Opinion

Chandra Bozelko: Coming home from prison is no homecoming for women

By Chandra Bozelko
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Posted: Jul. 26, 2019 9:10 am

Since the series “Orange Is the New Black” premiered on Netflix six summers ago, at least 105 million of us have watched characters languish in prison — and a few characters go home.

In a terrific example of the typical re-entry boomerang, Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson, played by Danielle Brooks, leaves and returns to prison within three episodes, unable to cut it on the outside.

Elizabeth Rodriguez’s rendition of Aleida Diaz, a character who can’t earn the money she needs to pull her children from dangerous foster care, ends up selling drugs and smuggling them inside the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary she just departed where her adult daughter, Dayonara, gets hooked on them. Even Alex Vause, played by Laura Prepon, ends up in karma’s sidecar, headed back to custody after she finagled freedom for only one season.

The final part of the series was just released, and it features main character Piper Chapman’s return to society. We’re going to see if she can improve the Litchfield ladies’ abysmal track record.

“Orange Is the New Black” offers just a few fictional stories, but they’re reflected and repeated in real life every day in the approximately 81,000 women who come home every year from prison.

People assume that re-entry is same for all of the people who are released from custody every year — an uphill slog to find housing, jobs and lost connections with family.

But it’s not the same for every returning citizen; those things come easier for men. The Urban Institute, a social policy think tank, surveyed 1,100 former prisoners and found in 2008 that more than half the men were employed one year after release, whereas only one-third of women had a job. A smaller study conducted in Baltimore and released in 2004 found similar results.

Gender norms and background check systems conspire to keep women from gainful employment. Jamie Gullen, an attorney at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, told WHYY in 2014 that statistically, female offenders apply for employment upon release in the health care and retail sectors, two industries that rely heavily on background checks. Men, on the other hand, apply in construction, transportation and manufacturing industries where their chances of being hired are greater because background checks are less prevalent.

This difference in job success is consequential for women. Formerly incarcerated women are more likely to be homeless than formerly incarcerated men, the Prison Policy Initiative says. Housing insecurity can prolong the separation of mothers and their children and forestall family reunification, according to Community Family Life Services of D.C.

Almost no resources welcome women when they’re released, according to research released last week in the Prison Policy Initiative. The programs and assistance that await inmates on the outside is designed and designated for men, so you’d expect women’s recidivism rates to be higher than men’s.

But they’re not.

Even with no support, the female recidivism rate is lower. It’s also more stable, meaning it hasn’t declined in years, while the male recidivism rate glides downward, says the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Imagine how low it could become and how many women could succeed if we invested in their re-entry as much as we do for men. Until then, coming home from prison will challenge everyone but will always be harder for women.

Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries and is the Vice President of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at outlawcolumn@gmail.com.

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