Women are the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population in the United States, increasing at nearly double the rate of men since 1985 (ACLU 2007). In 1980, there were 12,331 women inmates in the United States and by 1989, this number had risen to 40,566 – an increase of 229% (Bloom, 1993). The most recent Bureau of Justice and Statistics report (December 2008) places that number over three times higher, at 114,852. Texas leads the country with 13,853 women under the jurisdiction of state or federal correctional authorities.
With such an increase in the numbers of women in the system, penal institutions have a great need for gender specific programming that addresses the circumstances surrounding women’s incarceration, which differ significantly from those of their male counterparts. Seventy-five percent of incarcerated women are mothers, typically of two to three children. Seven to ten percent of women are pregnant when they are arrested (FSU, 2005). Ninety percent of woman inmates have experienced interpersonal trauma, seventy four percent have substance abuse problems, and 36% suffer from clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (Daroowalla, 2005). These histories of victimization and trauma strongly affect women’s pathways into incarceration. “Overtness of force upon the women [in prison] ranged from psychological pressure, to provocation, to child corruption, to intimidation or threats, to beatings or physical force. In most instances, it is arguable that the offense would not have occurred had it not been for the direct influence of some sort of victimization” (DeHart, 2004: pp. 19-20).
Since “programs suited for men often fail to address pervasive physical and sexual victimization that has riddled the lives of women in prison” (ibid, p. 5), the programming made available to them must be tailored to their distinct needs. Ana Yáñez-Correa, Executive Director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, calls for more gender-specific programming for women in the criminal justice system. She specifically states the need for programs that include classes on anger management, cognitive thinking, self-esteem reinforcement and trauma recovery (2010: p. 11). Incarcerated women also need access to programs that incorporate education and literacy, as 44% percent of women in state prisons have not graduated from high school or received a GED (O’Brien 2002).
Clean Break, a theatre company in the United Kingdom, has had great success addressing the specific needs of women in prison. Founded in 1979 by two women inmates, Clean Break’s revolutionary approach of using theatre with female ex-offenders to improve communication skills, anger management skills, and literacy shows great promise. Since its inception, Clean Break has grown substantially from a small fringe theatre company to a comprehensive theatre and education center housed in central London. It’s use of theatre as a powerful tool to increase communication, personal and social skills, build confidence and to provide a safe space to explore issues and histories (Rayne Foundation 2008) has resulted in excellent outcomes in improved anger management, communication, literacy, creativity, and technical skills (Clean Break 2008).
Theatre programs in the U.S. offer additional evidence of success. The William James Association found that participants in the Arts In Corrections program in the state of California had 75% fewer disciplinary actions and a 27% lower recidivism rate than the general prison population (2008). A group of inmates who participated in a Rehabilitation Through the Arts theatre program in a New York prison showed a significant decrease in both the frequency of infractions and their severity, when compared to a control group (Moller 2003).
Conspire Theatre, founded in 2009 by Katherine Craft, MA, assists incarcerated women to address gender-specific issues through the use of theatre. Much like Clean Break in London (with whom Ms. Craft trained), Conspire Theatre offers women prisoners a revolutionary and creative approach to healing from trauma, increasing self-esteem, becoming better parents, and improving literacy. In partnership with the PRIDE Program at the Travis County Correctional Complex, Conspire Theatre created and implemented a series of short-term theatre workshops for the women there, with preliminary findings already showing positive results. After the fall, 2009 5-week workshop series, 75% of the participants surveyed reported higher self-confidence, better relationships, higher self-esteem, and better understanding of the effect of the trauma in their lives (Conspire Theatre 2009).
The PRIDE program provides an important partnership for Conspire Theatre. Their mission is “to assist incarcerated Travis County women in building stronger relationships with their children and families. This is accomplished by providing the women with information addressing their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs” (Garringer 2009).
Conspire Theatre’s workshops with women in the PRIDE program at Travis County Correctional Complex (TCCC) help women move from survival mode to possibility. The use of theatre exercises lowers inhibitions and encourages teamwork while engaging with theatrical texts and writing exercises helps with literacy skills. Both by telling their own stories in creative ways and exploring characters very different from themselves, the women are able to approach their problems in an indirect way that safely encourages self-reflection and critical thinking.
Outcomes from the Fall, 2009 series were so positive, that Conspire is expanding its program to offer year-round theatre workshops for the women in the PRIDE Program. This expansion will greatly enhance the program’s effectiveness and scope.
ACLU. (2007) ‘Facts About the Over-incarceration of Women in the United States’. American Civil Liberties Union Website. [online] Available from http://www.aclu.org/womens-rights/facts-aboutover-incarceration-women-united-states (Accessed March 1, 2010).
Bloom, B. (1993) ‘Imprisoned Mothers and Their Children: Maintaining Family Ties’, in The Fourth North American Conference on the Family and Corrections, Family and Corrections Network, Quebec, Quebec City, Canada, Oct 10-12, 1993. [online] Available from http://www.fcnetwork.org/4thnorth/imprison.html (Accessed February 25th, 2010).
Clean Break. (2008) ‘Women and Anger’. [online] Available from
http://www.apcentre.org.uk/research/documents/Women_and_Anger (Accessed February 10, 2010).
Conspire Theatre. (2009). ‘End of Workshop Surveys’. Unpublished.
Daroowalla, A., Green, B., Miranda, J. and Siddique, J. (2005) ‘Trauma Exposure, Mental Health Functioning, and Program Needs of Women in Jail’ in Crime and Delinquency. Vol. 51, Issue 1, pp. 133 – 151.
Florida State University Center for Prevention & Early Intervention Policy. (2005) ‘Incarcerated
Women: Their Histories and Their Children Fact Sheet’. [online] Available from
http://www.cpeip.fsu.edu/resourceFiles/resourceFile_107.pdf (Accessed February 7th, 2010).
O’Brien, P. (2002) ‘Reducing barriers to employment for women ex-offenders: Mapping the road to reintegration’. Chicago: SAFER Foundation. [online] Available from http://www.saferfoundation.org/docs/womenspolicypaper.pdf (Accessed February 25th, 2010).
U.S. Department of Justice. (2009) Bureau of Justice and Statistics Bulletin: Prisoners in 2008.
[online] Available from http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/p08.pdf (Accessed February 15, 2010).
William James Association. (2008) [online] Available from http://www.williamjamesassociation.org/prison_arts.html (Accessed February 5th, 2010).
Yáñez-Correa, A. (2010) ‘Written Testimony Regarding Interim Charge 5 to the House Corrections Committee of the State of Texas’. Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. [online] Available from http://www.criminaljusticecoalition.org/files/userfiles/Charge_5_
_TCJC_Gender_Testimony__FINAL_.pdf (Accessed February 5th, 2010).
Moller, L. (2003) ‘Project Slam: Rehabiliation through Theatre at Sing Sing’. A Study on the
Program: Rehabilitation Through the Arts. Unpublished.