Skip to Content

Women’s Post-Prison Life: A Narrative

Heather C. Jarvis, on a chilly and gloomy October day, gathered her belongings into a pink duffle bag and a plastic trash bag, awaiting the commencement of a new chapter in her life.

Seated in the lobby of the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio, she nervously smiled as her long-term therapist reassured her of her readiness for the outside world. After nearly a decade behind bars, Jarvis expressed her fears to The Associated Press before her release, her voice trembling with emotion.

At 32, Jarvis belongs to the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. prison population, comprising over 190,000 women in various forms of confinement this year. The number of incarcerated women surged by more than 500% between 1980 and 2021, outpacing the growth rate for men, as reported by The Sentencing Project, an organization advocating for incarcerated individuals.

This significant rise can be attributed in part to stricter penalties and mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses, a trend observed in many states over the past few decades. The 2023 report indicates that approximately 25% of women behind bars are serving time for drug-related crimes, compared to 12% of men. Ohio, deeply affected by the opioid epidemic, witnessed a substantial increase in its female prisoner population.

However, the expansion of programs designed to support women post-release has not kept pace with the rising incarceration rates, notes the National Institute of Justice.

Wendy Sawyer, research director at the Prison Policy Initiative, emphasizes the challenges faced by women during reentry, including the added complexities of being mothers to minor children. She underscores the disparities in available support services compared to the growing demand among women in need.

Moreover, women encounter gender-specific obstacles during reintegration, such as housing instability that often forces difficult choices between homelessness and returning to abusive environments. Linda Janes, the chief operating officer of Alvis, a Columbus-based nonprofit collaborating with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, highlights the heightened stigma attached to women involved in criminal activities or substance abuse.

Jarvis, following her release into “transitional control” at Alvis, secured an apartment in Columbus, distancing herself from her past in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Despite her efforts to rebuild her life, a recent setback led to her return to Alvis after violating the terms of her release by living with her daughter against regulations.

Navigating the complexities of her newfound freedom, Jarvis is confronted with societal challenges, including difficulties in securing employment and facing prejudices due to her criminal record. Despite setbacks, she remains resilient, striving to reunite with her daughters and create a better future for them.

As she prepares to transition to full independence, Jarvis reflects on her journey with a mix of pride and apprehension, acknowledging the coexistence of anticipation and anxiety as she moves forward.