Women’s incarceration; welfare; General Assistance; institutional ethnography


For people who have just been released from incarceration, the work of getting out and resuming life on the outside often includes numerous institutional contacts. Applying for and maintaining public assistance—cash aid and food stamps, commonly referred to as welfare— is a central component of what I call “reentry work.” I argue that discourses around welfare and punishment have perpetuated the erasure of formerly incarcerated women’s experiences. Utilizing an institutional ethnographic perspective, I show how the work of applying for and maintaining welfare is organized around a standardized textual discourse of children, and women as caretakers of children. Formerly incarcerated women do not fit easily into such a category, thus they are systematically excluded from the assistance they need. I examine the multiple layers of unrecognized work juggled by these women, and suggest avenues for welfare reform.

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