Mark B. Borg, Jr. PhD
Jennifer McCarroll PhD
Borg, M. B., Jr., and McCarroll (2004). At the Prison-Community Boundary:
The Women's Prison Association of New York City.
Women's Studies Quarterly, 32 (3 amp; 4): 86-101.
This article discusses the value of a feminist, community-building as crime prevention approach in organizations that aid women in the transition from prison back to their communities. The primary author of the paper was involved in an evaluation of the Women's Prison Association of New York City (WPA), which helps women prisoners as they face the numerous and daunting challenges of transition to non-incarcerated living such as family re-unification, maintaining sobriety, and achieving financial independence. The authors set up three sets of criteria that define a feminist, community building as crime prevention approach, and discuss how the WPA meets those criteria as an important aspect of how this organization implements aid to women in transition.
IN AN INDEPENDENT EVALUATION of the Women's Prison Association (WPA) written for the U.S. Department of Justice, Catherine Conly (1998) notes that
- Women offenders who return to their communities from prison must often simultaneously comply with conditions of probation or parole, achieve financial stability, access health care, locate housing and commence the process of reuniting with their children and families. Setting priorities and accomplishing goals can seem overwhelming to someone who is confronted with so many tasks at once. Without strong support in the community to help them negotiate the rules and regulations of myriad public agencies, many women offenders quickly spiral back into a life of substance abuse, prostitution, and related crimes (p. 3)
We will use this statement as a starting point for describing how the WPA gives such community support to women who are transitioning from prison into local communities. We will show how the WPA functions as a community-building crime prevention approach that is consistent with feminist community psychology and meets the criteria for a model program for working with female offenders.
Since 1980, the number of incarcerated women in state and federal prisons has increased fourfold (Gilliard amp; Beck, 1998). Much of the increase has been attributed to the national trend in sentencing drug offenders to prison instead of probation or treatment programs (Belknap, 2001; Van Wormer amp; Bartollas, 2000). During the 1980s, the number of women arrested for drug violations more than tripled twice the rate of increase for men (Bloom amp; Chesney-Lind, 2003; Greenfield amp; Minor-Harper, 1991). Today, the typical incarcerated woman is young, single, non-white, has children, has few job skills, has little (if any) work experience, and has a significant substance abuse problem (Conly, 1998; Dittman, 2003).
The Women's Prison Association of New York City (WPA) is a nonprofit organization whose primary task is to create opportunities for change in the lives of women prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families. It has been serving female offenders since 1844. Recent changes in the criminal justice system have had a direct impact on the WPA's ability to perform its primary task: to help women make the transition from prison back into their communities.
It is difficult to establish a direct connection between primary prevention and adult criminal behavior (Borg amp; Garrod, 2003), especially women (Egley, 2002; Howell, 2003; Loeber amp; Farrington, 1999; Belknap, 2001). By the time most individuals are involved in the criminal justice system, prevention has already entered a secondary or tertiary stage. Community psychologist Martin Bloom (1996) defines primary prevention as a strategy to prevent predictable problems related to criminal behavior, to protect healthy functioning, to promote desired goals in the physical and sociocultural settings of individuals and groups, and to "preclude, delay, or reduce" problematic events related to criminal behavior in at risk individuals or groups (p. 2).
The prevention focus of the criminal justice system is generally limited to the areas of recidivism and relapse into criminal behavior, primarily substance abuse. To develop and implement primary prevention techniques, the system must develop strategies that target criminogenic elements in communities with high numbers of women offenders, account for the intergenerational transmission of crime and criminal behavior, and purposefully aim at circumstances and antecedent behaviors associated with crime among women (Borg amp; Garrod, 2003).
Theoretical approaches to female adult criminal behavior prevention include those that focus on individuals, on communities, and on the prevention of specific crimes in specific areas. With the exception of the third approach, there are few direct links between prevention and adult criminal behavior in the community psychology/primary prevention literature. Furthermore, even though feminist scholars such as Joanne Belknap, Roslyn Muraskin, and Meda Chesney-Lind have made important contributions in the area of women offenders, criminology, and the criminal justice system, the topic of prevention of adult criminal behavior has been almost completely ignored in the fields of community psychology/primary prevention (Borg amp; Garrod, 2003). While public health-based organizations have implemented some basic crime prevention strategies, for the most part their approaches have not targeted adults, especially women (Tonry amp; Farrington, 1995). The controversial and historically political nature of defining criminals and criminality, of how our society essentially writes off women criminals, may have contributed to the lack of relevant research and theory regarding prevention of criminal behavior in women (Belknap, 2001; Foucault, 1975; Muraskin, 2003).
The two primary approaches to female crime prevention are from public health and criminal justice perspectives. However, while these are the only approaches that have been developed to address female offending basically by superimposing a male model upon female offenders neither of these two approaches takes into account factors that are specific to women. The public health approach views crime (or, more specifically, violence) as emerging from a complex mix of causal systems that extend beyond an offender's intentions, motivations, or characteristics. The most common interventions focus on the prevention of harm before it occurs (Moore, 1995), but there is little in the way of empirical support for this strategy (DeLeon-Granados, 1999). In contrast, the criminal justice approach generally intervenes only after crimes have been identified or when post-adjudication rehabilitation begins.
Current crime prevention strategies are rooted in: a) a public health system that only indirectly attempts to prevent adult criminal behavior by targeting specific age groups (children and adolescents) and specific behaviors (usually violence); or b) a punitive, arrest- and indictment-driven criminal justice system. As ex post facto techniques, neither system addresses the current diversity of crimes, criminals, and contexts; however, there are alternatives. In DeLeon-Granados' (1999) words, community projects are often
- pursued with the best of intentions, and people [work] hard to build community and respond to crime. But even if such a project is given every opportunity to work, there is still a disturbing tension underlying it. It is a tension about division between race and class, about using community to oil the cogs of a punitive criminal justice system and about locking people away rather than forging new relations with one another as the most important problem-solving strategy (p. 149).
We believe the most promising strategies are those derived from and designed for specific communities. This belief is based on our assertion that an approach that empowers community members to address patterns and perceptions of isolation, inequality, and stagnation creates the best context for crime prevention. If crime is symptomatic of a society that does not adequately address the short- and long-term needs of its members, crime prevention must go beyond symptoms to a perception of crime as a reflection of a culture's mistreatment or neglect of some of its members. New paradigms must reflect the current diversity of crimes, criminals, and victims, as well as the contexts within which the three elements interact.
A community building approach assumes that crime is one part of a community ecology consisting of economic, political, cultural, moral, symbolic, and spiritual variables (Benard, 1999; DeLeon-Granados, 1999; Kretzmann amp; McKnight, 1993; Mattessich amp; Monsey, 2001). According to this model, communities and representatives of the public health and criminal justice systems co-produce those factors that contribute to and reinforce criminal behavior. Community practitioners believe that the most effective solutions are indigenous, time- and place-specific, and the products of collaboration (Borg amp; Garrod, 2003; Price, Cowen, Lorion, amp; Ramos-McKay, 1988; Rappaport amp; Seidman, 2000).
If researchers and practitioners target aspects of community environments that contribute to crime, acknowledge the intergenerational transmission of criminal behavior, and establish interventions that target circumstances and antecedents, we believe it is possible to create effective intervention models for preventing crime among women. The WPA is an excellent example of that potential. In addition, we believe that the success of the WPA is also attributable to their fulfillment of a set of criteria for prisoner programs that incorporates both feminist community psychology thinking and a model program for prisoners. We will offer a justification for this thesis after describing the feminist community theories and model program for prisoners at hand.
Feminist Community Perspectives
The inclusion of a feminist perspective into the field of community psychology has led to a better understanding of the cultural images that have been identified with and incorporated into states of internal oppression (Borg amp; McCarroll, 2002). A core feature of a feminist community psychology approach to issues involving women in the criminal justice system is a collaborative perspective based on solutions rather than problems (Angelique amp; Culley, 2000; Gutierrez, 1991). There is also general agreement that such an approach must acknowledge a race-gender-class interaction, what Chesney-Lind (1997, p. 4) refers to as "multiple marginality," when analyzing the experiences of women in the criminal justice system.
Much of the foundation of community psychology has parallels with feminist principles (Bond, Hill, Mulvey, amp; Terenzio, 2000); both emphasize the need to analyze social problems within social contexts. Two important challenges are to avoid both "victim blaming" (resulting from viewing people out of context) and universalizing (based on the assumption that social phenomena can be generalized among many contexts) (Ryan, 1971). A feminist community perspective addresses the dimensions of interconnection that are central to understanding women's lives; for instance, gender-, class-, and race-based power differentials, economic and political forces, and local community structures and values.
Key concepts found in both the feminist and community psychology literature include: a) integrating contextualized understandings, b) addressing diversity issues, c) speaking from the position of oppressed groups, d) adopting collaborative approaches, e) adopting reflexive practices, and f) taking activist orientations (Hill, Bond, Mulvey, amp; Terenzio, 2000). Together, they suggest opportunities for understanding the impacts of community and culture on intervention and consultation.
By using individual and collective experiences to challenge racial, cultural, and class biases, feminist perspectives have enriched and expanded our understanding of personal-political ties (Hooks, 1984; Wilkinson amp; Kitzinger, 1996). Looking at the same connections in community life reveals unexpected contradictions and paradoxes among our multiple identities, relationships, and roles. Both feminists and community psychologists seek to conduct their work outside of established phallocentric, racial, sexual and class-based discourses, and thus reduce their participation in those societal dynamics (Fine, 1992; Miller amp; Brunson, 2000; Stanley, 1997).
Model Programs for Prisoners
From a community psychology perspective, a "model" prevention program requires an acute awareness of the specific circumstances that women face when dealing with the criminal justice system. Gilliard and Beck (1998) and Morash and Bynum (1995) evaluated innovative and promising programs for women offenders. Both research teams found that most of the programs that were considered "innovative": a) concentrated on a particular need (e.g., substance abuse, psychological services, family reunification); and b) took a holistic approach to the problems faced by female offenders, meaning that they addressed a variety of interrelated issues. In commenting on Morash and Bynum's work, Conly (1998) added several attributes that the more innovative programs shared: a) well-trained and dedicated employees and volunteers who can serve as positive role models, b) women-only programming, c) program materials that are focused on skills development and meeting clearly defined needs, d) a willingness to tailor approaches to meet individual needs, e) appropriate treatment controls, f) an emphasis on peer support and the development of peer networks, g) formal recognition of participant achievement, and h) other options for women who fail.
In the fall of 2001, the WPA Program Manager approached our organization, the William Alanson White Institute (WAWI) organizational consultation program, regarding consultative services. In the preceding ten years, WPA had maintained an ongoing consultative relationship with WAWI's organizational program. Both sides view our previous collaborations mostly providing training for program graduates as helping both WPA members and consultants expand upon their understanding of the multiple factors that impact women in the criminal justice system.
The WAWI consultation model combines interpersonal psychoanalytic organizational theory and community/organizational action research methodologies, including Pasmore's (2001) "socio-technical systems" approach. This combination engenders a process whereby consultants and their clients identify and analyze dynamics (including societal) that are unconsciously enacted within an organization. Enactment, as we refer to it, is a way of describing system level (familial, community, societal) dynamics or patterns of interacting as they play out between individuals or groups (Borg amp; McCarroll, 2002). For instance, in WPA we've noted how patriarchal dynamics associated with the oppression of women-specifically, female prisoners-are enacted in interactions between WPA staff and their clients. Through a collaborative analysis of such dynamics, our goal is to help organization staff to consciously resist the tendency to enact the dynamics they want to avoid. We help organizations incorporate this awareness into action plans, and assist them in the process of working through the anxieties leading to repetitive enactments.
Our most recent WPA consultation included an analysis of the current staffing structure in light of recent changes in the criminal justice system that were affecting WPA service-delivery efforts specifically, changes in the ways that laws, especially regarding drug enforcement, have adversely impacted women and their families. Next, we worked with the group's board of directors to address enactments that may have been triggered by these changes. Because of our shared consultative history, we were able to consolidate and build upon previous gains. Looking at the long-term history of our relationship, we were impressed by the WPA's consistent willingness to ask for consultative help in times of major change a willingness that we view as a positive sign of the organization's overall health, and an example of Bloom's (1996) definition of primary prevention : "coordinated actions seeking to prevent predictable problems, [and] to protect existing states of health and healthy functioning" (p.2).
The WPA mission is to design and offer programs through which women prisoners and ex-prisoners can acquire the necessary life skills for making healthy choices for themselves and their families. A second goal is to increase public awareness of and support for community-based responses to crime. According to the WPA mission statement, the group emphasizes 1) self-reliance through the development of independent living skills; 2) self-empowerment and peer support; 3) client involvement in the community; and, 4) assistance from dedicated staff, advisers, and volunteers (Conly, 1998, p. 12). On average WPA works with approximately 2,000 women (1,500 in correctional facilities and 500 in communities) and 300 children per year.
The WPA has long recognized that women prisoners and former prisoners require simultaneous assistance on several fronts, including health care, child welfare, public assistance, education, housing, and the local criminal justice system. WPA has consistently developed programs and services that address issues tied to their clients' "multiple marginalities." In 1992, it introduced new programs serving women facing specific needs that are often overlooked by the criminal justice system: homelessness, HIV status, substance abuse, and family reunification (Ortiz-Torres, Serrano-Garcia, amp; Torres-Burgos, 2000; Paradis, 2000).
Through its own resources and referrals to other agencies, WPA provides education, emotional support, and a limited range of services to incarcerated clients. To former prisoners, their children, and their families, WPA offers emergency and transitional housing, individualized case management services, skills-building workshops, childcare, counseling, and other forms of support. In 1990, the WPA responded to the sudden five-fold expansion of New York's female offender population by conducting a comprehensive investigation of the needs of women in the state's criminal justice system (Conly, 1998). The four WPA programs that were launched because of this study were:
- The Transitional Services Unit, consisting of a) HIV and AIDS services, peer group support, prerelease planning, and housing placement for inmates who are HIV-positive or at-risk for infection; and b) transitional and intensive case management services for HIV-positive women recently released from prison.
- The Hopper Home Alternative Incarceration Program, a transitional residence and intensive reporting program for women who would otherwise be imprisoned.
- The Sarah Powell Huntington House, a transitional residence for homeless women offenders (including those with AIDS or who are HIV-positive) who wish to reunite with their children.
- The Steps to Independence Program, which provides specialized services such as housing and job placement assistance, independent living skills development, parenting training, and aftercare services to homeless women who are enrolled in the other three WPA programs. Depending on their individual circumstances, WPA clients can participate in some or all of these programs for several months or years (Conly, 1998).
- An important aspect of the WPA's community-building and anti-recidivism efforts is its formal agreements with 44 community organizations that serve all women and/or criminal justice populations. For the most part, each link to the various community organizations helps with a specific need of female offenders-housing, employment, health care, family support, etc.-while establishing a resource for ongoing client care. Furthermore, the WPA acts as an advocate for the population of women offenders and their families with state and city social service systems by lobbying for policies and programs that serve their clients' interests.
According to the various criteria we have outlined thus far, the WPA is one of the best programs of its kind for addressing the needs of women offenders, especially as they face the various struggles of the reentry process and problems of daily living in a non-incarcerated environment. Taken together, these criteria can be seen as a community building as crime prevention approach. In what follows, we will highlight how the WPA fulfills the community building as crime prevention criteria we have been considering.
- The WPA meets the three criteria set out by Borg and Garrod (2003) for stemming future criminal behavior.
- The WPA targets aspects of community environments that contribute to crime on multiple fronts. Through its in-house counseling and case management services and through its formal links to over 40 community organizations that target specific needs of women that are re-entering society, the WPA is able to ameliorate the impact of social, economic, and political contexts that place daunting limitations on these women's opportunities to succeed and even meet basic needs. For example, through its in-house and community services, the WPA is able to assist former prisoners with substance abuse, family re-unification, HIV status, housing, health care, child-care, public assistance, education, and vocational training and placement.
- Through services offered through its family re-unification services, the WPA addresses the intergenerational transmission of criminal behavior (i.e., children who are exposed to parental criminal behavior are considered predisposed to engage in criminal behavior themselves [Howell, 2003]). This occurs through counseling services, family education, working with foster care agencies. Importantly, the cycle of intergenerational transmission is also abated through former women prisoners successfully working through reentry obstacles and thereby role modeling for their children alternative ways of living that do not involve criminal behavior.
- The WPA's in-house counseling and case management services and its formal links to over 40 community organizations also serve as interventions that target not only the wider contexts of criminal behavior, but the specific and personal circumstances and antecedents of each woman's participation in particular criminal events.
- The WPA's philosophy and practice of serving female offenders is in line with that of feminist community psychology. Key concepts found in both the feminist and community psychology literature that the WPA incorporates include the following.
- The WPA integrates contextualized understandings of the lives of the women they serve by conducting extensive research of potential housing placements and on-site research and evaluation of their home environments. They strive to send former prisoners into healthy neighborhoods, and case managers are available to women for up to ten years to help strategize and problem solve around aspects of the home environment and neighborhoods that the women might experience as criminogenic.
- WPA addresses diversity issues by tailoring programs and case management to meet the needs of specific individual women with their highly individualized histories and needs. This approach to programming and case management is highly mindful of these women's status as multiply marginalized along race, gender, class, and economic lines.
- The WPA speaks from the position of oppressed groups by using the voices of former prisoners who have gone through the program in funding proposals and speaking engagements with the community. More importantly, the WPA continually strives to create a space for the women they serve to develop their own voice and define their own needs rather than the WPA imposing its own values.
- The WPA stresses a collaborative approach by requiring its clients to define and refine their own case plans and to assume increasing responsibility for accomplishing their goals. Clients also collaborate with staff to develop new WPA programs, and to serve as public speakers, peer educators, trainers, and WPA staff assistants.
- The WPA has adopted reflexive practices by conducting evaluations of its programs on an ongoing basis and making continual revisions based on those evaluations. The primary author of this paper was originally contracted to work with the WPA in order to conduct such an evaluation, and this was one only one of several such evaluations conducted by the William Alanson White Organizational Program over many years.
- The WPA takes an activist orientation by advocating for women offenders and their families with state and city social service systems by lobbying for policies and programs that serve their clients' interests. The WPA is also heavily involved in community outreach by arranging speaking engagements in the community to educated the public about the treatment of women in the criminal justice system.
- WPA is one of several programs that meet Morash and Bynum's (1995) criteria for "innovative and promising programs for women offenders," and also that of Conly (1998) who added several important characteristics of innovative programs and evaluated the WPA. Criteria that are of specific significance to WPA programs include the following.
- Program models that address the needs of women offenders. The WPA's program models are based on research efforts to identify the most common client concerns regarding housing, physical and mental health, family reunification, and employment. The WPA is adept at using information generated from inside and outside the organization to modify its own programs as well as to educate the public regarding issues of specific concern to women offenders.
- Individualized case management, including counseling and service plans. Caseworkers help clients organize and prioritize their service needs, teach clients how to advocate for themselves, and provide clients with support for achieving stated goals. WPA case management emphasizes the use of community-based service providers, and the Association coordinates their efforts in order to avoid redundancy.
- Peer support. WPA employees promote the development of healthy relationships through peer support that focuses on self-image and self-esteem problems that are prevalent in the population it serves. This goal is achieved through workshops, support groups, shared work assignments, and recreational activities. Clients are encouraged to utilize these relationships to redefine their sense of self and to create an ongoing base of support as they rebuild their lives.
- Strategies for building on client successes. WPA employees help their clients build on their experience and strengths, as opposed to only addressing their deficits, and to recognize small successes (Weick, 1984). Clients are required to define and refine their own case plans and to assume increasing responsibility for accomplishing their goals. They are also encouraged to participate in the development of new WPA programs, and to serve as public speakers, peer educators, trainers, and WPA staff assistants.
- Family focus. Helping women to reunite and establish new connections with their children has been shown to motivate them to accomplish other goals (Conly, 1998). Building healthy families also helps prevent children who have been exposed to their parents' substance abuse and criminal activity from becoming involved in those same behaviors (Borg amp; Garrod, 2003).
- Skills development. Each WPA program makes use of skills-building workshops to help women improve their capacities to serve as parents, students, employees, tenants, and friends. Training classes span the broad range of topics described in earlier sections such as physical and mental health promotion, substance abuse prevention, vocational training, parenting, and independent living.
- Competent, and well-trained staff. The WPA consistently provides additional training and consultation to its staff employees. Both clinical and organizational consultation services are made available on a regular basis.
- Long-term commitment. Clients are eligible to make use of WPA services over a period of several years, beginning from the date of their initial incarceration. According to Conly (1998) "because it has the capacity to make a long-term commitment, WPA is able to help women offenders address their many concerns regarding sobriety, prior abuse, employment, housing, and health care" (p. 10).
Despite its considerable past accomplishments, funding constraints are forcing the WPA to continually document its efforts and to justify its programs. WPA is therefore developing mechanisms for tracking individual clients and establishing new descriptive and objective scales for measuring client progress-for example, tracking personal growth, efforts to establish independence in their chosen communities, and working to improve their housing, employment, and family situations.
Furthermore, despite its considerable dedication the women they serve, during the evaluation conducted by Borg in 2001, there were some signs of the WPA's embeddedness in a culture of patriarchal values, traditions, and institutions that bog down the pursuit of its primary task. Some of the legitimately overwhelming circumstances that the staff deal with regularly, such as how to retain optimism and investment in their clients in the face of drug relapse or recidivism, can lead to periodic lapses in the treatment of their clients that reflect problematic patriarchal values. Such lapses include falling back on stereotypes of women prisoners, failure to work collaboratively with clients, and taking more authoritative roles. How to understand and diminish these lapses was the primary goal of the WPA's consult with the primary author of this paper. These lapses do not reflect a failure on the part of the WPA; rather, they reflect the difficulty and pressures created by the societal values and norms in which we live.
Nowhere is this seen more than in the often noted problem of how the women's prison system is a mere duplication of the men's prison system (Belknap, 2001; Chesney-Lind, 1997; Muraskin, 2003). Little forethought has been given to the problems created for women prisoners by submitting them to a penal system that is almost oblivious to the specific needs of women prisoners. Then again, as Van Wormer and Bartollas (2000) comment, this disavowal of the actual needs of women in the shaping of prison life is merely a reflection of how women are treated, mistreated, ignored, and disavowed in the wider society.
1 In 1997 the number of female inmates in federal and state prisons increased by 6.2 percent, slightly greater than the 5.2 percent increase for males; by the end of that year, 79,624 women were incarcerated (Gilliard & Beck, 1998). From 2001 to 2002, the number of women prisoners increased 1.9 percent, compared to 1.4 percent for men (United States Department of Justice, 2003). By mid-2002, there were 113 female prisoners for every 100,000 women in the United States.
2 While writing a chapter on preventing adult criminal behavior for the Encyclopedia of Primary Prevention and Health Promotion (Gullotta & Bloom, 2003), the primary author was serving as a consultant to the WPA. It seemed ironic that his difficulty in finding an adequate model for the prevention of adult criminal behavior in the primary prevention/community psychology literature occurred at the same time that he was working with an organization whose focus was on reducing recidivism, preventing relapses into states of homelessness and/or substance abuse, and promoting healthful practices among female prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families.
3 The WPA was one of twenty-three programs evaluated thus far in the United States that meet these standards (Conly, 1998; Morash & Bynum, 1995).
4 Interpersonal psychoanalytic theory referred to as the "cultural model" was developed by a group of authors and researchers that included Harry Stack Sullivan (1953), Erich Fromm (1941), Clara Thompson (1964), and Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (1950). Thompson and Fromm-Reichmann independently developed feminist perspectives for psychoanalytic treatment. Their work would later serve as the foundation for challenges to the patriarchal models that had long been used with patients of either gender in analysis.
5 The information in this section comes from interviews with the WPA leadership and board of directors, an extensive review of WPA literature and yearly reports (including funding proposals), interviews with previous WAWI consultants, and Catherine Conly's (1998) independent evaluation that was conducted for the U.S. Department of Justice.
6 Many of the elements considered oppressive toward women that have been observed in the criminal justice system have also been observed in the American foster case system (Martin, 2000; McDonald, Allen, Westerfelt, & Piliavin, 1996).
7 WPA programs and philosophy affirm its strong belief that assisting women offenders and ex-prisoners requires a broad base of community support. Therefore, in 1990 it formed the Women's Justice Alliance, a coalition of more than 300 public and private agencies and individuals who meet regularly to improve programs and to promote public policy for women offenders in New York City. Within this structure, the WPA continues to provide a wide range of services that match the various needs of their clients at various stages of their reentry into local communities.
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