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The Ex-Prisoner's Dilemma

How Women Negotiate Competing Narratives of Reentry and Desistance

by Andrea M. Leverentz

Publication Year: 2014

When a woman leaves prison, she enters a world of competing messages and conflicting advice. Staff from prison, friends, family members, workers at halfway houses and treatment programs all have something to say about who she is, who she should be, and what she should do. The Ex-Prisoner’s Dilemma offers an in-depth, firsthand look at how the former prisoner manages messages about returning to the community. Over the course of a year, Andrea Leverentz conducted repeated interviews with forty-nine women as they adjusted to life outside of prison and worked to construct new ideas of themselves as former prisoners and as mothers, daughters, sisters, romantic partners, friends, students, and workers. Listening to these women, along with their family members, friends, and co-workers, Leverentz pieces together the narratives they have created to explain their past records and guide their future behavior. She traces where these narratives came from and how they were shaped by factors such as gender, race, maternal status, age, and experiences in prison, halfway houses, and twelve-step programs—factors that in turn shaped the women’s expectations for themselves, and others’ expectations of them. The women’s stories form a powerful picture of the complex, complicated human experience behind dry statistics and policy statements regarding prisoner reentry into society for women, how the experience is different for men and the influence society plays.With its unique view of how society’s mixed messages play out in ex-prisoners’ lived realities, The Ex-Prisoner’s Dilemma shows the complexity of these women’s experiences within the broad context of the war on drugs and mass incarceration in America. It offers invaluable lessons for helping such women successfully rejoin society.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Series: Critical Issues in Crime and Society

Half Title, Series Page, Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

First and foremost, I give my deepest thanks to the women who participated in this project. They generously gave their time and their stories, and the time I spent with them was incredibly rewarding. I continue to think of them often and fondly and wish them the best. Many of the women who participated did...

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pp. 1-16

Shorty D1 was a thirty-eight-year-old African American mother of two. Her younger son was five and living with her mother; the other was nineteen and at a work release center. As a child, Shorty D was involved with school and extracurricular activities. She described her childhood as a good one and herself as having “had dreams” of a career. She was...

Part I. Becoming an Ex-­Offender

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Chapter 1. The Mercy Home and the Discourse of Reentry and Desistance

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pp. 19-39

Halfway houses provide a transition between prison and life in the community, to ease reentry challenges and to foster desistance from future offending. They also provide assistance with employment and housing, two issues at the forefront of reentry discussions. As such, halfway houses are...

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Chapter 2. Introducing the Women and Their Pathways to Offending

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pp. 40-55

Although there is considerable diversity in the experiences of women in this study, in important ways they represent those who are most affected by incarceration today. Like male prisoners, female prisoners are disproportionately poor, African American, and from disadvantaged urban...

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Chapter 3. A Year in the Life

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pp. 56-78

Most contemporary research agrees that desistance is a process, not a single moment in time in which someone switches from being an “offender” to an “ex-offender” or “non-offender.”1 Becoming a desisting offender often means deciding to go straight, not offending for a period of...

Part II. The Social Context of Reentry

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Chapter 4. Family Dynamics in Reentry and Desistance

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pp. 81-113

The women in this study are actively working to re-create their social identities. This includes not only their identity as an ex-offender, prisoner, or drug user, but also their identities as a mother, sister, daughter, girlfriend or wife, and friend. Importantly, these identities often come into...

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Chapter 5. Women’s Chosen Relationships and Their Role in Self-Redefinition

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pp. 114-139

Rates of marriage are low in the low-income African American communities from which most of the women in this study came, and marriage is less central to the expectations and sense of self of many (Collins 2000; 2005; Edin and Kefalas 2005). This was evident among these women as...

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Chapter 6. Education, Employment, and a House of One’s Own

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pp. 140-174

Two of the most commonly discussed needs of ex-prisoners and pathways to successful desistance are employment and housing. The ideal is for ex-prisoners to find a good job and stable housing in a quiet neighborhood, both of which will contribute to a role in conventional society and a...

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pp. 175-184

The experiences of these women embody desistance as a process. Through starts and stops, progress and setbacks, they actively worked to reconstruct their lives as desisting former offenders and prisoners. They worked to learn what it means to be a desisting offender and drug addict, and how to...

Appendix A. Respondent Characteristics

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pp. 185-188

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Appendix B. Research Methods

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pp. 189-200

As with all research, this project evolved from the original research proposal to the final product. And, as with all qualitative research, the researcher was an important aspect of the data collection and analysis. In this appendix, I detail the way this project unfolded and my role as researcher...


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pp. 201-204


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pp. 205-214

Index, About the Author, Series Page

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pp. 215-236

E-ISBN-13: 9780813562292
E-ISBN-10: 0813562295
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813562285
Print-ISBN-10: 0813562287

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 3 tables
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Critical Issues in Crime and Society
Series Editor Byline: Edited by Raymond J. Michalowski See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 871190251
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Ex-Prisoner's Dilemma

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Ex-convicts -- United States -- Longitudinal studies.
  • Prisoners -- Family relationships -- United States.
  • Ex-convicts -- Services for -- United States.
  • Prisoners -- Rehabilitation -- United States.
  • Women prisoners -- Rehabilitation -- United States.
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