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Women Doing Life: Gender, Punishment and the Struggle for Identity

by Lora Bex Lempert New York University Press
Pub Date:
Pbk 320 pages
AU$64.00 NZ$66.96
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The carceral experiences of women serving life sentences. 
2017 Michigan Notable Book Selection presented by The Detroit Free Press

How do women – mothers, daughters, aunts, nieces and grandmothers – make sense of judgment to a lifetime behind bars? In Women Doing Life, Lora Bex Lempert presents a typology of the ways that life-sentenced women grow and self-actualize, resist prison definitions, reflect on and “own” their criminal acts, and ultimately create meaningful lives behind prison walls. Looking beyond the explosive headlines that often characterize these women as monsters, Lempert offers rare insight into this vulnerable, little studied population.  Her gendered analysis considers the ways that women “do crime” differently than men and how they have qualitatively different experiences of imprisonment than their male counterparts. Through in-depth interviews with 72 women serving life sentences in Michigan, Lempert brings these women back into the public arena, drawing analytical attention to their complicated, contradictory, and yet compelling lives.
Women Doing Life focuses particular attention on how women cope with their no-exit sentences and explores how their lifetime imprisonment catalyzes personal reflection, accountability for choices, reconstruction of their stigmatized identities, and rebuilding of social bonds. Most of the women in her study reported childhoods in environments where violence and disorder were common; many were victims before they were offenders. Lempert vividly illustrates how, behind the prison gates, life-serving women can develop lives that are meaningful, capable and, oftentimes, even ordinary. Women Doing Life shows both the scope and the limit of human possibility available to women incarcerated for life. 

"Lempert shines a spotlight on the experiences of 72 women serving life sentences in Michigan. Through in-depth interviews, she brings these marginalized women back into the center of the public arena, drawing attention to their complicated, contradictory and compelling lives."-Detroit Free Press

 "Lempert’s aim was to expose the invisible lives of women incarcerated for life. She tells their stories with empathy and an awareness of needs for reform. She masterfully accomplished her aim."-Sex Roles

“You will not be able to put this book down. Lempert intersperses the active voices of women serving life with the personal and social forces that lead them to prison. She challenges the many stereotypes of women serving life without possibility of parole. And she clarifies the different ways the women create new, positive definitions of self within the corrosive environment of life in prison. Your students will be well served by considering the experiences of the women and will be challenged by Lempert's interpretation of the ethnographic data.”-Natalie J. Sokoloff,co-editor of The Criminal Justice System and Women

"Showing readers the order and meaning that women wring from the chaos—daily and over a lifetime of incarceration—is a tremendous and moving accomplishment."-American Journal of Sociology

"Lempert’s work is a singular and important intervention in in incarceration studies."-Women's Review of Books

“Lora Lempert has written about the tragic failure of our penal system, but at the same time about the heroic way women who are incarcerated survive it. If you are looking for stories of courage and pride among people who society would like to forget, this book is a compelling archive.”-Todd R. Clear,co-author of The Punishment Imperative: The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration

Women Doing Life is an outstanding piece of work that unapologetically showcases an understudied group within our criminal justice system by mixing together the voice of feminist criminology, crime statistics, and powerful stories of self-reform, despair, injustice, courage, and hope.”-Journal of Family Strengths
Lora Bex Lempert is Professor Emerita at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. For twelve years, she was a co-sponsor of the National Lifers of America chapter at a womens correctional facility and the coordinator of college level courses offered at that facility. She also offered the first Inside Out Prison Exchange class in Michigan.