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Women on the Outside: Understanding the Experiences of Female Prisoners Returning to Houston, Texas

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Document date: May 14, 2009
Released online: June 11, 2009

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This research report explores the unique experiences of women exiting prison, focusing on a representative sample of 142 women who were released from Texas prisons and state jails in 2005 and returned to Houston communities. It describes the challenges women face in obtaining housing, reuniting with family, and avoiding drug use and criminal behavior after their return to the community. Recommendations for improvements in policies and practices specific to increasing the successful reintegration of women are also presented.


The challenges associated with the incarceration and release of adult felons in the United States are tremendous. The number of incarcerated adults in the United States is at a record high and all indications point to continued growth in the foreseeable future. This growth amounts to increasing shares of the adult population behind bars, with the rate of increase among females surpassing that of their male counterparts. While women represent a small minority of adults who are incarcerated and released from state correctional facilities, they are nonetheless an important population worthy of research.

Prior research indicates that both the circumstances precipitating incarceration and the challenges affecting post-release reintegration are uniquely different for women than for men (O’Brien 2001, Richie 2001). Women who get caught up in the criminal justice system have extensive histories of drug use (Blume 1990), are likely to be clinically depressed (Blume 1990), tend to have low self esteem (Bloom and Covington 2000). They also have fewer job skills than their male counterparts (Messina, Burdon and Prendergast 2001). These factors all play into post-release outcomes for women, who are more likely than men to be homeless (Bloom 1998) and to have problems with intimate partners (Chesney-Lind 1997, Owen and Bloom 1995). Incarcerated and recently released women also exhibit greater ties to their children than men and are much more likely to have childcare responsibilities both before and after release (Belknap 1996). Thus, the process of post-release reunification of mothers with their children can be a unique reentry challenge in itself, along with the challenge of earning a living while resuming childcare responsibilities.

In Texas alone, 12,243 women are incarcerated in state correctional facilities at any given time, with 10,851 women released each year. Among those women, over one in five (21.7 percent) return to Harris County, home to Houston, Texas.1

This research brief explores the unique experiences of women exiting prison, focusing on a representative sample of 142 women who were released from Texas state prisons and state jails in 2005 (see State Jail sidebar for definitions) and returned to Houston communities. Because the information presented here stems from a larger study of both male and female returning prisoners, significant differences between the experiences of women and men are highlighted throughout this report. Issues of pre-prison characteristics, reentry preparation behind bars, expectations for release, post-prison relationships and engagement in both pro- and anti-social behaviors are examined in detail. Results of regression analyses identifying the individual characteristics and experiences associated with post-release employment, substance abuse, and criminal behavior are also reported.

The findings are presented with an eye toward how policies and practices designed to promote the successful reentry of prisoners might be adapted or enhanced to support women who are returning home.

(End of excerpt. The entire report is available in PDF format.)

Topics/Tags: | Crime/Justice

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