Background and Purpose: Women are the fastest growing population of people who are incarcerated in the US. Significant misunderstandings about the motivations and lives of women who are incarcerated exist in the dominant cultural narrative, tending to be judgmental and pessimistic. These women also frequently face serious systemic inequalities based on their race, economic status, and other factors; misunderstandings about them can magnify these inequalities.
Most women who are incarcerated will return to their communities where they will face ongoing systemic inequalities. The dominant negative narrative about them can best be countered by the voices of women who are currently incarcerated, who are able to provide their own complex accounts. We describe the significance and application of this counter-narrative.
Methods: This analysis was part of a larger study of a trauma-focused, treatment program in a county jail located in the suburbs of a mid-Atlantic city. Study participants (N=35) responded to a simple written prompt (“My Life in 50 Words”) as part of their application to the treatment program. We used constant-comparison thematic content analysis to discern themes in the participants’ responses.
Results: Several themes emerged, including histories and experiences of severe trauma in childhood and adulthood, engagement with the criminal justice system prior to their current incarceration, and references to substance use. Also prominent in the narratives were themes related to participants’ roles as mothers; positive life experiences including employment, education, and strong relationships; and an optimistic sense of hope and future orientation.
Conclusions and Implications: The narratives provided by participants uncover a wealth of lived experiences. These experiences move beyond the dominant cultural narrative of women who are incarcerated as untrustworthy, violent, and unable to re-integrate into society. They challenge existing beliefs that mothers who are incarcerated, particularly those with substance use disorders, are selfish and neglectful of their children. The counter-narrative which emerged from this study was that the participants had led complicated, full lives; embraced their roles as women, family members, and especially as mothers; and expressed profound hope and desire to change their lives as they looked forward to their future once released.