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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Literature Review on Women's Anger and Other Emotions

Anger Management With Female Offenders

Three programmes of anger-management for women offenders were found in the literature (Wilfley, et al., 1986; Rucker, 1991; Smith, Smith & Beckner, 1994). Wilfley et al. designed a group treatment approach for a maximum security facility in Cedar City, Missouri, based on research conducted by Novaco, noted above, with the stated purpose "to provide the participants with an opportunity to gain an awareness and understanding of their anger and to develop appropriate methods for managing it" (p. 44). The group consisted of eight women who met for two hours per week for eight consecutive weeks. Group activities included "brainstorming, behavioral rehearsal, relaxation, verbal exercises, stress inoculation training, and discussion" (p. 45). Homework was assigned between sessions to encourage self monitoring of response in anger-arousing situations through the use of a daily log. Contacts were employed to foster assertive behaviour in specific situations, and strategies were discussed for continuing after completion of the group sessions. Wilfley et al. reported outcomes of increased personal control, responsibility, and empathy, as well as "an increased ability to generate and utilize alternatives which led to much more flexible, creative, and constructive responses when faced with anger provoking situations" (p. 41). In addition, a mutual support system developed among the incarcerated women as they encouraged one another during the week between sessions.

The authors noted a "strong need and enthusiastic interest" (p. 50) among the female offenders for anger awareness and management groups, citing little effort and time required to encourage eager participation. Though four of the eight women dropped out of the programme, the effect was "an increased feeling of specialness and commitment expressed by the remaining four group members" (p. 48). During the course of the programme the women addressed personal issues from their past and the central theme of their isolation from family, society and self. Changes in self perception were noted as women gradually moved from a self imposed isolation used as a coping mechanism to display increased interest in, and respect for, one another.

Rucker (1991), in a study designed to create nonviolent niches within a medium security prison for women, defined the research task of establishing an environment where women will be encouraged to make positive life changes rather than focusing their energy on merely fighting for survival. The programme that was tested was based on the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), an educational programme originally introduced in the New York State prison system by a volunteer group approximately fifteen years ago. The stated core philosophy is "to affirm the existence and legitimacy of personal power and to give participants the experience of shared power exercised cooperatively, responsibly and well" (AVP Basic Manual, 1985, quoted in Rucker, 1991, p. 4). Within this programme power is defined as the ability to create "win/win" (p.4) situations rather than coercing others to get what is desired. To facilitate empowerment, the programme emphasizes the affirmation of individuals, the development of a cooperative environment based on trust and empathy, and the development of communication and conflict resolution skills. The format includes two, three day intensive, experiential workshops followed by six weekly one and one half hour follow up sessions.

While not addressing the subject of anger specifically, the programme emphasized a nonviolent approach to conflict resolution. Participants were admitted into the programme on the basis of the following criteria:

We must be willing to set aside old, habitual assumptions that violent or destructive solutions are the only ones possible and be willing to try something different, something creative; we must believe that a win/win solution is possible and that there is something in the person who is challenging us, no matter how hidden it may be, that is willing to join us in seeking such a solution; and, finally, we must expect the best, not only from ourselves, but from others in our interactions with them.

(AVP Education Committee, 1985, quoted in Rucker, p. 104)

Thirty two subjects participated in two comparison groups which differed only in the content of the follow up sessions. In follow up to the AVP workshops, one group received additional emphasis on the development of conflict resolution skills, role plays of conflict scenarios, guided meditations, and affirmative exercises, while the other focused on sexuality issues such as prostitution, lesbian relationships, problems associated with the difficulty of sexual expression in prison, AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases. Results of the comparison of the two groups showed that the AVP/skills group was more able to formulate "I" statements in response to a situation of conflict, were more able to communicate their conceptualization of nonviolence and said they were more controlled in the group with regard to what they thought and said. Participation however dwindled in this group weekly, due possibly to the repetitive nature of practising skills. The AVP/sexuality group became more cohesive during the follow up, due to the stimulating nature of the discussions. It was concluded that AVP/sexuality is most productive over the long term.

While results indicated no statistically significant change in levels of trust, empathy, or locus of control in either of the groups, a contradictory trend emerged. Participants indicated they expected, as a result of the programme, to have more personal power in the ability to control their lives but also reported an expectation that powerful others and chance would control their lives. The researcher concluded "while participants' sense of personal power seemed to increase during the course of the project, they maintained an awareness of the coercive and unpredictable nature of the penal environment in which they lived" (p. 82).

A further conclusion was drawn that the one and one half hour follow up sessions once weekly were not enough to sustain the "deep level of trust evidenced" (p. 125) during the workshops. This trust was demonstrated in one specific trust exercise. Members of the group would lift one woman from a position of lying flat on the floor to a level where they would cradle her in their arms, slowly turn a complete circle and gently lower her again to the floor. This trust lift exercise was experienced by the women as a particularly powerful method of emphasizing the issue of trust discussed in the workshops. At the conclusion of the study, the researcher questioned whether that level of trust can be sustained in a prison setting. An environment of "inflexible rule enforcement, faulty communication, and suspicion evidenced by the security staff in their interactions with both the participants and researcher" (p. 102) was considered to be counterproductive to the establishment of the nonviolent niches that the study sought.

Suggestions for improvement include placing more emphasis on making the connection between such techniques as "trying to find common ground, basing a position on truths, risking creativity rather than violence, and using surprise and humour" (p. 116). Further research is warranted regarding the question of how the positive AVP environment may be advantageous in establishing a sense of freedom and safety that allows for self expression. Suggesting what makes the programme so effective is its potential to "enable and encourage individuals to either create their own strategies for growth or make better use of already-existent programs within the prison setting" (p. 128), Rucker maintains such empowerment must be taken seriously.

The third anger management workshop for women inmates (Smith et al., 1994) was provided to a group of eleven medium-security women inmates at the Utah State Prison. The workshop had four objectives: to understand common symptoms of anger, why people get angry, how anger can be managed more effectively, and to help women inmates incorporate anger-management suggestions into their lives. The workshop consisted of three consecutive weekly two hour sessions. Discussion centred around the emotional, physical, cognitive, and behavioural symptoms shown when people are angry, common strategies for managing anger, and the development of personal anger-management strategies. Between session homework focused on keeping a daily record in which women were asked to rate their anger on a four point scale, to identify events that triggered their anger, and to distinguish signs that indicated to them that their anger had reached a dangerous level. After being asked to implement the anger-management strategies women had developed, the strategies were evaluated, with an emphasis placed on those that were most effective.

Results indicated that "a three session workshop on anger management can have a significant impact on women inmates" (p. 175). A focus was placed on helping women to think before they act on their anger, emphasizing such strategies as walking away from a conflict, breathing exercises, and cognitive interventions such as concentrating on pleasant thoughts and positive images.

In addition to the three programmes surveyed, in a selected review of the literature over the past fifty years, Schramski and Harvey (1983) examined the effectiveness of psychodrama and role playing in male and female correctional environments. Their study suggested "cautious optimism" (p. 249), indicating though the method has "been well-used in correctional environments, [it has been] somewhat less well reported" (p. 252). This study does not report anger results specifically, citing more general improvements in group members who were, for example, more "helpful, trusting and interpersonally adequate" (Maas, cited in Schramski & Harvey, 1983, p. 245).