by Lynne A. Haney. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. 304pp. Hardcover. $60.00/£41.95. ISBN: 9780520261907. Paperback. $24.95/£16.95. ISBN: 9780520261914. Adobe E-Book. $20.00. ISBN: 9780520945913.

Reviewed by Jack E. Call. Department of Criminal Justice, Radford University. Email: jcall [at] RADFORD.EDU.


OFFENDING WOMEN is an ethnographic study of two community-based corrections programs in California for young mothers who have committed crimes. In both programs, the author, Lynne Haney, was a participant-observer. She observed Alliance, a program that served incarcerated teenaged mothers, in the early 1990s. About a decade later, Haney observed Visions, a program for young adult mothers in their late twenties. Visions’ clientele included both women who had been sentenced for criminal behavior (and sent to Visions by the state corrections department) and charged women who were diverted by the judicial system to Visions as an alternative to adjudication.

Both programs are examples of “state hybridity” – public/private partnerships. Alliance and Visions formed connections to a variety of public and private organizations and thereby subjected both groups to “diverse influences and imperatives.”

Alliance’s funding sources were the California Youth Authority (CYA), Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and Fellowship for Change, a group that birthed Alliance. The Fellowship worked with male inmates and, ironically, Alliance’s philosophy diverged greatly from the Fellowship’s. The Alliance also took exception to CYA’s punitive philosophy, but they were dependent upon CYA for clients (as well as funding). Alliance staff used their opposition to the philosophies of both the Fellowship and CYA as a rallying point that brought the staff together.

The treatment philosophy espoused by Alliance focused on a dependency discourse. Alliance staff instructed the girls that their dependence on the state had made them “lazy and indifferent” (p.41). Motherhood was stressed as a means of breaking this dependence on the state. “[B]y accepting their roles as caretakers, they would stop looking to others for support” (Id.). There were other ways, of course, to break this dependence – getting up on time, performing assigned chores promptly and without complaint, and just generally “taking the bull by the horns” (a phrase heard frequently around the house) (Id.).

Not surprisingly, teaching these girls to be independent by “taking the bull by the horns” and being “self-full” created problems within the institution itself. If the girls should not be dependent on the state, should they also not be dependent on the Alliance staff? And what better way to demonstrate their independence [*636] than by objecting to house practices that they found objectionable.

Chief among these objections was the fact that as soon as a girl was placed with Alliance, the staff had her apply for AFDC money. As soon as an AFDC check arrived, each girl was required to sign the money over to Alliance. The irony of this practice was not lost on the girls. They were supposed to establish their independence from the state, but Alliance itself was dependent on the state. When the girls tried to assert some influence on how the AFDC money was spent, the staff’s response was that the AFDC money was not the girls’ money – it was the state’s. This was justified as a means of demonstrating to the girls that when they received money from the state, it was the state that determined how the money could be used, not them.

Alliance created a chaotic environment in which very few rules were created and enforced. This was intended to give the girls an opportunity to develop and demonstrate independence by creating structure out of the chaos. They were rewarded when they took noticeable steps toward this independence. The biggest reward was giving the girls greater access to their children.

All this “needs talk” at Alliance was a form of governance (p.59). If it had worked, it would have served government’s needs by making these girls less dependent upon government. The problem was it did not work. “[T]he Alliance girls ended up reinventing dependency discourse and turning it into a channel through which claims to justice and fairness could be voiced and acted on” (Id.). In the end, the institution’s emphasis on the girls’ need for independence prompted them to become rebellious by emphatically asserting what they perceived as their own interests – not what Alliance had attempted to teach them was in their interest.

Why did this happen? First, the staff’s dependency discourse did not ring true. In order to be independent, the girls perceived that they needed some sort of support system – typically in the form of a husband or family members. However, practically none of these girls had such support systems on which to rely. Instead, their experiences had taught them that it was the very government programs from which the Alliance staff wanted them to become independent that had been their sole source of help in the past. Second, the chaos of fluid schedules and lack of consistency did not teach the girls coping skills – it just drove them nuts. In addition, the girls saw their demands for help not as a lack of independence but as a way for others to demonstrate to the girls that they were persons of worth – persons who deserved the care and attention of others.

The girls reacted to the Alliance treatment approach by banding together in an “us versus them” mentality (p.62). They voiced their disagreements and dissatisfaction with the staff’s approach in numerous ways. One way was the use of rap songs that they sang as they moved around the house and expressed sentiments, such as the value of welfare programs, with which the staff disagreed. Another form of rebellion was to drop whatever they were doing when they perceived that their babies needed them. Some of the girls also expressed dissatisfaction by trying to [*637] escape from Alliance. This was usually a last resort strategy because to be caught attempting to escape would almost certainly result in a girl’s removal from the program. Another way of expressing dissatisfaction was the formation of the Welfare Club by the girls, as a means of banding together to coordinate their acts of rebellion.

Haney closes her discussion of Alliance with a chapter that traces the profound changes in basic governance structures in the late 1980s and 1990s. These changes have often been captured in the catch phrase of “devolution, decentralization, and diversity” (p.15). One important result has been to move important decision-making processes from the national level to the state or even local levels. Another result has been the need for local level agencies to reach out to non-governmental groups for financial support, often creating what are, in essence, hybrid organizations – neither private nor public – that “govern from a distance” (p.87). An important ramification of this reaching out is that the agency must function in such a way that it satisfies the objectives of the groups that provide it funding support.

The result of all these dynamics for Alliance was its ultimate destruction. As noted earlier, Alliance relied greatly on the Fellowship for Change for financial support and CYA for both funding and clients. When the girls at Alliance began to assert themselves, they complained to CYA about staff practices. While this often resulted in temporary change favored by the girls, it ultimately led to a CYA perception that the Alliance program was too troubled to continue. The Fellowship declined to join Alliance in an appeal of CYA’s actions, because the frequent complaints it had received from the girls resulted in a conclusion that Alliance was not serving the girls’ needs – at least not in a way desired by the Fellowship.

The Visions staff was conflicted in its approach to its clientele. The clinical staff wanted to use a therapeutic approach, while the rest of the staff wanted to use a less clinical, behavior modification approach. This conflict was resolved by developing an “institutional narrative” at Visions that melded together both tough love and therapeutic approaches, so that all members of the staff could contribute to clients’ recovery process (p.127). The “metanarrative” that permitted all the staff to contribute to the program was that the program’s clients were addicts – whether or not they had a drug problem (p.128). If they were not addicted to drugs, then they were addicted to something else – “low self-esteem led to addiction, which then led to even lower self-esteem” (p.130). This approach led “to a clear, easy-to-follow model of treatment: reflection and introspection heightened self-esteem and thus ended addiction” (Id.).

The treatment regime was grounded on the regulation of desire. “[I]t tried to convince the women that what they thought they needed, they really just desired. Once needs had been redefined as pleasures, they could be managed and controlled. This training began with the reigning in of the women’s runaway desires and ended with instruction on how to enjoy healthy pleasures” (pp.132-133).

Central to the regulation of desire was the development of a sense of [*638] responsibility. This was facilitated by insisting that the women use what the staff called “I statements” (p.133). The women’s sentences about themselves had to start with “I.” The first thing each new woman at Visions was required to do was to write a 20-page autobiography. This autobiography had to be presented to the other women at a weekly house meeting. The “older sisters” would take key parts of each autobiography and reconstruct it in the vernacular of the program. This became a personal mantra which had to be recited to staff members. This was such a critical aspect of each woman’s requirements that Haney herself had only been at Visions a few hours before one of the women shared her personal mantra with her.

There was very little individual counseling at Visions. The program focused on group meetings. It was not unusual for a Visions woman to participate in five or six group sessions in a single day. Even more important, however, was the weekly “community-awareness meeting” in which all residents and staff participated (p.136). While it was at these meetings that the autobiographies were read, a more significant aspect of the meetings was the “focus seat” (Id.). Any staff member or resident could ask that one of the women be placed in the focus seat because of a complaint against the resident. While the resident was in the seat, she was not allowed to speak. This typically resulted in an onslaught of complaints and criticisms hurled at the resident, and the session usually ended with the resident in a state of hysteria.

There were also some firm rules that created considerable tension at Visions. Chief among these was the no-smoking rule. Smoking was viewed as a trigger for more detrimental impulses. The smoking ban resulted in a kind of war, with nonsmokers not only reporting violations of the rule but looking for opportunities to do so.

The overall atmosphere was one in which the staff were clearly in control of the residents, the residents were frequently interjecting themselves into the lives of other residents, and the residents were left with very little privacy or sense of personal boundaries. While the Visions program was very good at breaking down the self of each resident, it was not nearly as effective in re-building the self.

The staff attempted to re-build the women’s positive sense of themselves by creating new pleasures for them: spa days (pedicures, facials, and massages that the residents provided each other), eating, and parenting (an activity that was greatly rewarded by the staff). However, because of all the tension created by the techniques described above, eating became almost an obsession that resulting in most residents becoming greatly overweight. In addition, much of the intrusiveness of the program into the lives of the residents occurred in settings where a resident’s child observed his or her mother being humiliated. This created a tension about parenting that made mothering an activity accompanied by highly mixed feelings.

Haney describes the therapeutic approach taken by Visions as “state hybridity . . . gone wild” (p.148). It was a means of both maintaining the financial support it needed to stay alive [*639] and melding together a diverse staff. But Haney also concludes that the community-based therapeutics approach exemplified by Visions “can actually disempower those it targets” (p.152). She agrees with the residents’ conclusion that “Vision’s . . . gestures to the community [through its hybrid structure] covered up the facility’s pervasive control and led the staff to abdicate their own responsibility for the inmates’ recovery” (pp.152-153).

The therapeutic model could be faulted for its excessive intrusiveness, its failure to recognize the economic and social realities of the residents’ lives, and its encouragement of “personality traits and characteristics . . . that . . . were out of touch with who the women were, who they needed to be, and who they wanted to become” (p.153). As a result, Visions left the women vulnerable when they had to deal with the challenges they faced on the outside. The psychological damage done was exacerbated by the fact that none of the programs at Visions was designed to provide residents the skills they needed to succeed economically on the outside. Visions had no job training, GED, or educational programs. Residents were not permitted to take courses at a local community college or to take courses at a nearby job fair that were designed to develop job skills. The Visions model made everything an internal, individual problem and ignored the external problems that each resident would face after leaving Visions.

Haney ultimately concludes that the Visions program failed to achieve its goals for two primary reasons. First, because the program encouraged residents to report on the dysfunctional behavior of each other, the residents split into numerous divisions. Some of this may have been inevitable, since the residents came from two sources – the incarcerated residents who had been convicted and sentenced and the diverted residents who had not. But there were other divisions that developed – mothers with older kids versus mothers with younger kids, good and bad cooks, talk show versus soap opera television watchers. They even divided over whether the “needs shopping” in which the residents were permitted to participate should be done at Target or Wal-Mart (p.183).

The second reason why Visions failed its clients was that this persistent conflict and the residents’ constant exposure to emotional pain through the focus seat and the “competitive confessional” (where residents tried to outdo each other in reporting the pain they had experienced in their lives) caused them to withdraw (p.192). They withdrew either through medication (for the diverted residents) or through sleep (for the incarcerated residents who could not receive medication). As a result, Haney thought it was likely “[o]nce the inmates had learned their lesson about the need for escape and withdrawal, it was only one small step for the women to turn to drugs or alcohol as quicker, more effective escape routes when those routes became open to them” (p.202).

Haney concludes that both Alliance and Visions failed their clients. The primary reason was the failure of both programs to recognize and deal with the fact that most of the problems faced by their clients had social roots. The programs not only disentitled the women studied [*640] in this book, but they left them disempowered as well.

This book may appeal to several audiences. It will appeal to those who have an interest in the criminal justice field of corrections. The book provides a rather limited basis for an attack on community-based corrections (after all, the study has an N of two), but it is rich with details about two such programs that failed.

The book will also appeal to persons with an interest in women’s studies. Haney concludes that the Visions program is an example of a governance strategy in dealing with women that has not received adequate attention in feminist literature – specifically, a strategy of regulating the desires of women.

A third group that may find this book appealing are those with an interest in the way government has changed in recent years. The book contains insightful descriptions of how government has moved to a more local level and has sometimes entered into partnerships with private organizations, with important ramifications for the implementation of public policy.

© Copyright 2010 by the author, Jack E. Call.