“I Just Need Help”: Perceptions of Women Jail Residents Throughout Their Criminal Justice Involvement



Smith, Lindsay

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With gender inequality holding a powerful presence in todays’ discourse following the third wave of feminism, #MeToo movement, and potential changes to Title IX guidelines, it is becoming increasingly clear that we do not know enough about the life experiences of women. The jail resident population in particular has increased almost eight-fold in the past 30 years (The Sentencing Project, 2019). Research should focus specifically on women because they not only experience more trauma, substance use (SU) problems, and mental health (MH) issues than men, but they leave the criminal justice system no better than when they entered it, and therefore are more likely to return (Belknap, 2007; Belknap et al., 2016; Belknap & Holsinger, 2006; Covington & Bloom, 2003; Drapalski et al., 2009; Fazel et al., 2006; Greenfeld & Snell, 1999; Hills et al., 2004; James & Glaze, 2006; Langan & Levin, 2002; Pollock, 2002; Salina et al., 2004; Snell & Morton, 1991). Thus, in order to curtail their rising population, we need to understand and serve their needs more effectively in attempts to propel their desistance from crime. The purpose of this research is to identify women jail residents’ perceptions of their own needs throughout their criminal justice experience (i.e., pre-incarceration, during incarceration, and after incarceration) to inform jail programming which could successfully target those needs. This study relies on administrative data and data collected via interviews with women jail residents at all three security levels (i.e., low, medium, high) and women correctional staff at one mid-Atlantic jail. By comparing perceptions of needs across security-level, this research advances the current understanding of women jail residents’ needs from multiple perspectives. In addition, it also furthers our knowledge on how connection and access to programming addresses some/all of the needs of these women. Gauging in what ways the perceptions of women staff and jail residents may overlap or differ is an important distinction that informs whether hierarchical (i.e., power-based) roles change perceptions of women’s needs. Interviews with women jail staff inform how the social connection (i.e., relationships) between women jail residents and staff facilitates or inhibits women’s connection to appropriate resource essentials during their jail stay and in planning for their reentry process. In this specific setting, only women jail staff are permitted to work with the women jail residents and thus are the only connection for women jail residents to access the resources they need. Overall, this research highlights the life experiences of women in jail and may inform jail administrators on the needs of women who are incarcerated and whether those needs are adequately met or if there are gaps that need filled regarding programming.



Gender, Needs, Desistance, Corrections