The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Prospering in the Trees: Incarcerated Women Design Private and Restorative Spaces

Friday, January 17, 2014
HBG Convention Center, Bridge Hall Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Barb Toews, PhD Candidate, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA
Purpose: Privacy, or the lack thereof, plays a prominent and conflicted role in correctional facilities and impacts the spatial, psychological and social environment. Despite environmental barriers, prisoners achieve some degree of privacy and use it to cope with the physical and psychological harms of their incarceration. Research suggests that the ability to control what, with whom, when and where one makes personal disclosures may also enable prisoners to contemplate their crimes, create psychological spaces to deal with past victimization and create experiences of agency, autonomy and safety. These outcomes may subsequently contribute to improved wellbeing and reduced offending inside prison and upon release. This study explored the ways in which incarcerated women achieve privacy in jail, the purposes privacy serves and women’s visions for spaces in which to better achieve privacy aims.

Methods: This study used ethnographic methods including five months of fieldwork in a women’s jail and interviews with 22 incarcerated women, recruited during fieldwork based on their knowledge of institutional life. During interviews, women created three-dimensional scenes depicting privacy inside and outside jail. Field and interview notes, photographs of the scenes, and institutional documents served as data for grounded theory qualitative analysis.

Results: The study found that incarcerated women create private experiences by retreating to their cells and other limited-use spaces on the cellblock, engaging in hobbies, and leaving the cellblock for work and programs. These physical and psychological spaces assist women in escaping from the noise and chaos of common areas, thinking about their lives, relationships and mistakes made, and avoiding destructive relationships with staff and other prisoners. Unfortunately, repeated lock downs and a correctional environment that breeds boredom and a lack of focus and motivation thwart the full therapeutic and rehabilitative potential of privacy.

Women envision non-carceral spaces that would assist them better in achieving the outcomes they seek with privacy. Access to nature and intimacy with family surface as key environmental features, consistent with research about environments that contribute to healing and wellbeing. In these spaces, women believe they could overcome challenges, strengthen relationships with family, deal with emotions and past experiences with victimization, and feel motivated to make personal change and constructively work toward that change.

Conclusion: The women’s creations offer insight into the design of settings intended to assist and support them in reaching therapeutic and rehabilitative goals. These setting include correctional facilities, treatment centers, and other environments where social workers work with formerly incarcerated women and those at risk of incarceration. The women’s designs also contribute to discussions about the role of privacy, the environment, and an individual’s ability to actively and fully engage in civil society. Incarcerated women, often marginalized prior to incarceration, have little access to schools, neighborhoods, homes or other spaces that have minimal stress or offer opportunities for reflection. This lack of access may serve to maintain their marginalization.