Female Offenders: Unlocking Their Sentencing Reality

The Gender Week Keynote speaker this year was Dr. Shauntey James. She works at Penn State Harrisburg and her presentation was titled “Female Offenders: Unlocking their Sentencing Reality.” Over zoom, Dr. James was able to create an intimate and interactive atmosphere with the audience by asking questions and stimulating discussion. At the beginning of the presentation, Dr. James mentioned the book that she co-wrote with Dr. Alana Van Gundy entitled The History, Evolution, and Current State of Female Offenders: Recommendations for Advancing the Field. At this point, she introduces the phrase that the book and the presentation both revolve around: the female offender. One key point in understanding the term was the idea that women are seen as “second class citizens” and viewed as such perpetually by society. Equally as important is the knowledge that women of color are incarcerated at a higher rate than their white counterparts. With this knowledge and the statistics to demonstrate the inequality, the action of sentencing was Dr. James’s focus for much of her presentation.

One of the first interactive activities that Dr. Shauntey introduced was prompting the audience to look at a series of photos that depicted incarcerated women in various angles and backgrounds. She asked the audience to comment on the emotions that were evoked as a consequence of the photos. One audience member discussed how the orientation of these women was usually next to a man that was perceived of as in a place of power and as an authority figure. Furthermore, another audience member pointed out that the women in the pictures were looking down seemingly in a submissive manner and how they felt upset for the women as an emotional consequence. This activity was the basis for understanding the other more complex aspects of Dr. James’s presentation and created an atmosphere that was stimulating and engaging.

One of the main objectives that Dr. Shauntey emphasized was the transition from the old way of thinking about the topic to a new way of thinking about it which is more informed. She used Ella Josephine Baker as an example and discusses one of Baker’s quotes that connects to the issue to female offenders which is: “One of the things that has to be faced is the process of waiting to change the system, how much we have to do, to find out who we are, where we come from, and where we are going.” The next term that Dr. James used to create context for the situation of incarcerated women is Kimberlee Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality. After explaining the context, she began to lay out a scenario for the audience to ponder; one aspect of the scenario dealt with the primary identifying status of an individual also known as a “master status.” In the case of the female offender, once information about such a status is known, nothing else seems to matter more than their incarceration record and in essence the label of female offender becomes her master status because of how society interprets the female offender.

In the following part of the presentation after the conceptual foundation was set, Dr. Shauntey began to create scenarios for audience members to ponder ethically, personally, and emotionally. This resulted in a rich dialogue that illustrated the concept of the female offender in a unique and interactive way. The issue of whether an offender status should be disclosed by people other than the individual was debated and a majority of audience members thought that the offender themselves should have the ability to have the power over the information and decide who they share it with. For the continuation of the presentation, layer upon layer of individual circumstances were added to this hypothetical individual’s life. The audience was asked to share their personal opinions as well as provide solutions for additional layers such as if the female offender had children and if she was the primary caregiver. For each new scenario, the idea of intersectionality in this issue became more apparent in the sense that it became nuanced depending on the specific situations of female offenders and clearly complicated female offenders’ experiences.

Dr. Shauntey’s keynote presentation was very powerful and unique because of the format that she emphasized. As an audience member I quite enjoyed the freedom of talking directly to the speaker and hearing what fellow audience members felt about specific scenarios. The female offender is not a topic that I have encountered often and learning about the specific aspects of  the experience such as master status and intersectionality allowed for the audience to get more familiar with the issue and understand why it is so important. It was clear that a new perspective that shifts away from the stigma of incarceration is necessary. Additionally, as demonstrated by the concept of intersectionality, individual’s experiences and circumstances cannot be viewed as separate problems and rather must be understood as interconnected and compounding. Progression towards a perspective that allows for the integration of multiple layers and circumstances can aid in greater critical analysis of the issue and the creation of solutions for female offenders.

Written by Ellen McInnes ’22, WGRC Student Worker

April 4, 2022