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Redefining Rehabilitation: The Changing Approach to Reducing Recidivism


Janet Taveras started doing drugs when she was 19 years old. It began with cocaine, a sniff here or there, and before she knew it, Taveras had an addiction to crack that eventually landed her at Riker’s Island for six months on charges of weapons possession at age 24. Since then, Taveras has battled recidivism, bouncing in and out of prison and detoxification programs all over the state. Now, she believes what she needed was not detention, but a program that would treat the root of her behaviors.

“They say that jail is a place of rehabilitation,” says Taveras, now 44.  “But when you look at the word rehabilitation what it means is to revert back to the state of origin. So when you’re rehabilitating somebody, what state of origin are you bringing them back to?”

What brings men and women behind bars on a repeated basis is largely the same. Difficulty finding and keeping a home, struggling to find a job, failing to reestablish contact with the world, and falling back into drug abuse, are universal contributors to recidivism. However, the root of those reasons can be different for women than for men, as can the consequences. Experts are finding traditional methods for rehabilitating a historically male-dominated prison population need to be reevaluated to fit the needs of female inmates, who respond differently to treatment than their male counterparts. As a result, programs geared toward promoting education, self-worth and spiritual rehabilitation are finding their way into corrections.

“It helps to be gender-specific,” says Vivan Nixon, executive director of the College and Community Fellowship, a nonprofit dedicated to helping women with criminal convictions continue their education. “Whenever programs are co-ed, the clients are disproportionately male. It doesn’t look like the real world.” According to Nixon, organizations like the Women’s Prison Association and Greenhope Services for Women provide an environment where women feel comfortable discussing and learning about their problems—and how they can avoid going back to jail.

Drug-related crimes are the most common repeat offense for women, followed by crimes involving theft and property, according to a study published in 2007 by members of the California State University criminal justice department, as a follow up to a Bureau of Justice Statistics examination of almost 25,000 women released nationwide from prison in 1994. Women who had originally been convicted and sentenced for violent crimes were the least likely to recidivate. Once anyone has a criminal record, it becomes a challenge to make headway in some areas of society that constitute essential building blocks to a successful life, such as applying for housing and jobs. Staying afloat can become difficult, and many fall back into bad habits.

“When people feel they have no hope, and can’t see how they can legitimately get a piece of the pie that everyone in society is saying we should have as a part of the American Dream, they’ll find other ways,” says Nixon.

A number of organizations have appeared over the years in an effort to address reentry problems like housing and employment. Groups like New York City’s Center for Employment Opportunity (CEO), one of the biggest transitional reentry programs, provide prisoners getting ready for release with basic job training and networking, as well as linkage to housing and financial aid. The idea behind such programs is that ex-offenders land with their feet on the ground when they begin the reentry process into society.

According to Nixon, however, while such groups have the right intentions, significant hurdles can hamper success. Namely, they often lack the funding to properly follow up with participants once they have completed the program. In addition, the work such programs typically provide are minimum wage jobs that do nothing to promote the self-esteem of the recently released offender.

Beyond this, when it comes to gender-specific programming, groups like CEO are geared mostly towards incarcerated males. Women have been overlooked.

“When developing transitional work models, we can try to be non-sexist and gender neutral, but the reality is there aren’t that many women on the street doing construction and picking up trash,” says Nixon. “If we’re going to have transitional programs, let’s provide a range of experiences.”

In their Women In Prison research project, the Correctional Association of New York indicates the recidivism rate for female offenders in New York State was at 30 percent within 3 years of release, based on a 3 year Department of Corrections follow-up study of prisoners released in 2003, and the female prison population is, indeed, growing. The harsh legislative changes in the 1980s, such as mandatory minimums and the three-strikes law, led to the initial increase in female incarceration, according to Dr. Natalie Sokoloff, a sociology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“It is not so much that the women’s behaviors have gotten different or more violent, it’s that those in power have changed the laws,” says Sokoloff.

As a result, programming has had to catch up to the growing female presence.  Corrections personnel recognize that reducing recidivism amongst women includes taking into account the psychological and auxiliary issues women face that lead them to become addicted to drugs, or to commit other crimes.  A study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse revealed that over 90 percent of women in substance abuse treatment were violently abused by a partner or other intimate, and as many as 95 percent had been raped. Programs also have to address parenting concerns. Many women coming out of prison have lost custody or parental rights over their children, and have to come to terms with the emotional implications of those facts before trying to regain custody. If they still have rights over their children, they have to learn to resist their tendencies in order to be able to stay in their children’s lives.

“It’s really hard with custody—maybe you lost your child, now you get out and you have to find a job and do all this stuff before you can even try to get your child back, but then there are so many laws against you,” says Heather Tubman-Carbone, a PhD candidate in criminal justice at Rutgers University.

Tubman-Carbone recently completed a study for Rutgers on female recidivism in Essex County, New Jersey, in light of the Female Offender Reentry Group Effort (FORGE). The program, which became mandatory for female parolees in 2006, is a gender-specific reentry program implemented by a group of state government agencies.  It provides parole reinforcement to recently released women by helping them with the transition not only in terms of jobs, but also in terms of legal counsel and psychological trauma support. The study reaffirmed that parole supervision is generally considered to reduce recidivism: while women parolees who had not been enrolled in the FORGE program had a recidivism rate of 48 percent over four years, the rate was 66 percent if they were not on parole. If the women were enrolled in FORGE, their recidivism rate dropped to 42 percent. Yet the biggest drop came when the women were not only enrolled in FORGE, but also participated in a monthly support group, available in addition to FORGE, and administered by the Parole Accountability Conference Team, or PACT. When women enrolled in FORGE and attended a monthly support group, their recidivism rate dropped to just 28 percent over four years.

“The different approaches represent different ways of making positive life changes,” says Tubman-Carbone. “Men are more likely to need tangible things such as a job, income, and the ability to say they’re providing for their family to begin seeing themselves as a law-abiding citizen rather than an offender. Conversely, women need the intangibles. Relationships are the keys to such cognitive changes for women. It is in the bonds that women form that they see themselves as valuable or respectable.”

Taveras found those key relationships during an 18-month program at Anchor House, a faith-based rehabilitation center in Brooklyn that separates male and female participants for treatment and therapy. The program gave her a nurturing environment that allowed room for self-reflection and learning, she says. For Taveras, the combined faith-based and gender specific approach seems to have worked. She completed the Anchor House program last August and is still clean.

“I looked at who that person was,” says Taveras. “I looked at that woman in entirety, at the ugliness. I looked at a lot of the ugly things I did and I assessed who that woman was. I didn’t have a picture of who I wanted to be, but I got to a point where I didn’t want to be that person no more.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. EBarb Hariton permalink
    January 27, 2010 4:48 am

    Very interesting article, well written. I never pictured women when I thought about inmates. Somehow prisoners are men in my mind. I realize now that as women attain more freedom in society their opportunities to break the law also increase. This is probably just the beginning of a trend. According to this article however, women still distinguish themselves from men in a female way. They respond to rehabilitation that provides emotional support and are motivated to overcome their antisocial behaviors by concerns for family.

  2. Linda permalink
    January 27, 2010 11:34 pm

    Wow! Very impressive. Well researched and complellingly presented.

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