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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