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Empowerment Approaches with Offenders: Techniques that Heal

How does one work in the system without becoming the system? Two social workers who work at York Correctional Institution, Connecticut’s only female prison, will discuss empowerment theory and practice as it is applied to treatment of female offenders. Techniques and programs that empower the incarcerated women, as

well as the social worker, in an effort to achieve social justice will be shared and discussed.

elizabeth allen lcsw
Elizabeth Allen, LCSW
  • Elizabeth Allen has worked at York Correctional Institution for eighteen years as a clinical social worker.
  • Her innovative peer mentoring program employs the concept of “reciprocal rehabilitation” and has been presented at NOFSW, NASW, and the National Commission of Correctional Managed Health Care conferences. She has additionally presented on topics of empowerment practice with female offenders and peer mentoring programs as effective interventions for offenders.
  • In addition to providing individual and group treatment to female offenders, she works collaboratively with custody and multidisciplinary staff in order to provide gender-responsive and trauma-informed services for female offenders during their incarceration.
  • Ms. Allen is presently working towards her Ph.D. in social work at UCONN. Her dissertation topic will be female offenders, empowerment theory and successful reintegration.
  • She is currently an adjunct faculty at UCONN – School of Social Work and teaching Research Methods to MSW students.
jessie loss lcsw
Jessie Loss, LCSW
  • Jessie Loss, LCSW has been working with female offenders at York Correctional Institution for 5 years providing inpatient and outpatient care for women with intensive mental health needs.
  • She currently works in the Safe Passage Day Treatment program with an interdisciplinary team providing group and individual treatment.
  • Jessie works in collaboration with custody staff in order to provide trauma and gender-informed treatment to offenders during their incarceration.
  • She is bilingual and provides culturally competent translation and supportive therapy with Spanish speaking female offenders.
  • She presented at NOFSW, 2011 in New Orleans on the topic of integrative day treatment with offenders. She has also presented on empowerment practice with female offenders at NASW conferences.
  • Jessie recently opened a private practice providing collaborative community treatment with area hospitals and providers.
problem statement
Problem Statement:

Female Offenders

  • The number of incarcerated women in prisons more than doubled between 1990 and 1999, outpacing the rise in the number of incarcerated men (Beck, 2000).
  • Are members of several oppressed and disempowered groups
  • Have high rates of substance abuse, trauma experiences, and lack of educational and vocational services.
  • Pathways to Crime – different from males
  • Correctional environments are oppressive by nature and therefore providing services that are empowering in nature, can be challenging.
unintended consequences of mass incarceration
Unintended Consequences of Mass Incarceration
  • Racial
  • Poverty
  • Education and Employment
  • Children and Families
  • Disadvantaged Communities
  • Race and class divisions in the risks of imprisonment ~ 6 to 8 times higher for young black men compared to young whites. For black men in their mid-thirties at the end of the 1990s, prison records were nearly twice as common as bachelor’s degrees (Pettit & Western, 2004).
  • Black males have a 29% lifetime chance of serving at least a year in prison (6X higher than for White males).
  • Between the 1980s and 1990s ~ 400% increase in the chances that a drug arrest would result in a prison sentence.
  • The increase in the disproportionate rates of incarcerated blacks is linked to key economical, political and cultural factors related to ghetto poverty (Bobo & Thompson, 2008).
  • Black men are being sentenced to prisons at a faster rate than they are enrolling in college. In 2002, approximately 791,000 went to prison as opposed to 603, 000 were in higher education.
  • State spending on criminal justice increased 6X the rate of state spending on higher education.
  • The United States has the highest poverty rate for female-headed households and the largest gender gap related to poverty.
  • In 2001, over one-half (52%) of the 32.9 million people (including children) living in poverty were women.
  • 49% of families living below the poverty level were headed by single women. Poor women without state assistance are 3.3 times more likely to reoffend than recipients (Holtfreter, et al., 2004).
  • Women with fewer educational achievements, lower self-efficacy, and problems related to employment and financial assistance are significantly more likely to be incarcerated (Salisbury & Van Voorhis, 2009).
education and employment
Education and Employment
  • Women’s poverty ~ attributed to limited educational & vocational skills, drug/alcohol dependence, child care responsibilities, and illegal opportunities offering more lucrative returns
  • Only 40% of women in state prison report full-time employment prior to their arrest, and 2/3 report their highest hourly wage to be no higher than $6.50 (BJS, 1999).
  • With every year of increase in education, the chance the women’s earnings would be from illegal means decreased by 18%.
  • School and employment significantly impact the likelihood of rearrest.
    • As education increased, recidivism rates decreased.
    • Women working in a regular job are 83% less likely less likely to be arrested than women who are unemployed.
    • Women attending school are 90% less likely to be arrested than women not in school (Uggen & Kruttschnitt, 1998).
children family
Children & Family
  • Generations are being lost to the prison system and as a result, children, families and communities become more vulnerable, defenseless, and impoverished.
  • Broken mother-child bonds can potentially lead to female offenders experiencing a life of meaningless misery and doom their children to becoming victims of the criminal justice system as they repeat the cycle of poverty, crime and drugs (Geiger & Fischer, 2003).
disadvantaged communities
Disadvantaged communities
  • The consequences of imprisonment on minority communities and our democracy are profound.
  • Concentrated poverty increases the likelihood of social isolation (from mainstream institutions), joblessness, dropping out of school, lower educational achievement, involvement in crime, unsuccessful behavioral development family management
  • Concentrated poverty adversely affects one’s chances in life beginning in early childhood and adolescence.
  • As individuals are recycled between prison and community –increases the social disorganization of poor, disadvantaged communities and results in higher crime rates in those communities
  • Community collaboration and active engagement is the most effective crime fighting tools & it is more difficult to turn to the communities and ask for assistance in neighborhood-based approaches if we increase alienation b/w community and justice agencies
empowerment theory practice
Empowerment Theory & Practice
  • Assumes that society consists of separate groups possessing different levels of power and control over resources.
  • The goal is social justice
  • Social problems stem not from individual deficits, but from the failure of the society to meet the needs of all its members
  • In social work, it merged from efforts to develop more effective and responsive services for women and people of color
  • A process of increasing personal, interpersonal, or political power so that individuals can take action to improve their life situations
  • Integrates both individual change and social change and believes that many of the negative symptoms that emerge in powerless clients stem from their strategies to cope with a hostile world.
desistance theory
Desistance Theory
  • Recognizes the broader social contexts and conditions that are required to support change.
  • Impact of disadvantaged communities are not just going to disappear because the offender wants to desist –both are needed
  • Pathway to desistance for females ~self-efficacy and empowerment are key elements
  • Deficit paradigm ~ individual focused, they need to be fixed and are incapable of doing it by themselves and therefore need to be “fixed” by eternal forces.
  • Empowerment Paradigm ~ Combination of individual change and structural support. Do not fix the offender but provide infrastructure to promote healthier communities to support the offenders.
commonly cited values of social work profession

Commonly cited values of Social Work Profession


Seeking to meet individuals’ common human needs

Respect of persons

Individual worth & dignity

Providing individuals with opportunity to realize their potential

Client empowerment

Client self-determination

Valuing individuals’ capacity for change

Commitment to social change and social justice

Seeking to provide individuals with adequate resources and services to meet basic needs

Equal opportunity

Respect of diversity




Elizabeth Allen, LCSW

sisters standing strong

“Sisters Standing Strong”

Offender Mentoring Program

York Correctional Institution

Niantic, Connecticut

sisters standing strong program goals
Sisters Standing Strong Program Goals:

To provide an opportunity for the female offenders to stand as role models for others.

To provide an opportunity for placement into a program that promotes pride, growth and empowerment for the helpers.

 To aid in the adjustment of women who are newly admitted.

To provide an outlet where the female offenders can receive peer-support and insight into common adjustment issues.

To reduce the number of “crisis” calls and MH referrals for adjustment issues.

reflections on peer support
Reflections on Peer Support

“To be able to share feelings with others, to open up and not have to feel ashamed or embarrassed, will help the shy girls to come out of their shells and find similarities with other inmates.”

“We are not alone in our feelings. Only another woman who is in the same situation as you can truly understand.”

“This program will definitely save women from losing all hope, and help us to begin to believe a little more in ourselves and having the strength to do our time.”

“The ladies took the time to listen to my complaining and cry of help. Somebody actually cared about the way I am feeling.”

success and community growth
Success and Community Growth

Dear Liz, Mary, Jill and all my Sisters,

It’s been a little while since I last made contact. I wanted to write to tell all of you that I have not forgotten about you. Indeed, you are in my heart and on my mind every day. I used to say that once I was released and I got a car I would drive down there and just sit across the street and remember. And so I did just that this past weekend. For a small window of time the sun shined down on us and under blue skies I walked around the ball field just outside that barbed wire fence and I reconnected with each of you.

Everything has been going so incredibly great for me and that is when I need to be reminded of all I have come through most. I used to be a self-sabotager. I did not believe that I deserved to have a good and healthy life, and so when things were going good in my life, I would do things to sabotage them. Well –not today. I work real hard to have all that I have and I refuse to let anything or anyone – including myself, destroy them or take them away from me. YOU – all of you, taught me that.


I also learned how important it is to give back. Sister’s Standing Strong showed me that there is so much more to be gained in giving, or rather sharing, with others. You women have changed my life and I thank you for sharing your lives with me.

There are some really great things happening out here that will positively impact those of you in there. I know right now you are experiencing changes that are probably making you crazy, but rest assured, they are temporary –all of that is-and good things are brewing. We are in a great position politically for some serious changes to happen, and time is not holding anyone back from making those changes happen. HOPE, BELIEVE and so it shall be.

Keep your heads up, and lean on one another, even if you don’t or can’t see the value in what you have today there- I promise you, you will see it when you leave.

Blessings to all,

Deborah R



Jessica Loss, LCSW


Intensive Day Treatment in Prison

Empowerment based mental health treatment programming

Jessica Loss, LCSW


Safe Passage Day Treatment Program

Interdisciplinary & Collaborative treatment approach

  • Ongoing monitoring, assessment, support, treatment, collaboration with adjunct services, and discharge planning.
  • Began in 2008 with 16 participants, currently have 32 participants
  • Individualized treatment plans & schedules- Track 1 and Track 2
holistic approach
Holistic Approach

Individualized Intake process & Treatment plan- bio-psycho-social, client based

Staff ideology


Weekly treatment team

Collateral communication

Strengths based, reality based

Role of therapeutic alliance

overcoming barriers to treatment
Overcoming Barriers to Treatment
  • Physical difficulties
  • Pragmatic concerns
  • Custody relationships

Quotes from the Safe Passage women

“Safe Passage has been a blessing for me. There are so many wonderful groups that I have attended.”

“Safe Passage is like the needle and thread of my days. It’s slowly putting back together the pieces of my life”

“They [Safe Passage team] see my potential to do great things and stay on me when I begin to stray away.”

“Safe Passage helped me to get my life back on track.. It is a good support system.”

in summary
In Summary
  • Traditional correctional programs ~ disregard the offenders’ ability to initiate positive change within themselves & assumes they are incapable of “fixing” themselves and that they need to be fixed by external agents (Herrschaft, et al, 2009).
  • Strengths perspective in social work practice ~ attempts to correct destructive emphasis on what is wrong, missing or abnormal with the individual and shifts focus to seeing individuals in the light of their hopes, possibilities and the belief in their capacity for change (Saleebey, 1996).
  • Empowerment theory ~ There exists in every person, potential for positive change & the process of increasing personal and interpersonal power, individuals are better able to take action in order to improve their life situations (Gutierrez, 1990).
william schwartz

The process by which the client reconstructs his experience is not one the worker creates; he/she simply enters, and leaves…..He/she is an incident in the life of his/her client. Thus the worker should ask herself: what kind of incident will I represent….How do I enter the process, do what I have to do, and then leave?

~ William Schwartz





Elizabeth Allen, LCSW

Jessica Loss, LCSW

please feel free to peruse our materials
Please feel free to peruse our materials

The minute you start talking about what you’re going to do if you lose, you have lost.

~George Shultz