The Realities of Reentry: Making Reentry Work for Women

Published aug. 08, 2017

By Avery Brien

The societal, individual, and community costs of a growing prison population are receive increasing national attention. As the field of workforce development tailors educational and vocational models to meet the needs of those reentering our communities, we need to make sure that reentry strategies and programs work for women as well as men.

Incarceration and Transition: Women’s Experiences

The incarceration rate among women has been rising since 1980 and continues to accelerate faster than the rate among men, but the reasons for incarceration and the challenges women face upon release differ significantly from those of their male counterparts:

  • A woman’s path to crime is often rooted in a history of abuse and trauma: 75 percent of women in prison are survivors of intimate partner violence.
  • Women are less likely to be charged with violent crimes, and more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related offenses linked to their history of abuse, coercion, and sexual exploitation.
  • Thirty-one percent of women detained in county jails battle mental illness and substance use disorders related to their trauma, compared to 14.5 percent of men.
  • Sixty percent of women in state prisons functioned as primary caregivers for children under the age of 18 at the time of their arrest. Therefore, in addition to the common transitional employment barriers, women are likely to need affordable childcare before accepting a job.

A Systemic Response

These statistics reflect the societal systems that shape our lives. Women—and more specifically women of color and poor women—are disproportionately affected by system failures that limit access to quality education, employment opportunity, housing stability, and other support services needed to overcome trauma and abuse.

JFF has been a strong advocate for holistic approaches to workforce development for many years, and we are working with providers to develop reentry education models and supports for young people and adults. According to the data, organizations working to build effective reentry programming should acknowledge the specific needs of women in their service design. Wraparound services are not simply supplemental, but necessary for employment, education, and reentry success, and women need more:

  • Trauma-informed substance abuse treatment, and access to physical and mental health services.
  • Adequate, accessible, and affordable child care to lower barriers to employment and support family reunification.
  • Secure housing that ensures women have opportunities to live safely away from their abusers. 
  • Educational and employment training that includes sexual health and relationship equity training, challenges traditional constraints of gender norms, and offers  women opportunities in well-paying industries traditionally dominated by men.
  • Legal support during child custody hearings. 

Currently, JFF provides technical assistance to nine grantees participating in the Department of Education's Improved Reentry Education program. One grantee, Washburn Institute of Technology, works exclusively with women at the Topeka, Kansas Women’s Correctional Facility where they have seen firsthand the need for gender-informed support upon reentry. Sexual health and relationship equity training ensures women understand their rights within relationships, which, along with industry-recognized credentials, is critical to employment and overall stability. The Washburn Tech program give women opportunities to learn skills that can lead to credentials and jobs in traditionally male occupations like warehousing, logistics, and transportation. 

The growing understanding of the importance of gender-specific programming informs the technical assistance JFF provides to institutions across the country. It’s clear that recidivism reduction requires programs to acknowledge the unique set of challenges women and other gender minorities face. Programs that are working within Topeka Correctional Facility for Women, the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, and successes and challenges in Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont, California and other states all point to a need to build, expand, and improve gender-informed reentry models.