Can't Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2014)
(Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2014)
Authors: Susan Starr Sered & Maureen Norton-Hawk
Reviewer: Vera Lopez, School of Justice and Social Inquiry, Arizona State University
An academic book has rarely captivated me to the extent that I feel compelled to stay up late at night reading it. Susan Starr Sered and Maureen Norton-Hawk’s Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility represents an exception to the rule. Through beautiful writing and stunning narratives, Sered and Norton-Hawk follow the lives of 47 formerly incarcerated women in Boston. Many of these women continue to struggle with drug addiction, homelessness, and sexual victimization upon release from prison. While the women often went through bouts of “recovery,” many continued to find themselves repeatedly relapsing, cycling through the “institutional circuit,” and perpetually delegated to the “caste of the ill and afflicted.” The women’s heart-wrenching stories reveal that, like most Americans, they bought into the myth of the American Dream and the dogma of individual responsibility. They are either morally corrupt due to their bad choices or they are perpetually sick due to innate physical, mental, and emotional deficiencies. What is missing from the women’s narratives, as well as our larger discourse on women’s incarceration, is an understanding of how incarcerated women are often victims of gendered oppression and structural inequities that work together to trap them in a hopeless and never ending cycle of deprivation and suffering despite their repeated efforts to overcome life challenges.
In chapter 1 of this book, Sered and Norton-Hawk share Francesca’s story. Like most of the women featured in this book, Francesca has had a difficult life with many challenges including childhood and adult victimization. Despite her repeated efforts to better her life, Francesca continues to end up with men who batter her. Rather than blaming this “tendency” to attract male batterers on Francesca’s damaged self-esteem and need for love, Sered and Norton-Hawk focus squarely on the gender inequalities and power dynamics that make such violence against women and girls normative in U.S. culture. Through a poignant analysis, Sered and Norton-Hawk argue that we must move beyond blaming individual girls and women for their own victimization. They also analyze the well-established pathways to drug use model on the grounds that this model fails to critically establish a link between women’s victimization, structural inequalities, and women’s ensnarement in the criminal justice system. They note:
…the dominant model for explaining these connections singles out childhood abuse as causing lasting psychological damage that in turn leads to drug use and further victimization. While this causal chain fits the American narrative of individual responsibility for suffering, connections between gender violence and incarceration are far more structural. Running away from home in the wake of sexual abuse launches girls into environments permeated with gendered violence, both on the street and in juvenile facilities…On the streets, women are vulnerable to harassment, violence, exploitation, and drug use, all of which drag them into the correctional circuit...(p. 27).
Furthermore, Sered and Norton-Hawk note that once in the correctional system, women are often implicitly blamed for their own victimization:
The messages conveyed by the correctional, welfare, and therapeutic institutions link women’s criminalization to their sexual victimhood; they are told that the same character flaws are the cause of both and that if they continue making bad choices they will continue being victims and they will continue being locked up (p.36).
They end this chapter by critiquing these attempts to fix women victims and men batterers:
When hate-based violence is interpreted as idiosyncratic or aberrant rather than consistent with societal norms, resources are often poured into ‘correcting’ victims through psychological treatment and into ‘correcting’ perpetrators through penal treatment ‘rather than on dismantling the systemic forces that promote, condone, and facilitate…violence (p. 37).
Chapter 2 brings Elizabeth’s story to the forefront to illustrate the ubiquitous link among homelessness, the institutional circuit, and personal responsibility. Like Francesca, whose story was highlighted in Chapter 1, Elizabeth has been incarcerated, homeless, and trapped in a life with few safety nets. Due to her prison record, she is prohibited from obtaining certain welfare benefits such as Section VIII housing. While Elizabeth was able to access other types of social services, these services were usually piecemeal as a result of fragmented systems headed by burnt-out caseworkers and lack of follow-up. Consequently, Elizabeth, like many other women in her predicament, continued to struggle with homelessness.
In chapter 3, Sered and Norton-Hawk examine the intersection of race and gender through the life of Anasia, a Black woman caught up in the system. Like most Black women whose narratives were shared in this book, Anasia did not explicitly draw upon gendered racism to explain her problems, but her narrative revealed that she has indeed faced racial discrimination and limited opportunities due to her status as a poor Black woman. Building on Anasia’s narrative, Sered and Norton-Hawk discuss how the War on Drugs and the movement toward mass incarceration has had devastating effects on Black communities. Because of mass incarceration fueled by “get tough” rhetoric and punitive policies, the number of Black men living in these communities has been greatly reduced. Furthermore, when Black men return to their communities, they are often faced with limited opportunities, disrupted families, and few resources to help them overcome the stigma and other social and economic consequences associated with being an “ex-con.” The central theme of this chapter is that both Black women and men who have been personally impacted by the mass incarceration movement continue to face gendered and racialized barriers that limit their upward social and economic mobility.
In chapters 4-6, Sered and Norton-Hawk examine how the medicalization of women’s drug use is grounded in a language of individual deficiency. Chapter 4 introduces the reader to Ginger, a transwoman, who admits to using drugs as a means to help her deal with a homophobic racist world. In her own words, Ginger acknowledges that she uses drugs to “self-medicate.” Sered and Norton-Hawk draw upon Ginger’s story to critique how big pharmaceutical and insurance companies profit from drugging people rather than investing in more expensive, time intensive strategies for helping people overcome very real struggles grounded in gendered and other structural inequalities.
Through Gloria’s story in chapter 5, Sered and Norton Hawk illustrate how the medicalization movement has resulted in the over diagnosis of women with DSM disorders coupled with a therapeutic tendency focused solely on empowering, changing, and helping women overcome their tendencies to self-medicate and deal with their grief through a plethora of self-destructive behaviors. The underlying therapeutic message is that something is wrong with the individual woman and that via therapy she can overcome her problems and be “normal.” Not surprisingly, most of the women that Sered and Norton-Hawk interviewed professed the “belief that ‘normal’ people lead happy lives in nice homes with loving families” (p. 94). Furthermore, many of the women in this study were well versed in therapy talk and routinely peppered their stories with terms such as “battered women’s syndrome, PTSD, bipolar, codependence, low self-esteem, masochism, and ‘being in denial’” (p 94). The message they pick up from the many therapeutic groups in which they have participated, and the pop therapeutic experts they see on television shows is surprisingly consistent: you suffer because of your personal unresolved traumatic experiences, emotional weaknesses, and character flaws, and the way to address your suffering is through therapy and medication (p. 95).
Although critical of therapy, Sered and Norton-Hawk emphasize that their argument is not that “therapy is not a useful tool” but that their concern is with the “triumph of the therapeutic—with the (near) monopoly of psychiatric and psychotherapeutic responses to suffering.” They argue that while therapy has a place, it cannot cure structural problems.
Chapter 6 continues to critique the medicalization movement. Only in this chapter, Sered and Norton-Hawk critique the “Twelve Step Circuit” and its emphasis on personal responsibility. They are particularly critical of how such programs and their proponents construct women’s problems as a crisis of spirituality by advocating that they hand their problems over to a Higher Power. All too often, as was the case with Joy whose story was featured in this chapter, Twelve Step programs result in a temporary cessation of substance use because these types of programs fail to get at the root of women’s problems that have to do with poverty, violence, and limited economic opportunities.
In chapter 7, Sered and Norton-Hawk discuss mothering. Through Kahtia’s story, they discuss how children are often the ones who suffer despite mothers’ individual attempts to do the best they can by making sure they have someone to care for their children when they are unable to as a result of incarceration, drug use, or other problems that impede parenting. They also discuss the lengths through which these women attempt to distance themselves from the “bad mothering” label by presenting humanizing accounts of mothers’ attempts to care for their children despite institutional barriers and policies such as “abortion restrictions, prosecution of women for prenatal harm, TANF regulations regarding the spacing of children, removal of children from mothers who use drugs, policies that pit the rights of mothers against socially constructed notions of the ‘best interests of the child,’ contract motherhood, and the authority of the family courts in child custody decisions (p. 134). Rather than placing the onus on individual mothers, Sered and Norton-Hawk argue that these legislative polices result in negative consequences for mothers and their families such as family disruptions due to maternal incarceration for relatively minor drug crimes. The result is that these children, like their mothers, become collateral captives to a punitive system that does not care about children or families.
Through the story of Isabella, a White woman from an upper middle-class background, Sered and Norton-Hawk illustrate how many young women become addicted to drugs, sent to prison, and ultimately ensnared in the “institutional circuit.” The most poignant part of this chapter was its heart-wrenching depiction via Isabella’s story of how we as a society continue to stigmatize, blame, and punish formerly incarcerated women even when they are doing their best to overcome their troubled pasts and “get ahead” in life. Despite their best efforts, many of these women meet with constant structural roadblocks on their “road to recovery” such as hefty restitution fines, illegibility to benefit from certain types of social services, and challenges finding employment that can sustain them and their families. In other words, they just “can’t catch a break.”
I began this critique by sharing how I stayed up late at night reading this book. I was deeply moved by the women’s stories and impressed with Sered and Norton-Hawk’s social justice advocacy on their behalf. I agree with the authors: It is time to move beyond blaming individuals for their problems and focus instead on ameliorating gender, racial, and other structural inequalities that continue to trap, ensnare, and relegate them to the “caste of the ill and afflicted.” If you care about such issues, I highly recommend this book.