Gretchen Heidemann, a doctoral student at the USC School of Social Work, has received a fellowship to further her research on how women successfully can transition from incarceration back into society.
As one of six scholars selected for the 2012 Haynes Lindley Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship Award, Heidemann will receive $20,000 to support her study on factors that help or hinder formerly incarcerated women as they return to local communities.
“It was really nice to know that this foundation feels what I’m doing is important,” she said, noting that The John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation receives a large number of submissions for the award each year.
The foundation seeks proposals that address significant social and policy issues in the Los Angeles area.
The funding will allow Heidemann to focus on her dissertation research during the coming year. She plans to survey approximately 100 women and conduct in-depth interviews this summer to outline the obstacles they face during reintegration, as well as sources of support that make the transition easier.
“I want to find out what has been hard for them, what has helped them and what success would mean to them, rather than imposing a definition of success,” she said. “I want to focus on how to help these women be successful, not only to keep them from returning to jail but to help them obtain the goals they set for themselves.”
Heidemann will examine potential positive factors, such as social support, resiliency and self-esteem alongside possible negative influences, including discrimination, domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness.
“What’s really exciting about this is that there are big changes going on in the criminal justice system in California,” she said, referring to the recent shift of responsibility from state prisons to county jails for individuals convicted of certain nonviolent and less serious crimes.
Heidemann expects to encounter some women who have been released since California’s “realignment” policy went into effect. She also plans to compare their experiences with those of other women who experienced the criminal justice system before the transition.
After using a mixed-method design to collect quantitative survey and qualitative interview data, she aims to analyze the information this fall and complete her dissertation by next spring. As a requirement of the fellowship, she also will be responsible for drafting a summary report that outlines her findings.
Heidemann, who earned a degree in psychology from the University of Cincinnati and a master’s degree in social work from UCLA, said she is interested in pursuing further research on programs that offer support to formerly incarcerated women but added that she is open to other opportunities once she completes her studies at USC.