According to The Sentencing Project, over the past four decades, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 475%, rising from a total of 26,326 in 1980 to 152,854 in 2020. Also, over half (58%) of imprisoned women have a child under the age of 18.
A Paradigm Shift
Three compassionate social workers are now advocating for incarcerated women who are trying to reenter society and resume their natural role as mothers. Katherin Hervey, writer, director, and producer of the 2020 documentary The Prison Within, Koren Carbuccia, CHW, a reentry program coordinator/case manager with Open Doors, and Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, were all recently interviewed by Susan Chapman, MFA, MA, C-IAYT, a Los Angeles–based writer:
- Hervey: “We, as a society, need to see people who are incarcerated as human beings, for whom punishment does not really work, but who need to be restored; and especially women. There are thousands, over half, who are in prison because of men in their lives (women who drove a car somewhere, while some man was committing a crime). Or it’s drug use or poverty, all of these factors. Why are we punishing people because of where they were born or what they were born into? It’s a paradigm shift of how we look at crime and incarceration in the first place. Punishment doesn’t work.”
- Carbuccia: “For most of these women, there is no reason they need to be incarcerated. The level of nonviolent offenders among incarcerated women in Rhode Island would blow you away. Substance abuse, prostitution, not having the appropriate mental health services—there are only so many places women with these issues can go, based on the insurance they have. They deserve, like everyone else, the proper care.”
- Burton: “We start with being able to value one another and also understand that mistakes happen, and we must learn to correct, not punish mistakes. We have to create the services and the processes that would correct mistakes rather than creating more harm. I really think our government is at fault for the amount of money they put into prison and jails vs the money provided for our community, reentry, retraining, and such,” Burton says. “Our society is taught to give punishment and retribution, rather than compassion, understanding, and resources to heal. Our society works in a way that seeks revenge. But social problems cannot be resolved with incarceration. Mental illness, poverty, and addiction can’t be corrected through punishment and incarceration, yet that’s what we do.”
Nonprofits Fill the Gap
Carbuccia: "Any help that is available to them is not necessarily coming from the state. It’s more from nonprofit organizations, which are run by formerly incarcerated people, who help with employment, cars, and other resources,” she says. “Whatever the state is offering is not going to be enough, which is why you see so many of these nonprofits popping up and operating on limited resources. And it’s crucial that they’re run by formerly incarcerated individuals, which creates a trust. Women are underrepresented when we talk about incarceration and reentry after incarceration because they have different needs.”
Carbuccia's Rhode Island–based organization provides reentry services, such as advocacy, employment coaching, housing assistance, including a new women’s transitional home; a women’s speakers bureau; and other vital resources for individuals with criminal records. Carbuccia notes that social workers are often involved in keeping incarcerated women connected with their children, but how well this works depends on the organization. Carbuccia echoes Burton’s belief that agency—helping individuals become empowered to help themselves—goes a long way toward helping women reenter society and lead fulfilling lives. She also shares Hervey’s understanding that formerly incarcerated women need to work with peers who have shared their experiences. Working from a place of trust to help women access their own power is key.
Hervey, Carbuccia, and Burton are three exemplars of the compassion and insight displayed by social workers across the entire profession. They are challenging the commonly held belief that punishment is the only deterrent to crime and that all offenders are alike. They believe, and demonstrate, that punishment doesn't work - compassion does.
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