Jill A. McCorkel spent several years interacting with and interviewing female inmates, prison staff and state personnel at a major women's prison in the U.S. Her research resulted in the book Breaking Women: Gender, Race, and the New Politics of Imprisonment. As the title of the book implies, Breaking Women is a sociological and criminological undertaking that takes into accounts the "get tough" and "drug war" policies resulting in and effecting the changing structures of prisons, while accounting for how gender and race influences the experiences of women at the East State Women's Correctional Institution.
According to McCorkel, even though female prisoners are often viewed as less dangerous than male inmates, changes in the structures of women's prisons brought on by longer and more severe punishments (such as mandatory minimum sentences and the three strikes law) along with an influx of prisoners based on "the war on drugs", overcrowding and a lack of funding has led to women's prisons more often being modeled after men's prisons. Traditionally, female prisoners were viewed as "good girls" in need of rehabilitation and structure, but such notions have changed as habilitation provided by private companies has taken the place of rehabilitation. As McCorkel challenges these structures she also claims that the changing structure of women's prisons and the privatization of care, along with the switch from rehabilitation to habilitation does little to help female inmates. After accounting for changes in the prison system McCorkel also examines and analyzes the habilitation program PHW (Project Habilitate Women) provided by a private company titled "the Company".
McCorkel describes how PHW works to break down women while stating that "the person is the problem" and that criminals possess a self that is "...incomplete and underdeveloped" (p. 86). As such, PHW works on women's selves, on habilitating the person and the self. Critics of the program (including prison staff and inmates) claim that it degrades prisoners as name-calling, aggressive confrontations and punishments are often imposed on women who do not embrace the program and its rhetoric. Either women are court mandated to enroll in PHW, or they do so in an attempt to reduce their sentence and time spent in prison. PHW has encountered problems with high attrition rates and women dropping out of the program. McCorkel examines ways in which women deal with the program and strategies that they employ. The women who do not drop out either embrace the program and surrender their self, or they find ways to endure and maintain their self, while staying in the program simply to reduce their sentences. Women who resist the program's philosophy do so in several ways. They partake in behavior named "ripping and running" (p. 185), intended to challenge PHW's claims of the self, by engaging in rule violations and rebellion. Prisoners also "fake it" (participation without surrendering) to remain in control of their selves by either "blocking"; "...psychologically removing themselves from the confrontation sessions" (p. 205), or through "rule-breaking" where prisoners overtly engage in rule-breaking behavior.
McCorkel contends that the majority of inmates either reject PHW by leaving the program early or they engage in various behaviors to minimize the impact of the program on their self. Few inmates actually embrace the program and its philosophy. Critical of the habilitation program McCorkel states that:
Although state officials, prison administrators, and Company executives justified the new penology on the grounds that it served the needs of prisoners and the general public, in reality it did neither. By failing to help prisoners solve the crises in their lives, PHW was ultimately unable to serve the larger public's interest in reducing drug use and crime. Indeed, the only identifiable beneficiaries of the new penology were the Company (which profited from the sale of its services), state officials who looked "tough on crime" and prison administrators who were temporarily spared blame for institutional crises like overcrowding and recidivism (p. 227).
Breaking Women is a major undertaking, one that has been several years in the making. McCorkel writes in a passionate and direct way, while accounting for the views of the female inmates.
The book is an interesting, honest, and uncomplicated read, one that challenges current public views of how to care for inmates and reduce recidivism. The intended audience is foremost students and teachers in the field of sociology, criminology and gender studies, but the book is equally accessible to those interested in the prison system, its effects on women, as well as how programs meant to habilitate women are implemented, along with their rates of success or attrition.
© 2014 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.