Post #234

1200 words; 5 minutes to read

Audio summary by volunteer law student Hannah Lee

Summary: Women released on parole face many obstacles to building good lives, some of which are a direct result of the parole system itself.

Most of us think that a criminal sentence is over once you are released from prison – as evidenced by the way parole is treated in the media, as equivalent to being ‘free’.  However the time after release can be as difficult or sometimes more difficult than being in prison.

A recent open access paper by Laura McKendy and Rosemary Ricciardelli reinforces this conclusion based on studying the experiences of 43 women following their release from federal prison in Canada.  The study shows the problems faced by women on parole and also gives examples that show how diverse their situations and conditions are.

‘Getting out’ is not easy

The researchers conclude that the multiple stressors of release, combined with layers of social marginality, may render the “pains of release” as equally compromising to (albeit distinct from) those associated with imprisonment… Rather than a straightforward period of progression towards reintegration, and ultimately freedom, we suggest that re-entry can be associated with a new set of pains that bear considerable impacts on parolee well-being.

 Re-entry into the outside world requires not only adjustment to outside norms, routines, and distinct temporal and sensory orientations, but also an array of new practical responsibilities related to social, financial, legal, and health matters. Women straddle two worlds, attempting to move forward with reintegration efforts (e.g. obtaining IDs, finding housing and employment, tending to financial matters) while constrained by the multi-faceted conditions of parole and the effects of a criminalized identity. In many cases, women must make decisions regarding their future under considerable pressure and short timelines (e.g. in preparation for full parole or statutory release). Layers of social marginality often lie on top of changing realities and responsibilities, including factors such as poverty and racism.

Plans are hard to realize

First, prisoners dream of release and often build up plans or even fantasies about what they will do once released.  However once released, they learn how hard it is to do even relatively simple things let alone to change their lives in dramatic ways.

In the early stages of release, women often had ambitious goals, particularly regarding their familial relationships and educational/employment pursuits. However, women’s initial post-release aspirations to live a positive pro-social life are pitted against the structural and interpersonal realities of everyday life in the post-release context.

Spending a long time in prison, where life is highly regimented and restricted, makes it hard for some to cope with the outside world, with its noises, choices, and often what seems like chaos.  The things you learn in prison – to be very careful of others, to mind your own business, to keep your face blank, to watch your back at all times – may work against you in the general community.  Many released prisoners find it difficult to do ordinary aspects of daily life, such as using public transit or going into crowded places.

Changing your life

Release may also call for people to live a very different life.  They may be required to stop associating with family members and former friends.  Even if not prohibited from doing so, those released may recognize that they cannot easily build a crime-free life if they go back into the settings and relationships that led them into trouble in the first place.  Yet giving up fundamental life-time relationships is a very hard thing to do.  For example, one study participant was “at a loss for how to spend her time”, as she was accustomed to criminalized forms of work and remained surrounded by crime-involved family members and associates.

Released prisoners also have the challenge of shame and stigma that can impede their rehabilitation.  They may face or fear rejection from important people in their lives, or in the community, due to their conviction.  Or they may fear applying for jobs or even doing volunteer work lest others find out and shun them – which frequently happens.

Abandoning her previous way of life appeared to precipitate an identity crisis; she felt she “did not know herself” or what she wanted. … her criminalized status resulted in considerable anxiety that she would be “outed”… Efforts to conceal her criminal identity therefore led her to retreat and self-isolate – responses that are counter-productive to reintegration.

Reconnecting with children

Reconnecting with children is often a huge problem for these women.

…participants often expressed that they wanted to reconnect with their children and re-establish mothering identities. However, the social realities of their release, including parole conditions, living circumstances, custody matters and interpersonal issues, could constrain their ability to move forward with their plans. Thus, reconnecting with family (or attempting to) was rarely a straightforward matter bringing about the joy anticipated at release. Instead, women experienced a variety of obstacles that rendered efforts at family reconnection a dubious and stressful undertaking.

There are also many practical challenges.  It can be very hard for former prisoners to find work and housing, often just because they have a criminal record.  Without an income and a stable place to live, it is almost impossible to do any of the other things former prisoners may want to do, such as build a different life or reconnect with families.

Parole restrictions make things difficult

These problems were often made worse by the restrictions these women faced while on parole.  Parole typically comes with many conditions that can include restrictions on where you can live, requirements to find a job or spend your days looking for one, requirements to attend therapy, and restrictions on using alcohol or even being in places where alcohol is served.  Violation of a parole condition, as interpreted by a parole officer, can result in being sent back to prison for a considerable period.

[Many] women had formal release conditions that required them to “actively seek and maintain employment or be involved in full time educational pursuits”. Yet with a criminal record, and often lacking education, experience, and credentials, obtaining employment proved difficult in many cases. When parolee efforts to obtain employment were deemed insufficient, POs sometimes imposed “productivity schedules”, whereby releasees were required to search for employment and/or access employment services for a set number of hours or days per week

…participant 155 was required to engage in six hours of job searching per day, complete volunteer activities or attend an educational program five days a week, attend psychological counselling and complete community correctional programming. Time not devoted to “productive activities” was viewed negatively; for example, her PO felt she was spending too much time with her partner rather than focusing on her future.

Being on parole is hard

The parolees, on the other hand, might feel that all the conditions and restrictions were making it very difficult for them to live.

As with everything in the criminal justice system, these problems are generally worse for women who come from marginalized backgrounds or some minority groups – including especially Indigenous people, who make up a huge proportion of Canada’s women prisoners.

Being on parole is not at all like being ‘free’.