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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Long-Term Federally Sentenced Women: Literature Review

Stages In A Long-Term Sentence

It is important to begin by assessing whether it is desirable to identify stages in the experiences of women serving long sentences. There is merit for such a framework , as it would help staff to understand some of the difficulties experienced by women serving long-term sentences. Also, it may provide some guidance as to the appropriate responses needed from staff to support women, and into what programs in each phase are needed to meet the women's needs. However, any type of framework that compartmentalizes women's (life) experiences must be scrutinized and used with caution. There is always the potential that a framework will be used to codify women and hinder the articulation of their own experiences. On the other hand, if such frameworks are used only as an educational tool to provide insight into the difficulties and pain that goes along with serving a long-term sentence, then they can be beneficial for both the staff and the women themselves.

One of the main recommendations of the report was "that CSC adopts a management model for long-term sentences, according to the four stages... and that programs, modules and services be developed according to the characteristics and needs of each stage." [ Perron Report, Recommendation # 10.]

The Perron Report identified four stages in long-term sentences: adaptation; integration in the prison environment; preparation for release; and, reintegration in society.


1. Objectives: assist the inmate to accepting his [ The Perron Report does not use inclusive language, although the findings are presumed to be applicable to women offenders.] sentence. Guide him and support him in his adaptation to his new life. Specifically his needs shall be addressed in all areas of the correctional plan.

Programs: assessment, information, orientation, family/community, support.

2. Integration in prison environment

Objective: promote a way in which the inmate can serve his sentence by taking full advantage of the opportunities for personal growth inside the prison.

Programs: training/employment, personal growth, family/community, re-evaluation and reorientation.

3. Preparation for release

Objective: prepare the inmate to live progressively and harmoniously in society as a law-abiding citizen.

Programs: training/employment, personal growth, community internal/external, [ By internal, the report refers to increasing community presence inside the prison. External refers to providing inmates with progressive access to the community.] re-evaluation and reorientation.

4. Return to society

Objectives: help the inmate adjust to life outside.

Programs: training/employment, personal growth, community. [ Perron Report, pg. 70-77.]

The Perron Report identifies the management process for an offender with a long sentence. It asserts that programs need to be reflective of the offenders' needs as experienced in the different stages of their sentence.

Other models have identified similar phases with psychological adaptation as the focal point. [ For example, Lee Axon examines Camille Grahanm Camp's psychological model of adaptation, based on the work by Kubler-Ross with terminally ill patients. Camp identifies five stages: ˇ Denial - the process in which offenders refuse to accept their long sentence; ˇ Mourning stage - where offenders begin to accept the reality of their situation; ˇ Rebellion - in which officers are perceived as the enemy (release of hostility and frustration may be present in this stage); ˇ Adjustment - offenders begin to cooperate (it is in this stage that offenders become institutionalized); and, ˇ Socialization - the process of self-actualization. Other models, such as the Palmer (1984) Lifesavers Program at Warkworth Institution and North Carolina's model "Chameleon Syndrome" - named to reflect the changes that long-term offenders must go through to protect themselves from their hostile environment - identified similar stages offenders go through during a long incarceration.] From the literature review, the most significant model for women offenders, nevertheless, was developed by Maria Christina Jose; her study draws from research done on long-term female offenders, using and describing the experiences of the women themselves. Jose, in her book Women Doing Life Sentences: A Phenomenological Study, describes the stages that women serving long sentences go through "before accepting the meaning of their incarceration."

1. Denial and Isolation

According to Jose, most women deny they will be in prison for very long. Most believed that their lawyers were appealing and they would, therefore, be freed shortly. She argues that denial can be present in many forms. For example, many women continue to think as a free person for the first year and refuse to identify themselves as prisoners. They refuse to mix with other prisoners or participate in any of the activities and become isolated and withdrawn.

2. Anger

Anger is the second identified stage. Jose argues that when denial cannot be maintained, coming to terms with the reality of a long prison sentence makes the prisoner very angry. Anger seems to be a necessary step before resigning to the reality of the sentence. According to Jose, women in this stage are more likely to:

• rebel against the guards;

• rebel against the rules;

• rebel against other inmates;

• become bitter about the outside world (women begin to lose their ties -or they may in fact be rejecting - family and friends).

During this stage, women realize that they are not free and must live with regulations and daily intrusions. They now realize they are prisoners.

Anger is also sometimes expressed because of a greater need for self-assertion. This self-assertion is a product of their need to control some aspect of their lives. Given the restrictions imposed by the institutional system and the amount of control exercised over the women, any kind of autonomous decision-making is considered by offenders to be a luxury. In an institutional setting, women who express their frustration are often punished for displaying inappropriate behaviour. According to Jose, Kubler-Ross in their studies on loss and grieving suggest one should encourage subjects (in the Kubler-Ross study, the subjects are terminally-ill patients) to talk about their anger. [ Jose, pg. 133-150.] However, for women in prison, she argues, there is no appropriate time or place in which anger is allowed to be expressed. Jose asserts that if women were allowed to acknowledge their anger, grief and loss, the institutions might "...have fewer "maladjusted normals" and more "inmate human beings" trying to come to terms as best they can with their prison reality." [ Jose, pg. 140-141.]

3. Depression

Depression is the third stage identified by Jose. Depression often sets in when women realize they can no longer deny the reality of the length of their sentence. Women at this stage deal with a lot of losses, including contact with their children, lovers and family. Some women at this stage become suicidal, others learn to live with depression.

Jose argues that staff often encourage women to "look at the positive side of things" and to forget about their depression. She argues that often the institution and the officers do not want to acknowledge that women are going through depression and try to dismiss it.

There are a number of indications of depression including: self-inflicted injuries, sleepiness, wanting to be alone and to remain in or be sent to segregation.

4. Mourning

Mourning is the fourth stage identified in Jose's model. It begins when the losses are acknowledged. Some of the signs of mourning are:

• retreat from activities, people;

• may not want contact with the outside (it is more painful to see your love ones);

• grief;

• isolation (wanting to be alone);

• may feel and express more guilt about the situation;

• express more guilt about how this affected her children. [ Jose, pg. 133-150.]

5. Acceptance

Acceptance is the fifth stage that a women goes through while serving her long-term sentence. Acceptance, according to Jose, does not mean that the women will be content in prison, but rather that they have become numb. Jose states that for women, it is a feeling of being empty and void. In a sense women feel as if no more pain could be taken in because they are already saturated with pain. They become disinterested with the outside world, gain or lose great amounts of weight and often lose hope.

Hope is described by Jose as very important for prisoners serving long sentences. Jose states that initially the women have hope with regard to their appeals, reviews and hearings since this often translates into the possibility of being freed. However, after a while women experience a loss of hope and that usually "this occurred after seven or eight years of incarceration." [ Jose, pg. 148.] The effects of losing ties with families are pertinent for all incarcerated women; however, for long-term offenders the awareness that these ties may be irrevocably lost creates a unique concern. In order to cope with this prospect, women often continue to see their roles outside as intact.