Media and Communication Ph.D. Dissertations


“I’m Not as Bad as I Seem to Be”: Understanding the Identities of Female Ex-Offenders

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Communication Studies

First Advisor

Terry Rentner (Committee Co-Chair)

Second Advisor

Lynda Dixon (Committee Co-Chair)

Third Advisor

Rhadika Gajjala (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Laura Lengel-Martin (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Amy Morgan (Committee Member)


This study investigated the identities of women who have been in prison. Prisonrates and the effects of incarceration are serious social problems in this country today.

Women now represent the fastest growing prisoner population in the United States.

Women who are currently incarcerated or who have experienced life in prison are a silenced population in our country. Once a woman has been given the label of prisoner, her stories, life, and experiences are no longer valuable in normative society: she is, essentially, invisible.

This study focused on issues of identity and how women who have been incarcerated discussed their experiences and the ways those experiences impacted their lives. A theoretical framework based on symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1969; Fisher and Strauss, 1978) and feminist standpoint (Harding, 1987; Harding, 2004) was used to investigate the lives of women who have lived behind bars.

Eleven women living in one of two transitional programs in Ohio were the participants in this study. Semistructured, in-depth interviews and ethnography were the methods used to gain a deeper level of analysis regarding the experiences of the research participants.

This study revealed that although incarceration may define who these women are to society, it does not define them personally. Prison affected their lives, but it did not define them. A disconnect between how this group of women perceives society’s view of them and how they view themselves was apparent.

Negativity was the one theme revealed regarding how ex-offenders perceive society’s view of them. Themes associated with the identities of the ex-offenders participating in this study were: survivors, women of God, and women who felt unloved in their lives. Transitional programming was described as being an important element in regaining a productive life after incarceration. Support, employment programming, and consistent accountability for women ex-offenders were recommendations provided for transitional programs.

The purpose of this study was not to generalize the identities and experiences of female offenders, but instead to understand better how these women express their own identities in a world that often places identifying labels on them.