Women After Prison

Two weeks ago, we spoke to incarcerated men reentering society about lives full of panic and the hard road ahead. But women are the news of mass incarceration right now — so we’re following up.

Compared to 1980, seven or eight times as many mothers, sisters and daughters are serving time in American prisons — they’re the fastest-growing sector of that enormous population. More than a million American women are under the control of our penal system now: mostly on probation but including more than a hundred thousand behind bars right now. 

Netflix’s series, Orange Is The New Black, has turned the incarceration of women into a headline by representing it as half-tragic and half-comic world, a M*A*S*H for the present moment, in which the women are menaced by male guards and plagued by addiction and mental illness, but keep on cracking jokes — saved by sisterhood and occasional sex.

Some of that may be true, though our guest, the formerly incarcerated activist Andrea James, wants to remind us that this particular problem isn’t especially funny. The others, Denise Lewis and Wanda Luna, speak of a heaviness in women’s prison: the pain of separation from children and partners. And women carry a battery of preexisting problems with them into lockup: a history of bad mental and physical health (often untreated), records of domestic violence, and near-universal substance abuse.


On top of that, only about 1 in 3 women is locked up because of a violent crime, compared to more than half of incarcerated men, leading James to argue that women, for the most part, are locked up for “hurting themselves.”

With the former newscaster and minister Liz Walker, we’re listening to three local women tell personal stories of trauma, abuse and separation, and to consider the gender gap in incarceration.



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  • MaryW

    Funny. I thought you did a show on men and prison. Thought this show was about women. Guess I misunderstood.

    • Max Larkin

      Mary, we did do a show featuring men, too, if that’s what you’re looking for: radioopensource.org/life-after-incarceration.

  • Maureen

    Very powerful piece! Thank you for sharing your stories.

  • Cambridge Forecast


    The women on the ROS show seemed very charming and likeable and one of them used the word “hypervigilant.”

    For some reason the combination of hypervigilance, self-defeating behavior, a kind of
    intergenerational civilian PTSD, made me think of the following movie classic,
    with each of the ROS women guests something like the “long distance runner” discussed:

    “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” is a 1962 film, based on the short story of the same name.
    The screenplay, like the short story, was written by Alan Sillitoe. The film was directed by Tony
    Richardson, one of the new young directors emerging from documentary films,
    specifically a series of 1950s filmmakers known as the Free Cinema movement.
    It tells the story of “a rebellious youth” (played by Tom Courtenay), sentenced to a borstal (‘Approved School’) for burgling a bakery, who rises through the ranks of the
    institution through his prowess as a long-distance runner. During his solitary
    runs, reveries of his life and times before his incarceration lead him to
    re-evaluate his privileged status as the Governor’s (played by Michael
    Redgrave) prize runner.

    Set in a grim environment of early-1960s Britain and like other films which
    deal with rebellious youth, it is a story of how the youth chooses to defy
    authority, in so doing securing his self-esteem (at the probable personal cost
    of continued confinement). The film places its characters thoroughly in their
    social milieu. Class consciousness abounds throughout: the
    “them” and “us” notions which Richardson shows reflect the very basis of British society at the time, so that Redgrave’s “proper gentleman” of a Governor is in contrast to many of
    the young working class inmates.”

    “At the end, Colin (ie the “lonely long distance runner” of the movie) is back in
    the machine shop, punished and ignored by the Governor. But he seems calm –
    even content – with his loneliness, because he has refused to submit to authority.”

    On the other hand, one also thinks of the black female character Dilsey in Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” of whom it is said, at the end of the novel, “She endured.”

    My humble understanding of these appealing women on the ROS
    show is as a “weak-strong” fusion of Dilsey and the long-distance runner with his pre-existing
    condition of PTSD and hypervigilance, as mentioned by one of the ladies.

    Richard Melson

  • Max Larkin

    Mary, I figured that’s what you were trying to say, but I didn’t want to presume. It’s true: it happened to make for interesting conversation in studio — what is the gap between the men and you? So we chose a good bit of it to run in this piece. But I hope a healthy part of the women’s experience — the heaviness, the missing family, the mental-illness question — made it through to you, too.

    Thanks for commenting — we’re not done talking about this.

  • AJF

    I thought this was great! I actually have an organization in MO that works with women after prison! I myself am a prior female offender and that’s why I started my program. Not enough people even recognize the large number of women that go to prison and return. Thank you for acknowledging something very real! Great piece!