by Cesraéa Rumpf, author of Recovering Identity: Criminalized Women’s Fight for Dignity and Freedom

When I began my research with formerly incarcerated women in Chicago, I expected to hear a lot of hard stories. Based on the existing research, my past direct service work in domestic violence organizations, and my ongoing organizing work to support survivors who are criminalized for self-defense, I knew most, if not all, of the women would be survivors of gender-based violence. I also knew jail and prison are punitive spaces that harm everyone they cage, while enacting particular gendered harms against women. Additionally, I was familiar with the vast and overwhelming challenges women face when returning to their communities, from housing and employment discrimination to the impossible demands of parole and child reunification plans.

In part because I anticipated these hard stories, I used photo-elicitation interviewing (PEI) to investigate women’s criminalization and post-incarceration experiences. Research participants took photographs to help tell their stories. The photographs became the basis of a subsequent interview, during which women reflected on what each image communicated. PEI provided a more accessible way than interviews alone to discuss experiences of trauma and violence. It also decentered power in the research relationship, as women drove the interviews and focused my attention on the issues that mattered most to them.

Throughout our interviews, I did hear a lot of hard stories. Women discussed the inhumane treatment they endured in jails and prisons, which communicated loudly and clearly that, in the eyes of the carceral state, they were “nobodies.” Tinybig’s photograph of Cook County Jail on a cold winter morning and her reflection that the image made her think of “pigs…goin’ to slaughter” still haunt me.

What surprised me, though, were the joyful stories I also heard throughout our interviews and the hope that exuded from so many of the photographs – photos of women having fun with their friends, photos representing women’s future homes, photos symbolizing women’s deepening relationships with their children. Women reflected on the better people they were becoming. As Chicken Wing said, “today I feel good about me. I like me.” These photographs and reflections documented women’s diligent, steady work to transform their lives by transforming their selves.

I came to understand identity work as one of the main tasks women faced post-incarceration. Women had to continuously perform and prove their “rehabilitated” identities, specifically their recovery from drug use.

Recovering Identity: Criminalized Women’s Fight for Dignity and Freedom examines how women constructed “rehabilitated” identities in opposition to their past “criminal-addict” identities, a label imposed on them by the criminal legal system. It analyzes both the systematic breaking down of women’s identities by the carceral system – what Erving Goffman famously referred to as mortification – and rehabilitation as racialized gendered processes. Recovering Identity also demands more for women than the individualistic, punitive, blaming discourses the carceral system presently offers to guide women’s personal transformation processes. The focus on personal transformation provides cover for a violent carceral system that perpetuates itself, in part, by reaching so deeply into women’s lives that it fundamentally shapes the very way they think of and relate to themselves.