The purpose of this study is to try to understand the lives of women in a prison institution. Societal factors are explored in order to discover if there are issues that contribute to oppress some women in our society causing them to be more likely to commit crime. Specifically, I focus on societal issues such as abuse, addiction, education level and socioeconomic standing. Further, this research delves into the rehabilitation process offered at the Black Mountain Correctional Center for Women in an attempt to find how the inmates feel about the rehabilitative programs offered at the prison.



Startled, I looked up from my notes when I heard “One...two...three...” as the women counted themselves off as they filed into the dining room. They were all dressed the same, they all looked alike. There was no individuality, only conformity. With a puzzled expression, they looked over at me. I felt a lump in my throat. This was the first time I had ever been inside a prison. September 28, 2004 was the first time I had ever been to the Black Mountain Correctional Center for Women. This was the first day I encountered my participants face to face.

This research attempts to link reasons why women take part in crime to oppression and structural injustice. To understand oppression in the United States, I looked to the definition offered by Barker (2003) in The Social Work Dictionary. Oppression is defined as:

The social act of placing severe restrictions on an individual, group, or institution. Typically, a government or political organization that is in power places these restrictions formally or covertly on oppressed groups so that they may be exploited and less able to compete with other social groups. The oppressed individual or group is devalued, exploited, and deprived of privileges by the individual or group who has more power (p. 306-307).         


In other words, oppression can be a form of degrading and inhumane treatment of an individual or group because of a specific characteristic that socially defines the group or individual (Dalrymple and Burke, 1995). Katherine van Wormer (2004) discusses various images of oppression:

Oppression takes many forms. It can occur when one race or group of people exploits and suppresses another race or ethnic group; it can affect whole families and classes of people who are economically oppressed by the system; it can occur within the family, taking the form of gender violence as well as child abuse and neglect. Membership in a disempowered group has personal as well as political ramifications (p. 3). 


On the other hand, a non-oppressive society is one where all members are treated and considered as being equal, they have equal rights concerning politics, resources, education and employment (Gil, 1998). 

Structural injustice is part of the “consequences of societal patterns of domination, exploitation, and hierarchy, and of value systems stressing inequality and competition that sustain these patterns” (van Wormer, 2004, p. vi). Inequal- ities within the power structure of society and the ideologies that reinforce them is where oppression stems from (van Wormer, 2004).   

This research explains how such structural injustices and oppression are factors causing people to be more likely to take part in crime. For example, Harrington (1962) addresses how under conditions of oppression, values and norms arise in a suitable fashion to survival in society. He goes on to explain, as members of society come to see themselves as outcasts and rejects, their hopes of becoming part of the prosperous society diminishes. Thus, people who believe that they will not or do not belong within society can be harmful to society (Harrington, 1962).       


Rising Rates of Incarceration and Procedure of Incarceration

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), females accounted for more than one out of five of the nations total arrests. The incarceration rate for women rose abruptly from 1990 to 1999. In 1990 there were 44,065 women within the prison system and by 1999 the number rose to 90,668. Drug and alcohol use, unemployment, a history of abuse, incomplete education, economic hardships, tougher substance abuse sentencing guidelines, and a higher violence level amongst women are factors that have caused this shift (Curry, 2001 and Daly, 1994).

Many women prisoners are first time drug offenders and victims of the War on Drugs and the move toward mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Women drug offenders commonly receive longer sentence than the drug dealing men that they may be involved with (Stodghill, 1999).

Other primary variables that have led to the increased levels of incarceration of women are economic marginalization, the connection between drugs and crime, and increased social control. Most women in prisons are poor, drug addicts or alcoholics, and have mental or emotional health issues. The crimes they commit are often related to a crisis or a long-term disadvantage. They commit these crimes to generate income to support alcohol and drug addictions, to buy food and clothing for children, or to pay bills (Girshick, 1999).

The percentage of incarcerated mothers (women who already have children upon incarceration) rose by 60 percent in the 1990’s and affected one out of 50 children in 1999. One in every 20 female inmates is pregnant among admission to prison (Enos, 2001). The BJS also provides the researcher with an example of the “typical woman criminal.” The average monthly income of women before incarceration is less than $600. They are often victims of sexual or physical abuse and were brought up in single parent households (Curry, 2001).                

Prison overcrowding is a common phenomenon across the United States. Problems such as poor health care and violence persists within our prison walls (Herman, 2001). Health care for incarcerated women is unequally distributed, especially throughout prisons in smaller states (Curry, 2001). The incidence of HIV among women inmates is 50 percent higher than among males and the prevalence of mental illness is more than twice as high among women than men (Cordilia, 2001).

Each woman who becomes incarcerated in North Carolina with a felony charge first goes to the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh (from now on referred to as Raleigh). Her stay at Raleigh could be as short as one night and as long as several years. Raleigh houses over a thousand women and many problems. The prison is overcrowded and noisy; there are long lines, poor health care; and it is common that the cafeteria runs out of food (Girshick, 1999).

There is a progression of changes in one’s sense of self when entering prison. This change happens at the beginning of incarceration and lasts throughout the sentence. Goffman (1959) calls this phenomenon the “moral career” of the inmate. The first step occurs during the strip search; the new inmate is literally stripped of any character trait that makes her unique. She is given a state issued uniform and has to give up any personal belongings. The next stage is denial. She will deny that she is a prisoner and will keep to herself. Stage three is character- ized by “learning the ropes.” During this stage, the inmate will begin to learn the social structure inside the prison. The fourth stage is learning how to “do time.” This stage is characterized as learning how to deal with being bored, having no privacy and adapting to a trite schedule. Fear of being denied parole marks the fifth stage. The inmate experiences disappointments over failed hopes; she sees the system as lacking all fairness. The sixth stage involves getting a release date. The inmate becomes paranoid that a factor beyond her control could impede her release. The last stage is getting out of prison and becoming a non-inmate again. She has to rebuild her sense of self and relationships (p. 14).                  

            As of March 26, 2005 there were 182,101 federal inmates. 169, 725 or 93.2 percent are male and 12, 376 or 6.8 percent are female. Drug offence accounts for 53.8 percent of the crimes committed. However, by Thursday, April 21, 2005, the number of federal inmates rose from 182, 101 to 183, 275. This mean that within 26 days 1,174 people became incarcerated within federal prisons (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2005). As of March 30, 2005, there were 1,353 white female inmates and 1,136 black female inmates in North Carolina state prisons. Also, there were 11,218 white male inmates and 20,403 black male inmates in North Carolina state prisons. A total of 32,452 males and females are incarcerated within the North Carolina state prison system (North Carolina Department of Correction, 2005). In June 2004, the nationwide number of inmates incarcerated in federal and state prisons and local jails totaled 2,131,180. This number represents 486 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents. There are 103,310 women incarcerated in state and federal prisons, and increase of 2.9 percent from 2003 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2005). These numbers are astonishing. Even though the incarceration rate for women seems minute when compared with the men’s rate of incarceration, the rate of incarceration for women is growing faster than ever before. Actions need to be taken to stop oppression and structural injustice of all members of society, only then can equality prevail forcing the incarceration rate to drop.     


Theoretical background

            There are many theories that attempt to explain gendered crime patterns. Male criminologists have generally developed theories that attempt to explain male crimes. Therefore, a principle question that must be asked while developing these theories is, can female crime be explained by theories used to deal with male crime (Steffensmeier and Allen, 1996)?  

Gender Equality Theory

The gender equality hypothesis is one theory used to explain how equality is related to crime. This theory suggests that as equality among men and women becomes greater, women who see themselves as equal to men will feel more masculine and have a greater “taste for risk.” Therefore, females will take part in more crime. In other words, as gender equality becomes greater in society, women are more likely to commit crimes (Steffenmeier and Allen, 1996). 

Gender Entrapment Theory

However, the gender entrapment theory opposes this viewpoint. This theory argues that a woman’s position in society is socially constructed based on the few options that she is permitted to explore due to the fact that she is a female in a patriarchal society. Women’s lives are constrained even when she tries to conform-to raise children, build relationships and find steady employment. She tries to meet the demands of life, but she is only allowed a few choices and thus, she becomes entrapped. This entrapment can cause the woman to feel the need to commit crimes in order for her to meet her needs and the demands of her family (Girshick, 1999).

Women are socialized and trained to be submissive towards men and taught that “fighting back [is] unladylike” (Girshick, 1999, p. 56). It is evident in everyday life that women must heed to safety precautions and negotiations in order to try to stop male dominated violence from happening to them. Such precautions include, not going out to certain areas at night and not walking or living alone (Girshick, 1999).

Power-Control Theory

            A similar theory to the gender equality theory is the power control theory. This theory suggests that greater gender equality causes women to commit more crime. This theory suggests that freedom is a variable that causes more crime among women because they have more access to and participation in public life. This theory received little attention until after the women’s movement in the 1970’s. Feminist criminologists suggested that the higher level of female crime involvement was due to the higher level of gender equality, which was a result of the women’s movement (Steffensmeier and Allen, 1996). 

However, challenges to the gender equality hypotheses have been on the rise. Equality among the sexes has not been greater in past decades (Steffenmeier and Allen, 1996). For example, men are still receiving higher wages than women for the same type of work. The fact that women have not been able to achieve equality with men is the leading factor that disproves theories that discuss that the women’s movement has created more opportunity for women to commit crime, or influenced females to disrespect law abiding behavior. Feminism does not encourage a woman’s delinquency, and, if anything, it has a negative influence on it. Women who believe in equality and equal rights have a lesser involvement in crime than those women with a more traditional gender role background (Girshick, 1999).

Feminist Theory

Girshick (1999) uses a feminist perspective to conduct her research. An important concept of this perspective is that it refuses to recognize the male standard as the fundamental basis for every human experience, value or motivation. This theory takes the situations of every woman seriously and from the woman’s point of view. Girshick (1999) writes:

In studying female offenders, we begin with women’s experiences and work with them to formulate an understanding of their lives, taking into account the social construction of gender and the larger social forces of race and class that are the context of their lives. As we understand more about the social worlds of women, criminal justice policies can take into account the relationships between crime, women’s victimization, racism, and economic marginality (p. 26).


Moreover, higher career ambitions are more common among women who have feminist values; they are less involved in sex and more involved in school. Society needs to be more supportive of girls in school and positively reinforce their career aspirations (Girshick, 1999).

Gender Inequality Theory

The gender inequality theory is in opposition to the gender equality theory and power control theory. This is a feminist theory that explains that sex plays a leading role determining why, how and who commits crimes. Women are not secure, safe or respected inside or outside of prison, and the understanding of gender inequality helps one to realize why this is so (Girshick, 1999). The gender inequality hypothesis explains that gender inequality causes oppression and oppression causes females to commit crime (Steffenmeier and Allen, 1996).

            According to this position, patriarchy defines our culture (Girshick, 1999). Steffenmeier and Allen (1996) write, “patriarchal power relations shape gender differences in crime, pushing women into crime through victimization, role entrapment, economic marginality and survival needs” all of which are forms of oppression (p. 470).

Poverty and discrimination are causal factors in determining what population of women commits crime (Steffenmeier and Allen, 1996). Poverty is a main reason that women commit crimes; it is also a determining factor of the patriarchal oppression women receive in this society. Girshick (1999) notes:

Women, who commit more nonviolent crimes, are paying disproportionately for society’s response to violent offenders, who are primarily men... Attempts at equal treatment cannot yield fair treatment because women and men are different in their societal resources, degrees of economic marginalization, family circumstances, rates of victimization, and gender norms and expectations. When held to a male standard, women will always lose (p. 24).


Social Structure Theory

The gender inequality theory relates to how women’s oppression is a central force causing them to commit crimes. However, it discusses little about how social structure and injustice are involved in women based crime. The social structure theory focuses on the socioeconomic standing of an individual, suggesting that poor members of society commit a greater number of crimes because they can not achieve social or financial success in society in a legitimate fashion. “Consequently, they seek success through deviant methods”  (Hickey, 2002, p. 88).

Social Process Theory

            This theory explains that behavior is formed through a socialization process. Thus, criminal behavior is learned through the socialization process. Hickey (2002) explains how this theory relates to crime:

This includes a host of sociopsychological interactions by the offender with institutions and social organizations. Offenders may turn to crime as a result of peer group pressure, family problems, poor school performance, legal entanglements, and other situations that gradually steer them to criminal behavior (p. 90).  


When using this theory it is best to study the offenders past to see how and for what means they committed crimes. If the offender has a history of mental abuse or neglect, has witnessed family violence, or other forms of traumatization, they are likely to internalize these feelings and act out by committing deviant acts and crime (Hickey, 2002).

The theories used to carry out my research are the gender inequality theory and a combination of the social process theory and the social structure theory. I believe these to be the best theories for several reasons. First, these theories are categorized within the realm of feminism.  A main objective of feminism is to listen to the life stories of the women and to take what they say seriously. Also, a goal of feminist theory is that it tries to minimize status inequalities between participant and researcher (Esterberg, 2002). The gender inequality theory, which explains that greater gender inequality creates more female-based crime, is also relevant to my research. In most of the literature I have reviewed, this theory seems more commonly used and most appropriate for my research. Also, as I have listened to the stories of the inmates, it is evident that their gender inequalities, which are a form of oppression, have played a role in their incarceration. Finally, a combination of the social structure and social process theory were used to carry out my study. I combined these two theories to create a more inclusive approach. From the social structure theory I borrowed the idea that offenders are blocked from attaining their ideal of economic and social success through various social structural injustices. Social process theories allow me to use the idea that criminal behavior is learned through a socializing process. The more a person is socialized though means of structural injustices and oppressive forces, the more likely they will be to take part in crime.        



The main strategy I employ for carrying out this research involves in depth interviews. First, however, a woman that works in the administrative office called the inmates to a meeting to discuss the research project. She then signed the inmates up who were interested in participating. All of the inmates who signed up met with me for an introduction of the project. The introductory meeting was held the morning of Saturday, February 19, 2005. There were fourteen inmates at this initial meeting. I discussed in detail the nature of my research and the inmates’ questions and concerns were addressed. The procedure of the interview process and the formality of the consent form were explained. After the meeting, all fourteen of the inmates signed up. Also, four other inmates at different times asked me if they could take part in my research, all were signed up and interviewed. In total, eighteen inmates signed up to take part in my research and were interviewed.

Out of the eighteen women all were white except two who were black. However, this racial percentage is not consistent within the prison population. At Black Mountain, 45 percent of the inmates are black, another 45 percent are white, and the remaining ten percent are of Hispanic or Native American decent. The participant’s age ranged from 22 to 49, the majority are between the ages of 25 and 35 years old. All of the women except four of them live in North Carolina. Other states where participants live are Maryland, Georgia, New Hampshire and Ohio. Most of the participants are incarcerated on charges relating to drugs, which usually carries a six to eight month sentence. Most of women incarcerated on drug charges used, sold or made drugs. Other participants are incarcerated for obtaining property illegally or forging check to support their drug habits. Finally, other charges not relating to drugs include: parole violations, breaking and entering, forging and credit fraud (not to buy drugs).     

I conducted interviews at The Black Mountain Correctional Center for Women from February 21, 2005 to March 28, 2005. All interviews (except one) were conducted in the multipurpose room. The multi-purpose room is a large room that is used as a dining room, a chapel and used for other activities. The remaining interview was conducted in the library. The library is a much better place to conduct interviews; it is more intimate and less noisy than the multi-purpose room. However, I had no choice in the matter of deciding where interviews would take place. All of the interviews were supposed to be conducted in the multi-purpose room because there is a small window from the sergeant’s office that looks directly into the multipurpose room. I was to sit in the room where an officer could easily see the interviews as they took place through that window. The officers could not hear the interviewee’s responses and they never interfered with the process. The officers were generally very helpful throughout the entirety of the research.

The officers on duty were informed every day when I had one or more interviews scheduled. I had to sign in every time I came to the prison to conduct interviews on the visitor sign in sheet. I would generally arrive a few minutes prior to the scheduled interview times and set up in the multi-purpose room. When I was ready, the officer would call the inmate to be interviewed via an intercom system from the sergeant’s office. I would meet her in the hallway and together we would go into the multipurpose room.

The interviews generally lasted for approximately an hour. However, some were as long as two hours and as short as thirty minutes. None of the interviews were tape-recorded; rather I took detailed notes. All of the inmates’ names have been changed to protect their privacy and to further ensure confidentiality. After all of the interviews were completed, they were coded in order to find any common themes. The analysis was conducted in a thematic fashion.

 I gained access to the Black Mountain Correctional Center for Women through the Human Subject Review Committee of the Department of Correction in Raleigh and through the Institutional Review Board of Warren Wilson College. I submitted a proposal (similar to the Warren Wilson College application to use human subjects in a research project) and my interview questions to the Human Subjects Review Committee for them to review to make sure that my research would be done in a harmless and confidential manner. After a few submissions, I gained permission to conduct research with a number of restrictions. First, I was prohibited from tape-recording the interviews with the inmates. Second, I was prohibited from distributing surveys to the inmates. Finally, a number of my research questions were edited to make them more ethical and/or to cause less emotional stress to the inmates. At first, I thought these restrictions would somehow be damaging to my research. However, the restrictions helped me to organize my research in a simpler manner; and the Raleigh Human Subjects Review Committee’s suggestions were quite helpful.  



            My research was conducted at the Black Mountain Correctional Center for Women (from now on the prison will be referred to as Black Mountain.) The prison is located in the town of Black Mountain, a few miles east of Asheville. Black Mountain’s web site (1995) describes that, “the prisons two-story building sits on a seven acre tract. There are no fences, bars or gates that surround the facility.” Originally the Department of Human Resources of Black Mountain owned the building. It was turned over to the Department of Correction and in 1986 it was renovated and began operating as a women’s prison. Over $400,000 was given by the General Assembly in 1993 for the construction of the multi- purpose building that was completed four year later. The building serves as a dining room, administrative and worship space (North Carolina Department of Correction, 1995). Also, the sergeant’s office is located in this building. The sergeant’s office is where any guests, volunteers or other visitors sign in and out. Outside, there are picnic tables, a volleyball net and a paved track where the inmates are allowed to socialize and exercise.

            The inmates are housed in a separate two-story building. They sleep four to a room. In addition to the inmate’s dorm-style rooms, the canteen, laundry, lounge area, clinic, officer’s offices and a library are located here.

There are up to eighty women incarcerated at Black Mountain at all times. Most of the women here have come from the Raleigh prison, but some are here from Fountain and North Piedmont.  Most of them are here for good behavior and their sentence has to be five years or less.


Data / Findings

            The below material is arranged in five categories: abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, education and socioeconomic standing. These five categories reflect specific findings that have emerged throughout my research when interviewing the women in prison. An astounding number of women have been victims of childhood, adolescent or domestic abuse. Further, it is common for the women in this study to grow up with alcoholic parents. Also, the majority of women that are incarcerated have been addicted to drugs. In addition, most of the women incarcerated in this study have not completed high school. And finally, women who are incarcerated generally live below the poverty level in the United States. All of these factors are a result from oppression and are fully or partially explan- atory reasons for why these women have taken part in committing crime. However, there is no guarantee that because a woman is a drug addict, had alcoholic parents, has not received a high school diploma, lives below the poverty level and has been abused during her life, that she will take part in crime. These findings suggest then, that women suffering from these issues and problems are more prone to committing crime and are more likely to receive prison sentences than women who have been fortunate to have never experienced such misfortunes.

            As I have stated previously, I used a general feminist perspective when I interviewed the inmates. Also, social process and social structure theories were used in order to relate crime to oppression and structural injustices. Further, the gender inequality theory was used to relate to how gender inequality, a form of structural injustice caused the inmates to feel oppressed thus, causing them to be more likely to take part in crime. Finding such results, that the majority of women have, indeed, been oppressed at a time or throughout their entire lives and have been victims of structural injustice directly relates to this approach.



            Aggressive behavior is a common theme in the study of abused children. Starting as young as preschool age, abused children show more aggression towards their schoolmates than children who are not abused. When abused children reach school age their aggression seems to become stronger, they are more violent, and commonly act out through yelling, hitting and by being destructive. To teachers and peers this disruptive behavior can be mistaken for immaturity, low competence, and antisocial behavior causing further rejection to the abused child (Wolfe, 1987).

            It is likely that violent behavior may manifest into the adolescent life of the abused child. Abusive and inconsistent parenting behaviors interfere with the ability of the child to develop normal self control and social competence causing the child to act out and commonly start to use drugs and alcohol (Wolfe, 1987 and Wilson, 1982).

There are many reasons why women abuse substances, however, women who were abused as children are far more likely than non-abused women to become drug users as adults (Russell, 1986). Drug dependent women and women with severe emotional problems are likely to have been victims of abuse as a child (Rew, 1989). Specifically, women who were incestuously abused as a child are more likely than non-abused women to abuse substances as adults (Kaufman, 1985). Further, many abused girls develop behavioral and personality patterns, particularly low self esteem issues, that cause them to become prime candidates as substance abusers (Hart, Mader, Griffith and Demendonca, 1989).

            In my study, ten out of the eighteen women who were interviewed were abused at some point in their life; seven were abused as children the remaining three were abused during late adolescence or adulthood. Six out of the seven women who were abused as a child are incarcerated for drug charges and started using drugs during their adolescents. According to Kandel, Treiman, Faust and Single (1976) using drugs as an adolescent is the norm, however, factors that mediate this experimentation from becoming an abuse later in life is self protection and good family interaction, all are lacking in abused girls. A common explanation for drug experimentation turning into drug dependency is that the abused girl will have a low self esteem and as a result she may use drugs more heavily to cover up the pain and reduce her feelings of isolation (Singer, Petchers and Hussey, 1989). In fact, this was a common issue within my research for both girls who were abused at an early age and women who were abused later in their lives. Below is an example of how abuse lead Helen to use more drugs:

 Helen told me that her ex-boyfriend physically abused her. This would cause her to use more drugs and alcohol in order for her to “hide the pain.” The abuse caused her to feel “worthless” and “powerless.”


            Abuse is a social problem that functions to keep children, specifically female children powerless. Females blame themselves for the abuse, and society generally agrees with them. As a consequence, feelings of victimization and powerlessness are the result (Barrett and Trepper, 1991). Experiencing the feeling of powerlessness is an overwhelming an often devastating occurrence. It can cause the abused women to have poor judgment, do poorly in school, act irrationally and make poor decisions. Thus, abuse can cause women to be more likely to take part in criminal activity (Girshick, 1999). For example, the following case shows how abuse caused Mandy to feel a sense of powerlessness and victimization:

Mandy told me she was gang raped in school when she was in 10th grade. Ten boys asked her to go to the “old gym” with them. She thought that the boys liked her and just wanted to talk to her. When they got her into the gym, they forced her to perform sexual acts to them. She told her mother and the school principal found out. The boys never received any punishment, but Mandy’s mother punished her.


People that have been victimized come to see the world though negative lenses. Female victimization is blame that is placed on women for crimes that are committed against them. Abused women in particular do not have the same freedom to make decisions and choices. Most women prisoners are dealing with a history of childhood sexual or physical abuse as well as being abused as adults (Girshick, 1999).

Having experienced such an incredibly horrendous act and then getting blamed for it demonstrates a failure in our society. Until there is adequate education about abuse and rape, how can we expect victims to understand that it is not their fault when society blames them for such crimes? Philippe Bourgois (1999) adds, “Rape runs rampant around us, and it is as if society maintains a terrifying conspiracy of silence that enforces this painful dimension of the oppression of women in everyday life” (p. 208).   

Psychological problems that are the result of child abuse may lead to long term developmental problems that may persist into adulthood (Wolfe, 1987). The following case is an example of this issue:

 Tina was abused as a newborn. Her mother was thirteen when she was born and her grandparents already had over a dozen children to take care of and they didn’t want, nor could they afford another one. She was only allowed one diaper and one bottle a day; and her weight dropped to one pound; she almost died from malnutrition. A friend of the family took Tina and raised her as if she was her own child. However Tina feels that she never had a childhood. She got married when she was thirteen to a drunk and abusive husband. She was never allowed to do anything or go anywhere. She lost her job because her husband would show up drunk and belligerent. He would bring other women home and have sex with them right in front of her and the children. She felt powerless and did not know what or how to get him to stop this behavior. She did not leave because she thought it would make matters worse. She never learned how to read or write; and had a low self-esteem and no self worth.


In addition to developmental problems, abuse can lead to long term psychological problems as well (Wolfe, 1987). The below story is an extreme example of how abuse caused psychological problems:

Donna was sexually molested by her cousin and her half brother when she was an adolescent. Also, her husband mentally, physically and sexually abused her. In fact, her husband beat her so badly he caused her to have a miscarriage on two separate occasions. Then, her daughter’s drunken boyfriend tried to rape her. This caused her to have a “complete mental breakdown.” She finds it most difficult to recall past experience. When she was being treated, she did not even remember having children.


Abused children and adolescents are not given any respect; as a result, they may not develop self-respect. If they do not respect themselves, abusing substances and indulging in criminal activity may be the result. Another factor of abuse has to do with violence. As the social process theory suggests, if a child is socialized through violent measures, he or she may imitate this behavior and become violent him or herself. 

            It is a common perception that if abuse occurs during childhood, the abused child may go on to become an abused adult, or the abuser, and so the cycle continues (Wolfe, 1987). Four of the seven women who were abused as a child or adolescent went on to be victims of domestic violence. In this study, some of the women who were victims of domestic violence did not know what to do or felt powerless to stop the abuse or thought that is was natural to get beat by boyfriends or spouses because abuse had been happening to them throughout their lives. For example,

Sandra, a victim of domestic violence said, “I just assumed that it was natural, I mean, I didn’t like it, but I didn’t know what to do about it.”


Another woman did divorce her abusive husband but before the divorce she tried to cover the abuse up:

Nancy had been living with her abusive husband for quite some time. She didn’t like the abuse, but she was ashamed to tell anyone because she thought they would think that she did something wrong. When Nancy’s husband joined the military, she thought that the abuse would stop, but it just got worse. She left him shortly after this.


Mandy, whose husband introduced her to cocaine, was also a victim of wife abuse.

            She had to support herself, her husband and their child. The abuse led to her addiction to strengthen because she felt that when that when she was high everything would be okay. However her addiction, the result of an abusive relationship, was a key factor that caused her to lose her son, lose her relationship with her mother and caused her to commit a stream of robbery and forging checks which, in turn, led to her incarceration. She concluded, “Drugs turned me into a bad, mean person.”


                        Due to the overwhelming number of child abuse and domestic violence in the United States, it is safe to suggest that abuse is the result of societal failure. Harsher laws must be put on offenders and law enforcement must stop minimizing domestic violence issues. Abuse causes oppression and is also an action that causes structural injustice to thrive within society. When women are abused they become victims of structural injustices and are further oppressed; their gender inequalities are brought out to the surface. Further, abused women could be socialized through means of violence and oppression, this can cause her to act in deviant ways and commit crimes.       



Shaw (1982) reports that “alcohol is a potentially dangerous drug which can cause addiction and considerable disruption to drinkers and their families. Excessive drinking can lead to marital disharmony, crime, difficulties at work and a host of social, psychological and physical problems” (p. 56). Children of alcoholics’ experience a wide range of psychological problems, which are likely to cause some disruption of their life as a child, and may last into their adulthood. It is difficult for children with alcoholic parents to make friends or to maintain close personal relationships. Without an outlet to express their emotions, children may act out these feelings in disruptive ways, often causing the child to be more likely to get involved in criminal activities, or to become withdrawn from society (Wilson, 1982). Aggressive behavior, truancy, hyperactivity, poor performances in school and delinquency are among the most common problems that children of alcoholics portray (Wilson, 161-162).

            It is no surprise then, that in this study, eight of the eighteen women who are incarcerated grew up in alcoholic families or had excessive alcohol around them in some means growing up. The below case in particular displays how Mary’s alcoholic mother was a direct factor in causing the inmate to take part in crime at a young age which eventually caused her to become incarcerated:

 When Mary was five years old, her mother tried to kill herself by shooting herself in the chest. However, this attempt was unsuccessful, but the bullet had lodged itself into her back and as a result, she was unable to support her children financially. When Mary was about nine years old, her parents got divorced due to her mother’s excessive drinking (among other marital disharmonies). She and her two sisters continued to live with their mother. Mary’s mother made her steal to get food and clothing for her family. Mary was also forced to beg for change so she could get her mother alcohol. She did poorly in school because she had to take care of her mother and sisters and because her mother would stay up all night drinking. She started smoking marijuana and ran away when she was 15. Her mother died from alcohol at around the same time Mary went to a rehabilitation hospital. At the hospital, her counselors told her that she was partly responsible for her mother’s death because she enabled her mother to drink.  After she got out of the hospital she moved in with her father who was also an alcoholic; he died a few years later from an incurable disease. She went to a detention center and then to foster care, and then she ran away. Throughout these tragic events, her habit of stealing grew stronger. She got pregnant and wanted to be a good mother. She said, “I know the difference between right and wrong, but I had a bad habit. It landed me in prison.” She was charged with breaking and entering when she broke into a school and stole a computer and various school supplies because she said she wanted her children to have something nice for Christmas.


Other participants with alcoholic parents said that they did not get to live a normal childhood or adolescent life. Rachel’s story below describes what happened in her life when her father’s drinking got out of control:

When Rachel’s family moved away from the farm and closer to the city, “everything started to get bad.” Two of her brother’s were shot as a result of a dispute over a woman. One brother died and the other lost his leg because the gunshot wound got infected. Her father’s drinking increased and he started to abuse his wife (Rachel’s mother). Around the same time, Rachel started to use drugs and alcohol. She ran away from home and quit school when she was fourteen. 


Many of the women in the study who had alcoholic parents were forced to take up more responsibility than children without alcoholic parents. Wilson (1982) claims that when parental roles dissolve (what commonly happens when one or both parents are alcoholics) another member of the family is forced to take up these roles in order for the family to function normally. These roles typically fall upon the children and cause the child to become overburdened and stressed thus, causing emotional and behavioral problems which may manifest into taking part in crime (Wilson, 1982).

Alcohol abuse is a social as well as health problem in the United States that unfairly effects children. If is difficult for children of alcoholics to find information regarding help for parents and for themselves. Children of alcoholics are more prone to do poorly in school, suffer from psychological, emotional and developmental problems. These problems can last well into adulthood, causing women to become oppressed and more likely to commit crimes.


Drug Addiction

 Drug related offences are common for women in prison. There are many repercussions of being a drug addict. It is harder to keep a steady job, look over children and make clear decisions. Supporting a drug habit can become expensive and finding money through means other than work is sometimes necessary to maintain the intake of drugs (Girshick, 1999).

Twelve out of the eighteen interviewees are incarcerated for charges relating to drugs. Seven of the women used, sold or made drugs, the other five forged checks or obtained property in order to support their drug habit. All but two of the participants used drugs during their adolescence or in early adulthood and were introduced to drugs by their boyfriends or spouses. Further, only four of the twelve women incarcerated on charges related to drugs were not abused during their childhood or adolescents.

            When addicts are dependent on drugs, decision-making capabilities are altered and they are focused mostly on obtaining more drugs. There are many reasons for why people use drugs. They may want to fit in with the group, use drugs as a means of escape or simply enjoy being high. However, once addicted, the need to obtain more drugs is given a higher priority over many other things in the addict’s life (Chesney-Lind and Rodrigues, 1983). The below story is an example of how Betty’s drug addiction and dependency took priority over her children’s needs:

Betty has received a habitual charge, which carries a six to eight year mandatory sentence. This is the fourth time she has been caught with crack or forged checks to support her habit. Betty used to stay out late with her young children while she would buy and smoke crack. She feels extremely guilty about this now, but she claimed that her addiction was so strong that every thing else seemed secondary.


Depending on the severity of the addiction, the addict may not be able to sufficiently care for her children, keep a job or cope normally with daily life. “Drug-related crimes may produce not only the drugs needed but extra money as well providing an additional incentive” (Girshick, 1999, p.61). The below story is an example of how Amy’s drug dependency caused her to lose her job:

Amy started using meth amphetamine. She got addicted to it and this caused her to lose her job and led to her incarceration. She could not function at her job. She was always in need of more meth. Her and her husband started making it and eventually they smoked it with her son who was sixteen at the time. She also feels guilty about introducing drugs to her son; she feels as if she neglected him. She said, “I should have never done it, all the respect…authority went away.”  Now she, her son and her husband are incarcerated.


Other women in this study partook in criminal activity in order to obtain more drugs: 

Helen lived with her aunt since she was a child. She became addicted to crack. She finally ended up stealing $8,000 from her aunt (whom she loved and cared about) to support her habit.


Mandy robbed a chain of gas stations to obtain money to buy more crack.


Drug related offences are the majority of crimes that are responsible for the women in this study to become incarcerated. It is no surprise that abuse survivors are more likely to use drugs than non-abused women because they have been victims of structural injustice and oppression. Further, drugs more commonly used my minorities such as crack carries a heavier sentence than cocaine, a purer form of the drug, used more commonly by Caucasians (Sheldon, 2001). Drug use and the consequence of addiction can lead to incarceration.  



Another interesting, however not surprising, finding is that only five out of the eighteen women I interviewed completed high school. Fewer than 20 percent of all North Carolina inmates (male and female) convicted on felony charges are able to read at a twelfth grade level. 75 percent do not have a high school diploma (Lichtenstein and Kroll 1996).

Incomplete education holds women back from being able to get better paying jobs that high school and college graduates may receive. Thus, they may be more tempted to commit crimes such as stealing or selling drugs to make money to support themselves and their children. The below story relates to education and crime:

Regina quit school in the seventh grade and got pregnant when she was fifteen. Without and education, she was unable to find a legitimate job to support herself and her child. She started writing bad checks and breaking into cars to steal money.


Many of the women who quit school also got pregnant at an early age, which further hinders their chances for finding a good job and creating a stable family life.

            When born into conditions that do not encourage intellect and interpersonal experiences necessary for achievement in a success-oriented society, children are doomed. The child may develop a sense of frustration, which can alienate him or her from conventional expectations and roles. They may turn to delinquent groups in order to fit in and take part in illegal activities. 


Socioeconomic Standing

            I never asked the inmates detailed question involving their socioeconomic standing. However, it is evident throughout other literature on crime and women that women with lower socioeconomic standing are disproportionately represented in prison populations.

Sidel (1996) reports that the majority of people living in poverty in the United States are women and children. In 1993, nearly 15 million women or 37 percent of all people eighteen and older fell below the poverty level in the United States. More then three-quarters of all U.S. citizens living in poverty were women.

Girshick (1999) writes:

The typical female offender, being nonwhite, poor, and a single parent, is victimized by society. She is expected to work to support herself and her children and to be a good parent; when she finds these expectations impossible to fulfill and resorts to crime, she is punished. Yet no assistance was forthcoming to help her meet the expectations of family care. She has discovered a catch-22 (p. 22).


As the social structure theory suggests, people who have a low socioeconomic standing may partake in criminal involvement if a person is blocked by some means of obtaining financial and social success legitimately. All of the crimes in this study other than drug charges (and the one woman who was sentenced because she violated her probation) had to do with generating income. The money was probably used to help support families and the women themselves. Poverty causes powerlessness and is linked to structural injustices and patriarchal oppression.


Rehabilitation and Plans for Release

The rehabilitation process in prisons across the United States has been under scrutiny for decades. Joel Olson (1996) comments, “packing in more and more bodies inside their walls is what prisons do; rehabilitating lost souls in order to return them to society is not” (p. 40). Not only has the rehabilitation process failed, prisons harvest criminality by dumping decent people into an oppressive environment (Olson, 1996).

However, this was not always the case. During the 1960’s many innovative rehabilitative programs were founded in order to help break the cycle of crime. Some programs included job training and providing wages for ex-inmates to help them make their transition back into society as smooth as possible. However, with the Reagan Administration in the early 1980’s came a massive rise in state and federal budget cuts, which effected rehabilitation programs across the United States (Lichlenstein and Kroll, 1996). 

In 1982 the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) was created, but it failed o list ex-prisoners as a target group. “As a result, increased numbers of destitute and unskilled prisoners were dumped into the already glutted secondary labor market. Scarce low-paying jobs were their only alternative to the temptations of drug dealing and other crimes” (Lichlenstein and Kroll, 1996, p. 27).


The rehabilitation process at Black Mountain is definitely lacking efficient programs. However, Black Mountain does offer a number of programs to help break drug and alcohol addiction, such as, Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Treatment (DART), Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). Ethics and Cognitive Behavior are two classes that are taught at the prison. The General Education Degree (GED) is also obtainable through programs at Black Mountain. Black Mountain also implements a program called Re-entry that is designed to help the inmates learn basic life skills that she will need to use when she is released back into society, such as, writing a resume and obtaining a driver’s license. However, there are no vocational skills, computer skills or job training taught at Black Mountain. The administration at Black Mountain has said that there is no funding or space available for educational programs, such as receiving an Associates Degree or a nursing certificate.

All of the participants believe that there needs to be more education offered at Black Mountain. One interviewee said, “There is no rehabilitation in prison, no education.” Others thought that there should be college level classes and vocational skills available to them. These women are not naive, they know that there would be more rehabilitative and education programs if there was more funding. However, some suggested that if some of the funding was moved from bigger prisons, such as Raleigh, they could afford to implement programs at smaller prisons. The prisoners are also aware that college classes take time and most of the women at Black Mountain are only serving a number of months. However, it only takes a few months to learn key boarding and other computer skills. In fact, one of the inmates who is experienced with computer skills offered to teach a course for free. The administration denied her although they have a dozen unused computers in storage. 

For the small amount of women that have already received their high school diploma and were not incarcerated on drug charges, there is absolutely no education programs that they can take part in. Further, when a prisoner gets her GED, she receives thirty days off of her sentence. This is a great incentive for the women who do not have a GED, but unfair for women who do. One women commented on this by stating, “I you [have a high school diploma] you’re screwed.”

Other women (mostly the one’s incarcerated for drug charges) came up with an idea that would help the prisoner’s with drug addiction. They thought that when incarcerated for drug charges, they should split their prison sentence serving half of their time in prison and the other half at a rehabilitation center. Many of the women are worried that they will go back to abusing drugs when they are released because they feel that they have not received adequate rehabilitation.  

Further, most of the women that took Re-entry, or that are taking currently feel that they have benefited from it. However, an inmate has to be at a certain level to take this class. When a woman is first incarcerated, she is a level one. After six months she is up for evaluation, and may change to a level two. Six months later she is up for evaluation again and can become a level three. Therefore, the majority of prisoners are never allowed to take Re-entry because they are released before their first evaluation. Some of the women would like to see the evaluations come up ever three months (as is done at the men’s prison) instead of every six months. 

However, all of the women are hopeful about being released. The most common responses to plans when released were, to further education, go to a halfway house, stay clean, find a job or get their old job back, find a good church, see parents and children (or get them back), become a better mother and do volunteer work in their community.

However, in reality, it is hard to obtain a job with a felony record. It is also difficult to secure government aid for inmates who have drug charges. It is almost impossible for an ex-inmate to get a second chance within society, and therefore, as many women told me, they are worried that they may pick up their addiction when they return to society. As one woman put it, “It’s like a revolving door. Lots of women want change, but they don’t know how.”

 All the women in one way or another want to make a new start when they are released. However, they do not think it will be an easy task. They will always be stigmatized by society and labeled as felons, bad mothers and criminals. Their financial situations are worse now than before they were incarcerated. But, as one inmate expressed. “I have to crawl before I can walk. There is hope."          



The women at Black Mountain, as well as women in prisons across the United States are faced with tremendous impediments to which they must learn to overcome. The women in this study were disproportionately abused, had substance dependencies, grew up with family crisis’s and received little or no education before their incarceration. As shown through this study, structural injustice, and oppressive patterns that keep these injustices alive have been part of the lives of the inmates at Black Mountain.    

Lerman (1999) discusses that, “Western-based modes of meting out criminal justice fail to take into account the fundamental human right of being interconnected with one another in healthy communities. The U. S. criminal justice system, for instance, has the wrong focus-punishing convicted criminals by putting them behind bars” (p. 161). Therefore, crime is not only an offense against a single individual, but it is also an offense against the whole of society (Lerman, 1999).

In order for prisons to stop being the hypothetical “dumping ground” for women with no other options to get job training, drug treatment and/or a safe place from domestic abuse we must “reconstruct social life” (Girshick, 1999, p. 3). The structure of injustice and oppression, which is ingrained into the fabric of society, must be eliminated.

Listening to the women in this study, it is noticeable that society had, indeed, failed them. Their choices could have been quite different under other circumstances. These circumstances that need to change, however, are not discrete aspects of life. Rather, the whole patriarchal framework of society must change. Until females are valued as much as males, not treated as sexual objects, demeaned, or denied opportunity-within families, relationships, at school, and in jobs; abuse will not be eliminated. “No child is born a delinquent, and we can do something to stop creating her” (Gishick, 1999, p.48).


I would like to extend my gratitude to Victoria Justice, the Superintendent at the Black Mountain Correctional Facility for Women. Without her help, this project would not have been possible. I would like to end this paper my thanking all of the wonderful, smart and compassionate women who participated in this study. I can never thank them enough for sharing their innermost feeling and thoughts with me. The inmates at Black Mountain have taught me invaluable lessons about life, struggle and hope.

















Works Cited

Barker, R. (2003). The social work dictionary. Washington: NASW Press.

Berrett, M.J., and Trepper. (1991). Treating woman drug abusers who were victims of childhood sexual abuse. In C. Bepko (Ed.), Feminism and addiction (pp. 127-146). New York: The Haworth Press.

Bourgois, Philippe. (1995). In search of respect: Selling crack in El Barrio.

            Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chesney-Lind, M., and N. Rodriguez. (1983). Women under lock and key: A view from the inside. Prison Journal, 53, 47-65.

Cordilia, Ann. (1983). The making of an inmate. Rocherster: Schenkman Publishing Company.

Curry, Leonard. (2001). Tougher sentencing, economic hardships and rising violence. In P. Herman (Ed.) The American prison system (pp. 126-129).

            United States: H. G. Wilson.

Dalrymple, J., & Burke, B. (1995). Anti-oppressive practice: Social care and the law. Buckingham: Open University Press.

 Daly, Kathleen. (1994). Gender, crime, and punishment. London: Yale University Press.

Enos, Sandra. (2001). Mothering from the inside: Parenting in a women’s prison. New York: State University of New York Press.

Esterberg, Kristin. (2002). Qualitative methods in social research. Boston: McGraw Hill.

Gil, David. (1998). Confronting injustice and oppression: Concepts and strategies for social workers. New York: Columbia University Press.

Girshick, Lori. (1999). No safe haven: Stories of women in prison. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. New York: Doubleday & Company.

Harrington, N. (1962). The other American: Poverty in the United States. Baltimore: Penguin Books.

Hart, L.E., Mader, L., Griffith, K., and DeMendonca, M. (1989). Effects of sexual and physical abuse: A comparison of adolescent inpatients. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 20, 49-57.

Herman, Peter. (2001). The American prison system. United States: H. G. Wilson.

Hickey, Eric. (2002). Serial murderers and their victims. Fresno: Wadsworth Group.

Kandel, D.B., Treiman, D., Faust, R., and Single, E. (1976). Adolescent involvement in legal and illegal drug use: A multiple classification analysis. Social Force, 55, 438-458.

Kaufman, E. (1985). Substance abuse and family therapy. Orlando: Grune and Stratton.

Lerman, David. (1999). Restoring dignity, effecting justice. In P. Herman (Ed.), The American prison system (pp. 161-165). United States: H. G. Wilson.        

Lichlenstein, A. and M. Kroll. (1996). The fortress economy: The economic role of the U. S. prison system. In E. Rosenblatt (Ed.), Criminal injustice: Confronting the prison crisis (pp. 16-19). Boston: South End Press. 

Olson, Joel. (1996). Gardens of the law: The role of prisons in capitalist society. In E. Rosenblatt (Ed.), Criminal injustice: confronting the prison crisis (pp. 40-46). Boston: South End Press.   

Rew, L. (1989). Long-term effects of childhood sexual exploitation. Issues in Mental Health Nursing,10, 229-224.

Russell, D.E.H. (1986). The secret trauma: Incest in the lives of girls and women. New York: Basic Books.

Shaw, Stan. (1982). Social influences on the use of alcohol in the family. In J. Orford     and J. Harwin (Ed.), Alcohol and the family (pp. 56-72). London: Croom Helm.

Sheldon, Randall. (2001). Controlling the dangerous classes: A critical introduction to the history of criminal justice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon A Pearson Education Company.

Sidel, R. (1996). Keeping women and children last: America’s war on the poor. New York: Penguin Books.

Singer, M.I., Petchers, M.K., Hussey, D. (1989). The relationship between sexual abuse and substance abuse among psychiatrically hospitalized adolescence. Child Abuse and Neglect, 13, 319-325.

Steffensmeier, Darrell and Allan, Emilie. (1996). Gender and crime: toward a gendered theory of female offending. Annual Review of Sociology, 22, 459-487.

Stodghill, Ron. (1999). Unequal justice: Why women fare worse. In P. Herman (Ed.), The American prison system (pp. 130-132.). United States: H. G. Wilson.  

van Wormer, Katherine. (2004). Confronting oppression, restoring justice from policy analysis to social action. Alexandria: Council on Social Work Education.  

Wilson, Clair. (1982). The impact on children. In J. Orford and J. Harwin (Ed.), Alcohol and the family (pp. 151-166). London: Croom Helm.

Wolfe, David A. (1987). Child abuse: Implications for child development and

            psychopathology. London: Sage Publications.

(1995). North Carolina department of correction: Black Mountain correctional center fort women. Retrieved April 22, 2005, from http://www.doc.state.nc.us/DOP/prisons/BlackMoun.ttm

(2005). North Carolina department of correction offender information. Retrieved  

            April 22, 2005, from http://www.doc.state.nc.us/offenders/

(May 7, 2005). BOP: Federal bureau of prisons web site: Statistical data on federal prison populations by gender, race, ethnicity, age and other demographic characteristics. Retrieved April 22, 2005, from http:www.bop.gov/-30k-May7,2005

(June, 2005). Bureau of justice statistics, retrieved April, 22 2005, from http:www.ojp.us.gov.bjs