La Tanya Skiffer: Sociologist Publishes Book on Women’s Hope Behind Bars
La Tanya Skiffer, assistant professor of sociology, recently published her book, “How Black Female Offenders Explain Their Crime and Describe Their Hopes,” based on her 2006 dissertation on the causes of crime by and incarceration of African American women.
“Women are the fastest-rising group in our criminal justice system,” she says. “It’s been really interesting to me in the last 20 years to see the increasing presence of women in correctional institutions, particularly black and Hispanic women. From a theoretical standpoint, some [scholars] argue a liberation hypothesis, that women are more liberated than previous generations, so they have more freedom, more access, and therefore, more opportunity [to commit crime]. Other theories revolve around the feminization of poverty, that women are more likely to be disenfranchised and more impoverished. Because of that, they may turn to crime as a solution to these economic problems.”
Skiffer interviewed 30 African American prisoners at the California Institution for Women, the majority of whom were in for life on charges of murder. She devised a typology of female offenders, including women who were involved in the drug subculture and women who were accessories to crimes or committed them because of their relationships with men.
“What I wanted to understand from them was their perceptions on why women became involved in crime,” she says. “What I learned is that there were many different reasons based on how they viewed their circumstances.”
The sociologist found that whether the inmates were in for life or had a chance of parole, they all had similar hopes and dreams. She says that initially she was going to limit her sample to those who were not serving life sentences, until a colleague pointed out the possibility that those prisoners might still have a positive outlook on the future.
“First and foremost, those who are lifers hope to get out someday,” she says. “In many cases, their hopes and dreams also revolve around their family relationships. Whether they are free someday or not, they’d like to strengthen those personal relationships. Many of them have lost contact with their children, their parents, and their siblings. So, just keeping those ties or reestablishing them is one of the biggest hopes that many of the women had.”
At CSU Dominguez Hills, Skiffer teaches the class “Gangs and Adolescent Subcultures” and oversees programs that send undergraduate students into the community to facilitate after-school gang prevention workshops for the Long Beach Boys and Girls Club and the city of Carson. She says that the opportunity for service is invaluable experience for students who are considering a career in sociology.
“Many of the students hope to work for nonprofit organizations,” she says. “It’s giving them that experience before they enter the workplace.”
The native of South Los Angeles says that her interest in crime and how it affects communities, particularly women of color, led her to a career as a sociologist.
“Growing up, I saw so many different social problems and I wanted to understand them better,” she says. “I didn’t like the explanations I got from my early schooling and the media and I thought there were other explanations that might make more sense to me. Sociology was a discipline where the explanations were couched in structural variables rather than individual perspectives on why people deviate in society. I liked the approach that society had certain forces at play that could push people into behaviors that they might not normally engage in if those pressures weren’t there.”
- Joanie Harmon