, social and political factors that have coalesced to create the incredibly high incarceration and recidivism rates in this nation, and work to implement solutions that will tackle the problem as a whole.

The paradigm for success is multi-pronged however, it’s important to note that no one organization should feel the need to manage the entire transition process. Let’s Start is fantastic in fostering the necessary connections that women in this trying time need, but they must lean on other organizations to provide adequate job housing, employment and training. The most effective organizations will focus their expertise in a limited number of areas and then partner with others to provide the full spectrum of care.   

These recommendations, although thorough, are not exhaustive and more research is needed. There is work to be done regarding therapy, employment, rehabilitation and housing among many other areas. These broader proposals specifically are meant to serve as a guide when creating new programming and reevaluating pre-existing ones.

When implementing these suggestions, one must always remember that women are experts of their own success. Our most effective resource in the fight against recidivism are previously incarcerated women themselves who want to be part of the solution. These women can empathize and create valuable connections, provide guidance, and drive change. Instead of approaching this reform from the top, we must reexamine our systems and start change from within, using the significant power that already exists in the experience of the hundreds of thousands of women who have experienced this transition.

Addressing recidivism will benefit the larger community by allowing these women to once again be successful citizens, mothers and wives. They will be able to contribute to our economy rather than just waste tax dollars on ineffective prison time.       

Women are a presence and a force whose absence affects all aspects of society. The system needs to be reformed in order to make sure this absence is filled and society can once again benefit from all that women have to offer.


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