Breaking Women

Gender, Race, and the New Politics of Imprisonment

283 pages

1 table and 1 figure

August, 2013

ISBN: 9780814761496



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Jill A. McCorkel is Associate Professor of Sociology at Villanova University. Her work has appeared in several leading journals, including Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, and Contexts.

All books by Jill A. McCorkel

Winner of the 2014 Division of Women and Crime Distinguished Scholar Award presented by the American Society of Criminology

Finalist for the 2013 C. Wright Mills Book Award presented by the Society for the Study of Social Problems
Since the 1980s, when the War on Drugs kicked into high gear and prison populations soared, the increase in women’s rate of incarceration has steadily outpaced that of men. As a result, women’s prisons in the US have suffered perhaps the most drastically from the overcrowding and recurrent budget crises that have plagued the penal system since harsher drugs laws came into effect. In Breaking Women, Jill A. McCorkel draws upon four years of on-the-ground research in a major US women’s prison to uncover why tougher drug policies have so greatly affected those incarcerated there, and how the very nature of punishment in women’s detention centers has been deeply altered as a result.
Through compelling interviews with prisoners and state personnel, McCorkel reveals that popular so-called “habilitation” drug treatment programs force women to accept a view of themselves as inherently damaged, aberrant addicts in order to secure an earlier release. These programs were created as a way to enact stricter punishments on female drug offenders while remaining sensitive to their perceived feminine needs for treatment, yet they instead work to enforce stereotypes of deviancy that ultimately humiliate and degrade the women. The prisoners are left feeling lost and alienated in the end, and many never truly address their addiction as the programs’ organizers may have hoped. A fascinating and yet sobering study, Breaking Women foregrounds the gendered and racialized assumptions behind tough-on-crime policies while offering a vivid account of how the contemporary penal system impacts individual lives.


  • "It has been observed that the eclipse of the prison ethnography corresponded almost perfectly with the rise of mass incarceration. This hugely important book shows precisely why we need to reverse both trends. The women’s stories that are so vividly captured in this work demonstrate in painful detail that efforts to ‘break’ human beings, even if in the name of reform, only succeed at creating more victims."

    —Shadd Maruna, author of Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives

  • "This is the book so many sociologists of punishment, law, and gender have been waiting for. Beautifully written and thoughtfully argued, Breaking Women takes readers inside the U.S. penal system to analyze how its overall structure and concrete practices changed in the era of mass incarceration. Through a captivating and absorbing ethnographic account of a prison drug treatment program for women, the book traces how a particularly gendered mode of punishment emerged to discipline and humiliate women. In this way, McCorkel shows how our images of 'get tough' criminal policies and practices must change to encompass not only the inmate warehousing of overcrowded correctional facilities, but also some of the smaller, 'alternative' programs that reach inside inmates' heads to transform their sense of self."

    —Lynne Haney, author of Offending Women: Power, Punishment, and the Regulation of Desire

  • "Breaking Women is a remarkable achievement. Jill McCorkel's long-awaited account raises critical questions about the social and psychological consequences of the current trend toward punitive, for-profit 'habilitation.' Meticulously researched and beautifully written, this is prison ethnography at its best."

    —Lorna Rhodes, author of Total Confinement: Madness and Reason in the Maximum Security Prison

  • "McCorkel's rich data contains the voices of prisoners and staff, which she skillfully links to larger, generally critical, theoretical perspectives on punishment."

    —P.S. Leighton, CHOICE

  • "The book is an interesting, honest, and uncomplicated read, one that challenges current public views of how to care for inmates and reduce recidivism. The intended audience is foremost students and teachers in the field of sociology, criminology and gender studies, but the book is equally accessible to those interested in the prison system, its effects on women, as well as how programs meant to habilitate women are implemented, along with their rates of success or attrition."

    —Hennie Weiss, Metapsychology

  • "McCorkel does a superb job of bringing individual women to life for the reader, while simultaneously developing a strong and always readable theoretical analysis."

    —Susan Sered, Women's Review of Book

  • “Jill McCokel’s book is wonderful testimony to the power of ethnography to untangle and illuminate the complexities of otherwise hard-to-access social processes.  And, despite chilling descriptions of PHW ‘confrontations,’ Breaking Women is ultimately satisfying to read because of McCorkel’s stimulating grasp of the social, political, economic, philosophical, and human rights issues raised by prison regimes that combine close surveillance of the body with brainwashing techniques directed at mind control and a breaking of ‘self,’ ‘spirit,’ ‘soul.’  I strongly recommend Breaking Women to anyone with an interest in ethnography.  To everyone interested in justice, human rights and the politics of imprisonment Breaking Women is recommended as essential reading.” 

    British Journal of Criminology

  • "Jill McCorkel further extends the implications of such an invisibilized incarceration of black women with her seminal monograph, Breaking Women.  She delves into the hidden hallways of prisons, intimately detailing a drug treatment program that was initially tested in one of California's largest women's prisons and that has since been replicated across the United States."

    WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly

  • “McCorkel’s work is an invaluable contribution to the examination of the politics of gender and race in the context of privatized correctional treatment.  It offers a unique insight and adds to the scarce ethnographic research on women’s prisons."

    Social Service Review

  • “Based on four years of ethnography and more than 100 interviews with PHW’s stakeholders, Breaking Women is an exceptionally well-researched piece of scholarship….McCorkel seamlessly weaves together history, politics, policy, and ethnography to form a complex, yet easy-to-follow, line of argumentation.”

    Teaching Sociology