December 1, 2005
Vol. 25 No. 6

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    Prison time not detrimental to women's job prospects

    By Kim Dixon
    News Office

    Women inmates await arraignment in a holding cell in Cook County Jail

    Contrary to public opinion, a prison record may not be a death knell for the job prospects of women who have served time, new research suggests.

    Factors linked with prison time—loss of experience and the stigma of crime—do not appear detrimental to a woman’s employment rate once she re-enters the workforce following a spell in prison, according to the findings.

    Robert LaLonde, Professor in the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, and graduate student Rosa Cho studied records of roughly 7,000 economically disadvantaged women who served time in Illinois prisons between 1995 and 2000. They then matched the data with employment records.

    Women in prison differ from their male counterparts in several striking ways. They are likely to be parents and hold custody of their children. They are older than men when incarcerated, on average 31 years old, compared to men who often land in prison in their 20s. Women also serve much shorter sentences than men.

    “There is a big difference between the male and female prison populations,” said LaLonde. “I’m beginning to think the idea that young people are more malleable is wrong; Training is working better for these women in their 30s.”

    A key factor in the reforming role prison may have on these women is that about 60 percent admitted some type of substance abuse problem when they entered prison, LaLonde said.

    “Prison is a very expensive way to provide services to women, but it is an opportunity to address some very serious inefficiencies they have as far as education and substance abuse problems,” LaLonde said.

    To be sure, policy-makers should reconsider whether prison is the best place to address these problems in this population, LaLonde said.

    Little research has been done about the impact that the incarceration of women has on employment, but the scope of the problem is widening. The national female prison population more than doubled from 1990 to 2001, according to government data.

    During the first full quarter after leaving prison, the women’s employment rates averaged 5 to 6 percentage points above expected levels, according to the research.

    The analysis found that the positive employment effect is greater the longer women spend behind bars. And although the effect fades over time for women who stayed in prison for more than six months, the effect was maintained for a longer period.

    “Beyond the second full quarter after exiting prison, these women’s employment rates average 3 to 4 percentage points above expected levels based on their pre-prison employment histories and on the current employment prospects of similar women who have not yet gone to prison,” the authors reported in the paper.

    “Considering their chaotic lifestyles before, I think prison may actually be motivating some of these women to change their lifestyles, at least in the short term, by giving them access to certain resources” said Cho, who is doing her dissertation on the children of incarcerated women.

    Another consideration for policy-makers, according to LaLonde, is the location of prisons. He suggests prisons be situated closer to cities and social services for better drug treatment, training and employment opportunities.

    LaLonde and Cho point out that more study on this topic is needed and several other factors are at work. These include relatively bright economic conditions in 2000 when the group re-entered the job market.

    And employment is just one measure of economic well-being. In fact, the women in the survey had very low earnings, on average $1,845 per quarter.

    Future phases of the research will focus on how the social welfare and foster care systems impact the lives of incarcerated mothers.

    LaLonde said the results of the recent study also raise new questions about the effects imprisonment has on employment. These include the offset in earnings and the chances of being denied benefits, such as food stamps, as an unintended consequence of employment.