Re-examining Freedom

Social work research fights the stigma of serving prison time.

Alana Gunn

Alana Gunn’s first prison experience was a lasting one. She was an undergraduate urban studies major at Vassar College when she visited a jail in Washington, D.C., through an exchange program. She walked in to examine the prison system and left with questions that eventually propelled her to graduate school, where she began researching what happens when formerly incarcerated individuals re-enter society.

“I had never been in a prison before,” Gunn says. “I started thinking about what happens to people after their release: Does a person continue to face retribution? Is it possible to transition and reclaim your life? How does it affect children? Those kinds of questions led me to social work.”

Now an assistant professor in the Social Work Department within the College of Community and Public Affairs, Gunn’s research focuses on women with histories of addiction and incarceration, and the stigmas they confront after serving time.

Gunn did her graduate work at the University of Chicago, earning master’s degrees in social service administration and public policy, and a PhD in social service administration. She was also a post-doctoral fellow in New York City, with funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Her decision to go into social work may have been partially organic, too.

Alana Gunn

“Incarceration can create a legacy. Often, society isn’t addressing the factors that are causing the cycle.” —Alana Gunn

“My mom got her MSW from Columbia, so it might just be in the blood,” Gunn says, laughing.

Researching stigma

From her work with individuals in jails, community corrections facilities and in agencies that support the re-entry process, Gunn knows this: “There is no such thing as a prison sentence lasting just the length of time that’s on a calendar. It can have a pervasive impact on the entire family system and whole communities.”

Formerly incarcerated individuals often have trouble re-establishing relationships with family, romantic partners and society after their release. The burden on mothers is even heavier, as they are more likely to be judged not just for their crimes, but for leaving children behind.

“The challenges for mothers are particularly great, as oftentimes they were significant caregivers to their children before incarceration. There are many stigmas attached to how these women have violated societal norms and expectations, and what their absence says about their value as mothers,” Gunn says.
And women have been the fastest-growing population being incarcerated.

The challenges to a successful reintegration can include the expectation that family and loved ones will be the first to provide support to former prisoners.
“Just a change in thinking is the first step,” Gunn says. “The prison system is not concerned with rehabilitating individuals. With that realization there has been a greater effort to explore other intervention approaches, which is something that I have been able to take part in.”

Gunn is working in the community to build programs to help formerly incarcerated people reintegrate into society. She has coordinated workshops with the Broome County Re-entry ABLE (advocacy, betterment, learning, empowerment) Program to assist individuals in meeting the challenges they face rebuilding their lives after prison.

Jeff Pryor, MSW ’10, is the re-entry coordinator for the ABLE program, which is designed to help parolees re-integrate in society and avoid repeat offenses. Pryor says to fight stigmas, education in the local community is just as vital as the programs they provide to those who have served jail time.

“Our office works to address the ‘not in my backyard’ mentality that forms against people who are released from prison,” Pryor says. “This is when community members say they are OK with formerly incarcerated individuals living in their county or city, just not in their neighborhoods.”

Gunn says “smart de-carceration” is a way to reframe the focus from imprisonment to rehabilitation and community building.

“The United States has programs that are helping people with employment, but there is more to be done,” she says. “The road to reintegration isn’t just a job, it is about getting help with mental and physical health, food, housing, clothing, everything. If all of those aren’t working there is no way to integrate people in a healthy way. We have to think about their entire ecology.”

Pryor says the stigma of conviction and incarceration is difficult to shed.

“We’re working to remove stigma and remind the community that we are all good people, despite our past,” Pryor says. “We can’t expect people to change if they aren’t given a fair chance to rebuild their lives after jail.”

Pryor says Gunn’s work with the re-entry program functions through mutual support.

“The Broome County re-entry program provides the participants to further Alana’s research, and she provides me with expertise on how to better assist these individuals,” Pryor says. “Alana’s evidence-based research informs our organization if we’re providing adequate programming.”

Inside the classroom and the community

A Zumba class nearly kept Gunn from Binghamton.

“Things went so fast during the application process. I got a call for an interview, and I had to ask, ‘I have to teach this Zumba class tonight; is it okay to call back tomorrow?” she says.

Gunn joined the Social Work Department in 2013. Despite her extensive research and field experience, she was new to teaching.
“I had some anxiety about teaching at first, but it quickly faded, thanks to how passionate and thoughtful the students are. There is a real richness in scholarship and learning at Binghamton,” she says. “Students are willing to understand and search out what they need. They are willing to be challenged and rethink old assumptions.”

Gunn is also grateful for the community of colleagues she’s found at Binghamton.

“I realize this is a special, supportive place, and that is not a given in academia — that is a gift,” Gunn says.

Outside of the University, Gunn works with the Center for Employment Opportunities, a nonprofit that helps former inmates find jobs, and she serves on the board of the Binghamton Rescue Mission, which supports homeless men and women with basic resources, educational and vocational opportunities, and connections to employment.

art show

As a part of the First Friday Art Walk, the artwork of current and formerly incarcerated individuals was displayed at the University Downtown Center.

Last fall, Gunn and Pryor coordinated an event at the University Downtown Center to display the artwork of current and formerly incarcerated individuals.

“Alana and I brainstormed how to engage the local community to fight stigmas, and we came up the with art show.”

The Social Work Department and ABLE program partnered with Cornell University to showcase more than 50 pieces of original art in conjunction with Binghamton’s First Friday Art Walk.

Pryor says the outreach effort allowed the formerly and currently incarcerated to strengthen their ties to community through creative expression.

“Some of the people coming out of jail don’t have a sense of their worth, and this event empowered them,” Pryor says. “I was so impressed by its success — we even sold about $500 worth of art.”

“We have engaged the community, relieved tension and answered questions about stigma and how it creates damage and oppression even after a sentence is over,” Gunn says. “We can create a positive legacy for many if we help individuals and families handle the stigma of incarceration.”