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Offending Women

S. Yaeger's picture

"Offending Women" - Lynne Haney



btoews's picture

some first thoughts on Offending Women

Shannon - 

Below are some first thoughts on Offending Women. Overall, I love this book! The analysis made me simultaneously laugh and  feel disgusted, both for the same reason - it hit really close home and resonated with my experiences working in community-based criminal justice/prisoner non-profits. As such, it was a reflective read for me. It is a great mix of sociological analysis and lived experiences which I think could lend itself nicely to this class. My thoughts below outline what I find most interesting and relevant about the book. In addition to your general reactions, I wonder if it kept your attention in the way it kept mine, if its themes connect with how you understand the course and your ideas for ways it could be used in the class (I offer a few ideas below, as well). I have fuller notes on my computer so these are highlights at this point. 

Reading ethnography is fitting for this course as it is a methodology reliant on observation and experiencing the daily lives of others. This ethnography seems especially relevant in that it relates to women in walled communities (in this case, alternative to incarceration facilities for women with children) and Haney demonstrates that governance and institutional discourses and their consequences can be visualized and seen in the daily lives of facility staff and female residents. 

 In many ways, this book captures the course as a whole:

 It explores women’s pathways into incarceration – Haney’s analysis explores both social and institutional discourses that suggest that women offend because they are dependent on welfare or because of inappropriate desires. Her analysis complicates these perspectives and explores consequences associated with each. For instance, are these real or socially constructed pathways? What is the role of social marginalization – is it a result of offending (and its pathways) or is it the source of offending? How do interpretations of offending serve as a form of regulation and social control?

 It explores daily life experiences – Haney’s analysis suggests that the understanding of the causes of offending (dependency or inappropriate desires) impact how institutions operate and thus impact the experiences of confined women, especially as they relate to regulation and social control. The analysis further taps into issues of physical and psychological privacy and boundaries (a theme of the class second unit).

It explores the ways in which women strive to make individual and social change –Haney’s analysis presents ways in which women react to the institutional narratives – resist and withdraw, confront and avoid, mock, etc. – and how that facilitates and inhibits women’s control over their lives. While this third thematic unit of change has originally been conceived as being about leadership/strategies to make individual and social change (with a subtheme of resistance), Haney’s analysis suggests that we might want to look at resistance more fully and strategies that contribute to real empowerment for women (rather than myths of empowerment as seen in Alliance and Visions or regulatory notions of individual change).

 It also raises other relevant questions/thoughts:

-       Explores issues of motherhood and how that experience can be used and manipulated by correctional narratives

-       Alternatives to incarceration can still be punitive, regulatory and about social control and this is troubling gender-wise. This is an historical pitfall of the prison reform movement (read in this area as well?). How might we catch ourselves making this same mistake in class discussions and in our own ideas of what would make the system better?

-       Women helping women doesn’t necessarily mean that things will be better. It may mean women are simply the ones disempowering and regulating other women. This is also an historical pitfall (read in this area as well?).

-       Behind my interest in visionary leadership and the efforts of the incarcerated to make personal and institutional change is the idea of “resistance.” Resistance isn’t always “pretty” – for instance, it can mock, criticize and appear unhealthy or unproductive (by my socially constructed notions of what is acceptable behavior). This gets me thinking about how prison riots, hunger strikes, etc. can be a form of resistance and thus possibly legitimate forms of visionary leadership and processes toward personal and social change.  I am also struck by how even exploring the idea of change is regulatory – who is deciding that change needs to happen in the first place and what kind of change?

-       Haney’s caution against seeing everything as resistance is compelling (the “romance of resistance,” p. 180)– we want to see it but it may not always be there. I fall into this trap! Anyone else?!

In terms of how to use the book, I had the following ideas:

-       The book could be a good reflective and analytic read after the jail components - How, if at all, did we see this regulation while in the jail? How is the narrative and activities of the class itself perpetuate regulation?

-       The book could be an interesting read with the incarcerated women during the jail components – to what degree does it resonate with their experiences? What similarities and differences exist between FDC (or any jail) narrative and narratives of BMC?

-       The vision theme throughout could inspire activities in jail and on campus that explore metaphorical/literal images of the narratives of FDC and BMC and how we see ourselves, our needs and our future for ourselves 

-       The book could be read section by section over several weeks (which would allow course themes to overlap and mingle together) or it could be read out of order – e.g., read descriptions of Alliance and Vision narratives together for discussion and comparison and then the next week the material related to resistance and the lack there of to focus on that for a week.  If the book is read with the women at FDC, a section could be read every two sessions (with an experiential session in between that grows out of the reading).


S. Yaeger's picture

I'm about a third of the way

I'm about a third of the way through the book and I wanted to pause and respond to your idea that we could look at women controlling women and the ways in which it might not be empowering.  I do think that the book offers some real insight into some ways that women can use power to dis-empower others, and I think that exploring some of the possible underlying causes of such disempowerment would be really useful, especially in light of the course cross listing in Gen/Sex.  When I'm done reading, or need a break, I'll look into some brief readings on horizontal hostility and internalized misogyny, which I think are definitely factors in many situations where women are pitted against one another, wither by existing power structures, or by their own machinations.  Again, I'm seeing some recurring themes of how we see ourselves v. how others see us.

btoews's picture

Sounds great!

Sounds great!