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December 11, 2017
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"Emerging from this research are workshops and women's empowerment groups to address the narcissistic injuries, the internal messages about the self, the belief systems and patterns that have defined one's internal world."
-- Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D., (PSY22909), M.F.T.


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Ph.D. Dissertation Abstract: Hell's Angels
The Lived Experience of 26 Women

Published in Dissertation Abstracts
by Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D., (PSY22909), M.F.T.

This phenomenological dissertation examined the lived experience of women involved in committed relationships with men serving life sentences or sentenced to death row, meeting him for the first time after he had been incarcerated. By lived experience is meant the feelings, attitudes, thoughts, memories and other psychological events and associations that comprise the existential reality of the subjects. What psychological factors might predispose, invite or attract certain women to the prison environment -- factors that are part and parcel of becoming involved with an incarcerated man? What psychological factors contribute to that initial attraction to a man who is already incarcerated? What psychological factors maintain the relationship and keep these women committed to the relationship for life: his and her own?

The overall objective of this phenomenological study was to raise the level of consciousness about the occurrence and the nature of the relationships between women and the men who are imprisoned for life, which often culminates in marriage, despite the fact that these men will spend their lives behind prison bars or be executed. Whereas literature on the ever increasing, over-crowded male prison population abounds, literature that specifically focuses on the women involved with these men is difficult to find. The secondary objective, therefore, is to make a contribution to the nearly non-existent, bare-bones literature on the lived experience of this unique population of women who become prisoner's wives, meeting their inmate spouse for the first time after his incarceration.

A qualitative research design is used to address these issues. Twenty-six subjects, all wives or girlfriends of inmates sentenced to life-terms or to death row, were recruited for this study via contact with various groups affiliated with prisons, colleagues, flyers posted in prison waiting rooms, and from the internet. To obtain in-depth descriptions of the subjects' lived experience, they were asked to complete the demographic and family history questionnaire and to participate in taped interview sessions (which were later transcribed and analyzed). Each participant's lived experience was then analyzed from a depth perspective and summarized as an individual portrait.

A genogram format was used to diagram the data about relationship patterns, familial dynamics and critical life-cycle events that emerged from the questionnaire and the semi-structured, in-depth interviews. Individual data was then compiled in order to identify any common themes among the women's lived experiences. The results indicated that nine salient common elements were shared by all subjects. The implications for future research and clinical work are discussed.