Offending Women: Power, Punishment, and the Regulation of Desire / Edition 1

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Offending Women is an eye-opening journey into the lived reality of prison for women in the United States today. Lynne Haney looks at incarcerated mothers, housed together with their children, who are serving terms in alternative, community-based prisons-a type of facility that is becoming increasingly widespread.
Incorporating vivid, sometimes shocking observations of daily life, she probes the dynamics of power over women's minds and bodies that play out in two such institutions in California. She finds that these “alternative” prisons, contrary to their aims, often end up disempowering women, transforming their social vulnerabilities into personal pathologies, and pushing them into a state of disentitlement. Uncovering the complex gendered underpinning of methods of control and intervention used in the criminal justice system today, Offending Women links that system to broader discussions on contemporary government and state power, asks why these strategies have arisen at this particular moment in time, and considers what forms of citizenship they have given rise to.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"I strongly recommend this book. Haney's account is rich with ethnographic detail that brings life to abstract debates about mode of governance and the state."--American Journal of Sociology / Ajs

"Enriched with vivid images and details on incarcerated women's lives, this book reminds us of incarcerated women's social realities."--Feminist Review

"Insightful. . . . This book will appeal to persons with an interest in women's studies."--Law & Politics Book Review

"Offending women makes excellent use of ethnographic material and close observation to build a compelling analysis of two state institutions."--British Jrnl of Sociology

American Journal Of Sociology / AJS
“I strongly recommend this book. Haney’s account is rich with ethnographic detail that brings life to abstract debates about mode of governance and the state.”
Feminist Review - Olivera Simic
“Enriched with vivid images and details on incarcerated women’s lives, this book reminds us of incarcerated women’s social realities.”
Law & Politics Book Review - Jack E. Call

Insightful. . . . This book will appeal to persons with an interest in women’s studies.”
British Jrnl Of Sociology
“Offending women makes excellent use of ethnographic material and close observation to build a compelling analysis of two state institutions.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520261914
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 2/10/2010
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Lynne A. Haney is Professor of Sociology at New York University. She is the author of
Inventing the Needy: Gender, Politics, and State Development in Hungary
and a coauthor of Global Ethnography: Forces, Connections, and Imaginations in a Postmodern World (both available from UC Press). She is also the editor of Families of a New World: Gender, Politics, and State Development in a Global Context.

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Read an Excerpt

Offending Women

Power, Punishment, and the Regulation of Desire

By Lynne A. Haney


Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94591-3


Limited Government


"Who can tell me what 'limited government' means?" Rachel Brennan asked the group of teen mothers gathered in her small, makeshift classroom.

The question was met with blank, uninterested stares, so she followed up: "Well, you should know what it means since it's the basis of our system of government. I'll give you a hint." Rachel walked to the board and wrote two words, dictatorship and anarchy, with a space in between them. She explained that the former was a system of too much government, the latter of no government. But there was an alternative. "Democracy is in the middle," she noted as she wrote it in the empty space. "It's when the government doesn't have too much power, like under dictatorship, but isn't without power, like under anarchy." Then she reached the idea of limited government, describing it as a series of checks and balances designed to minimize the control the government wields over its citizens.

Sensing that this might be a bit too abstract for her students, Rachel launched into a lecture about the importance of limited government for "girls like you." She explained how tired she was of young women claiming that the government "owed" them something and complaining that their "rights" had been violated. It was as if they turned their reliance on others into a virtue. In doing so, they forgot how important it was to keep the government out of their lives. After all, she reminded them, limits on the power of government were hard-fought American "rights." So the next time they got angry about being denied something or waiting for a late welfare check, they should remember this lesson. "The government doesn't owe you very much," she proclaimed. "And that's good, sometimes."

Without a context for this lecture, one might assume it occurred in one of the countless welfare-to-work programs that sprouted up in the late-1990s era of welfare reform. Indeed, similar speeches have taken place in welfare offices across the United States since the enactment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996. But this particular rendition was delivered in early 1992, years before the official onset of reform. Moreover, it was not delivered to an audience of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families recipients; it was presented to a group of incarcerated teen mothers residing in Alliance, a state-sponsored group home. And it was not given by a politically conservative ideologue or an administratively challenged welfare worker; it was delivered by a self-proclaimed "radical feminist" so committed to helping "disadvantaged women lead productive lives" that she left a lucrative job in business to become Alliance's underpaid schoolteacher.

Yet the first time I heard Rachel's limited-government lecture, neither its timing nor its context struck me as particularly noteworthy. Instead, like many of the arguments advanced by the Alliance staff, I was most surprised by how its content seemed at odds with notions of the "patriarchal state" at the center of so much feminist theorizing. For decades, feminist scholars asserted that state policies and institutions controlled women by fostering their dependence. But here were state actors arguing that such dependence was wholly destructive to women's well-being. At the time, there were few clues that such arguments would soon become discursively dominant—or that, in the decade to follow, they would congeal into a dependency discourse and become ubiquitous in national policy debates, especially among conservative politicians. Nor was it apparent that this dependency discourse would filter down to the institutional level to revamp the structure of state agencies. Yet, in retrospect, Alliance's fixation with dependency was a sign of what was to come on a larger scale. Its institutional narrative encompassed key elements of an emergent panic of dependency: it positioned women's use of state assistance as the source of their social problems; it pathologized poor women's public and domestic relations; and it presented women's reliance on others as a devalued social condition to be overcome before they could reach the promised land of self-sufficiency.

But, again, in the penal system of the early 1990s these arguments had yet to become dominant. In fact, according to the Alliance staff, they constituted an altogether alternative approach. In their view, the penal system ignored the needs of those it served, while institutions like juvenile hall and the California Youth Authority (CYA) trapped kids in a "destructive system." Thus, the Alliance staff considered their focus on the "real needs" of young offenders to be different and even subversive. What is more, the Alliance staff claimed that the penal system had particularly damaging effects on women—by putting them on a "cycle of welfare and dependency," the system used and abused them. But the Alliance staff set out to understand girls' distinctive needs. They showed these girls what kind of resources and relationships they needed to survive. They taught them how to meet their needs and secure their well-being. In short, the Alliance staff insisted on fighting the system on behalf of women; they formulated a discourse of need in opposition to what they perceived to be the system's control of young women.

Given what happened to this kind of needs talk the following decade, it would be easy to dismiss these on-the-ground state actors as politically naïve. In fact, this is often how they are portrayed in social-scientific analyses of welfare reform—as blindly following the "party line" or as mouthpieces for dependency discourse. But this portrayal misses important insights into the power that dependency discourse had over those articulating it. As a result, it leaves us without an understanding of the institutional appeal of dependency discourse or the intensity with which many local actors latched onto it. When the Alliance staff articulated this discourse in the early 1990s, they did so for their own reasons: it allowed them to carve out new state spaces and differentiate these spaces from those of their predecessors. Dependency discourse was not simply forced or coerced—it was rooted in state actors' specific political and institutional needs.

This chapter begins by outlining these institutional needs and the way they drew the Alliance staff to focus on their charges' social dependency. Here I reveal how dependency discourse enabled Alliance to justify its existence and to secure itself vis-à-vis the more powerful institutions it was reliant on. In this way, I argue that the staff's institutional dependency led them to fixate on the dangers of dependency for their young clients. I then analyze the concrete ways Alliance transmitted this construction of need to the women under its control: from staff lectures on initiative and independence to the organization of everyday life, the goal was to break women's public dependencies and to convince them they no longer needed state support. I also describe how the regulation of women's social relationships formed the centerpiece of Alliance's program of independence—as the staff set out to redefine women's roles as workers, mothers, and citizens in ways they insisted would make their girls autonomous, self-sufficient, and self-reliant.


When Alliance opened its doors in 1989, it considered itself a new kind of state institution. It was considerably smaller than traditional criminal-justice facilities: housed on a residential street in a rough, crime-ridden neighborhood, Alliance looked more like a big, dilapidated mansion than a facility for convicted felons. The house held up to thirty residents, although it never got that full. In part because the inmates had (or were expecting) babies, the staff rarely allowed the house to reach more than half its capacity. This meant the staff/inmate ratio remained high. Alliance employed eight staff members, including the director, house manager, schoolteacher, counselors, and day/night staff. All staff members were women; approximately half were African American, half Anglo. These women insisted that Alliance be as unprison-like as possible. So there were no bars on the windows, no heavy steel doors, no security cameras, and no surveillance technology in the house. From the street, there was no indication that Alliance was a CYA facility for official wards of the state of California.

Perhaps even more than its size or staff composition, Alliance's funding structure marked it as unique for the period. Alliance relied on three funding sources. First, it had a contract with CYA whereby any girl who entered the prison system pregnant or with an infant had the option to come to Alliance to serve her sentence. CYA then provided funds for the inmates' upkeep and maintenance. Second, once admitted to the program, each girl was put on Aid to Families with Dependent Children. According to the house director, AFDC funds were pooled to help purchase food for the entire house; a small percentage of this money was also given to the girls to buy personal items. Finally, Alliance received funding from Fellowship for Change, the large nonprofit organization from which it had been born. Created in the 1950s, the Fellowship had a reputation in the community as the main NGO assisting ex-cons. In fact, the Fellowship leadership considered Alliance an experiment: after decades of working with men, it decided to widen its scope to include young female offenders. So it donated the house Alliance was located in and funds to cover the salaries of the facility director and house manager.

In this way, Alliance combined funds from different public programs, thus situating itself in a space between the state and nonstate sectors. While this hybrid space would expand dramatically in the following decade, in 1989 it was a relatively uncrowded arena. In fact, when it came to community-based facilities for incarcerated teen mothers, Alliance was the only game in town. This meant Alliance did not face many of the dilemmas that would come to haunt other state hybrids—for instance, Alliance did not have to compete with other facilities for residents or resources. But Alliance had other dilemmas to contend with: it struggled to convince other institutions of the need for its services and to carve out some legitimacy. This was particularly challenging since Alliance was sandwiched between two larger, more powerful institutions. On the state side was CYA, with its harsh, punitive orientation. On the NGO side was the Fellowship, with its focus on male offenders. The Alliance staff knew their fate rested on the cooperation and support of those in charge of these other entities. This awareness gave the Alliance staff a mission—a gendered mission that enabled them to develop a common institutional narrative of what their young charges needed.

Us versus Them ... and Them

Alliance's institutional narrative became apparent in my initial interactions with its staff. With most state institutions it can take years for ethnographers to piece together a picture of shared assumptions and meanings. Not so with Alliance, which presented me with a clear, unified mantra that replayed itself constantly over the course of my fieldwork. At times, the message seemed to have been collectively crafted and recited to the point of perfection. The mantra also seemed to be the glue that held Alliance together, bonding a group of otherwise diverse and potentially divided women. After all, there were critical differences among the Alliance staff—not only were they racially divided, but they differed in their educational level, class background, and job assignments. Yet none of these differences proved decisive or divisive. Or, more precisely, none of them trumped the dividing lines Alliance established between itself and the larger institutions hovering over it. In effect, Alliance's institutional mantra emphasized how and why it differed from other penal facilities; the staff's narrative was based on their common opposition to those surrounding them.

Because I had been referred to Alliance from its parent institution, my first meetings with the staff focused on how they differed from their Fellowship colleagues. "I bet they tried to get you to work in one of their other programs," Dwan, Alliance's house manager, speculated when she first met me. Indeed, the staff at the Fellowship not only suggested I work in their male halfway house but actually tried to dissuade me from working at Alliance. Warning me that working at Alliance would be a negative experience, the Fellowship director claimed that "they throw temper tantrums all the time." He insisted that they "manipulated everyone around them" and were "out of touch with reality." As he noted at one point, "The program over there is our newest one. It's just three years old and I'm telling you they act like it—like toddlers with all the tantrums and fits." It was unclear whether the "they" he referred to were the inmates or the staff; in fact, he seemed to have been purposefully vague. While I never mentioned his comments to the Alliance staff, I did not have to. They knew the line the Fellowship had about them.

For their part, the Alliance staff also had a line about the Fellowship. Whenever Alliance director Marlene asked for funds from the Fellowship, she spoke about going to "big daddy" to beg for her "allowance." Other staff members often described the "scolding" and "reprimands" they received from the Fellowship guys, which they attributed to sexism and chauvinism. Yet the staff did not appear fearful of such reprisals. Instead, they portrayed the Fellowship as enamored with the image of the "tough guy criminal." The men who ran the Fellowship liked the idea of hanging around with the bad guys; they got off on the idea that they could "tame the beast." But the Alliance staff insisted they were different. As women, they did not approach their work with the same "macho" attitude. Some of them were from the surrounding community, while others had spent years in the NGO world. So their motivations were different. Their goal was to help young women instead of satisfying their own egos; they taught the girls life lessons instead of getting off on their criminality. They represented themselves as truly committed, as the "real deal."

In addition to differentiating their motivations, the Alliance staff emphasized how their diagnoses of their charges' problems diverged from those of the Fellowship. Because the Fellowship men had backgrounds in substance-abuse counseling, they saw drugs and alcohol as the main threat to their clients' well-being. They connected substance abuse to criminal behavior—and then linked criminal behavior to men's inability to integrate socially. According to the Fellowship formula, chemical dependency led to social dependency. But the Alliance staff insisted that it worked in the reverse for their charges. For their girls, the biggest threat was social dependency—it motivated them to act criminally. Moreover, state dependency was the most insidious of all; once hooked on the state, the girls' futures were sealed. So Alliance had to work differently from the Fellowship. And this difference then became the rationale for Alliance's institutional existence, unifying its staff and solidifying one part of their "us versus them" stance.

The second part of this stance was the staff's opposition to CYA. To a large extent, CYA was the bread and butter of the facility—it supplied Alliance with residents as well as the bulk of its funding. This made Alliance quite dependent on CYA; the staff relied on CYA sending girls to them. Without the CYA contract, Alliance would not exist. So this was where the real institutional struggles lay. Alliance did everything it could to secure a steady stream of residents from CYA. This involved making sure CYA officials knew about their program—what director Marlene called their "advertising" and "marketing" work. It also meant exerting pressure on CYA to release more girls than it wanted to. "If left alone, they would never send us anyone," Dwan once noted. "So we have to bully them." Sometimes the staff used their connections for this bullying. For instance, they had a few sympathetic probation officers whom they could count on to transfer their pregnant clients from CYA to Alliance. There were also a few judges who would use their authority to get eligible girls released to Alliance. Yet, overall, it was up to the Alliance staff to keep pressure on CYA, thus ensuring the future of their program.


Excerpted from Offending Women by Lynne A. Haney. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: An Ethnographic Journey across States 1

Part I In a State of Dependence

1 Limited Government: Training Women What to Need 29

2 Deconstructing Dependency: Needs, Rights, and the Struggle for Entitlement 57

3 Hybrid States and Government from a Distance 86

Part II In a State of Recovery

4 State Therapeutics: Training Women What to Want 115

5 The Empowerment Myth: Social Vulnerability as Personal Pathology 150

6 The Enemies Within: Fighting the Sisters and Numbing the Self 178

Conclusion: States of Disentitlement and the Therapeutics of Neoliberalism 207

Notes 227

Bibliography 263

Index 279

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