Locking Women Away.
Offending Women: Power, Punishment, and the Regulation of Desire
By Lynne A. Haney
University of California Press: Berkeley
Softcover, 304 pages, $24.95
The policies of mass imprisonment, which systematically remove so many women from their communities, seem to signify a shift in how state regulation is conceptualized and practiced. While poor women have always had their lives regulated by the state indirectly, through social policies, laws, and encounters with caseworkers, more of them are living and raising children quite literally within the state--often for long stretches of time. Moreover, through parole, probation, and "community-based" corrections, the penal system remains in these women's lives for years after release. The state's methods of control also seem to rely more heavily on direct modes of intervention characteristic of total institutions. And these modes of intervention appear to be based on restrictive models of citizenship and forms of claims-making.
Author: A professor of sociology at New York University, author of Inventing the Needy: Gender and the Politics of Welfare in Hungary.
Basic premise: The author looks at two programs set up in California as "community-based prisons" for mothers to be housed with their children in alternative, less institutionalized settings. One program, Alliance, was researched in the early 1990s, when the focus of social programs was moving toward insistence on self-reliance instead of the "welfare state." With this cultural imperative in the background, the program focused on emphasizing job and life skills acquisition in a boot camp-like setting (punctuality, chores, classes were all emphasized). In the second program examined a decade later, Visions, the author notes the shifting of cultural priorities--instead of prepping individuals for the basics of taking responsibility for themselvespractically in society, now young mothers are coached in a brand of therapeutic self-governance, heavily reliant on 12-step methods and confessional mode. In both cases, society-wide injustices are swept under the rug; solutions are located in the individual alone, in the case of Alliance as a lack of job/life skills, in Visions as a pathologized internal child. The author examines the daily routines of both programs, their effects on the women and the growing hybrid of public/private institutions that make regulation and benchmarking difficult.
Readability/quality: Relatively free of jargon, engaging when exploring the daily routines of these young mothers in each setting, thoughtful about the implications for wider society, the book is a relatively smooth read from an assured expert who clearly has spent a career looking at the issues tackled.
Who should read it: Same as for Interrupted Life (in fact, one of the essays in the previous book is by this author, short and focused on only one aspect of one of these programs)--those interested in women and society, incarceration, alternative programs, children's issues.
It matters that the women in Visions confronted a discourse of desire as opposed to a discourse of need. First and foremost, it matters because of the institutional practices that accompanied this discourse; the women at Visions received counseling not education, group therapy not job training, and treatment for personal addiction not preparation for social integration. While not all women accepted these practices, few could disrupt them in a consistent or collective way. Unlike the young women at Alliance, who used the prevailing needs talk as they challenged it, the women at Visions turned on themselves and one another. Although some Visions inmates tried, few were able to move the emphasis from personal to societal failings. At Visions, the discourse of desire seemed like a channel through which claims to social justice and fairness were silenced; the women subjected to this discourse seemed one step closer to a state of disentitlement.
Both Alliance (skills-based) and Visions (therapeutics on steroids) sound like a nightmare. Alliance, presented first in the book, has an understandable rigidity given that these women were convicted of something (mostly drug crimes), but Haney points to the inherent contradiction in the program--even as counselors and staff are harping non-stop on self-reliance to these women, they are confiscating their AFDC aid and pooling it for survival. The women, once they get a few skills under their belts, recognize this and being reporting conditions to public agencies, spurring investigations. From a sociological point of view, Haney was in the right place at the right time to document the formation of blocs of resistance, but alas, they come to naught for various (predictable) reasons. As bad as Alliance comes across, Visions is much worse--the constant pressure to confess confess confess and to have more horror traumatic abuse stories than your fellow prisoners is appalling; women turn on each other viciously, using information gleaned in group self-help sessions, and the whole program comes across as a Jerry Springer-like emotional "Lord of the Flies."
Ironically, both programs were conceived with the best of intentions: to allow women to serve time with their children, in a softer setting than normal, in a place of emotional safety and practical learning. Both programs were supported by staunch women's advocates. And both ended up mired in truly appalling dynamics. The bottom-line problem with both is the diminishment of the role of connection and empowerment; problems are always and forever seen as individual crosses to bear and hurdles to overcome. Haney's book is also a warning about the blurred area of unaccountability created by these public/private entities.
Not the subject of the book, but one that would be a welcome follow-up by some author: the effect on the children of growing up in these programs.