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Jenny Mooney

Jenny Mooney

Ph.D. Student

by Saraya Brewer
photos by Mark Cornelison

With both a Master’s and a doctoral degree under her belt in the past eight years, you’d probably be safe to call Jenny Mooney an academic. Much of Mooney’s time over the past decade has been spent not in the classroom or library, however, but in various prisons and drug and alcohol treatment and research centers. For the most part, Mooney’s work – academic work and career work intertwined – has been centered at the University of Kentucky Center on Drug and Alcohol Research (CDAR), where she has conducted what she estimates to be thousands of interviews with research participants who identify themselves as substance users, most of them inmates. Mooney currently serves as a study director at CDAR for two studies funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

“We speak in acronyms,” she said with a laugh in a recent interview. In the eight years Mooney has spent working at UK’s CDAR, she has racked up a few acronyms of her own – a B.A. in Psychology at the University of Kentucky; an M.S. in Correctional and Juvenile Justice, which she completed at Eastern Kentucky University; and now a Ph.D. in Sociology, which she was awarded from UK just days before I caught up with her for an interview.

“I started out with psychology and moved up to sociology, which is really broad,” Mooney said. “I feel really lucky to have done that (tract), because now I have a really wide scope of the social sciences.”

A cycling enthusiast, Mooney between the spokes at Pedal Power near the UK campus

While Mooney’s work at CDAR started with a broad interest in drug and alcohol abuse, over time she has honed in on the more specific topics of how race and gender differences are often influenced by the experiences of incarceration and substance abuse treatment. The subject was the basis for the study she conducted for her dissertation, as well as a coinciding NIDA-funded Transitional Case Management (TCM) study which was a cooperative agreement between several research institutions. Specifically, the TCM study looked at the impact that case management services can have on an inmate’s successful transition back into society. Her dissertation research focused on the distinct issues faced by women and African Americans during this re-entry process.“A lot of the literature shows that women offenders have very unique issues,” Mooney said. “A lot of these women come into the institution and they’ve been abused by their father, by their husband, by their boyfriend, by every man they’ve ever been introduced to – they don’t really have a good support system in place.

“When these women are released from prison, they’re poor, they usually have dependent children, they are usually less educated than men,” she continued. The statistics about women’s issues are met with similar statistics about the unique issues faced by African Americans.

“African Americans and whites experience the criminal justice system very differently,” Mooney said, pointing to the differences between white and African-American neighborhoods as one particular issue that frequently comes up in sociological studies. Different types of drugs are prevalent in African American communities, carrying different pharmacological effects and different degrees of punishment alike. “Many of these issues are just shoved under the rug a lot of times because old policies drove the rise in incarceration among African Americans,” Mooney said.

While she admits that policies are starting to shift to acknowledge these differences, the unique issues faced by women and African-Americans leave a lot of questions unanswered in a system that Mooney points out has historically been structured according to the white, male perspective. For example, what do you do when a woman is pregnant at the time of her incarceration? What if she has dependent children who have no other caretaker? How do you account for the socioeconomic differences between whites and African Americans? And how can these issues and other issues be affected by offering services for inmates as part of their re-entry process?

The research for Mooney’s dissertation, which was co-chaired by Carl Leukefeld, DSW, and Carrie Oser, Ph.D. (both of whom are Mooney’s colleagues at CDAR), centered on a randomized trial consisting of interviews with self-identifying substance abusing prisoners, beginning at approximately three months from their expected release from prison. Half of the subjects went through case management services and half did not. Mooney followed and tracked the prisoners after their release, interviewing them both three months and nine months later. Another aspect of the study, which was pertinent to her dissertation hypotheses involved a cognitive component measuring negative sentiment toward the criminal justice system.

“I did find for the most part African Americans had more negative sentiments toward the criminal justice system than whites and that generally, males had more negative sentiments toward the criminal justice system than women did,” Mooney said.

Overall, Mooney said, the take home message from her dissertation is that while these people are offenders, finding ways to treat them to the best of their specific needs is beneficial to the inmates and the community alike. “Yes, they have committed a crime. But there’s an underlying problem that drives a lot of their criminal behaviors,” Mooney said. “Eventually these people are going to come back into our community. Ultimately, we’re going to have to deal with it...we should do as much as we can to prepare them while they’re on the inside for going back to the outside world.”

Though she is on temporary academic hiatus, Mooney continues to work full time for CDAR, teaches a Crime, Law and Deviance course in Sociology and has applied to three universities. “If there was any way I could stay at UK, I would,” said Mooney, who is originally from Louisville. “I love this area – I resisted for so long calling it my home, and now I embrace it.”