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Author: Abigail Rowe

Doing prison: Experiences of women in the UK prison system

Updated Wednesday, 22nd June 2011
Does prison work for women inmates? Abigail Rowe spent time exploring the experiences of female prisoners to find out.

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Ethnographic research is concerned with the lived experiences of participants in particular social groups or settings, and has been central to sociological understandings of imprisonment since the 1940s. As far as possible, ethnographers immerse themselves in the social world they are seeking to understand. While there are clear limits to the extent to which a researcher can participate in prison life, all ethnographic research shares an interest in culture and meaning. Over eight months in 2007-8, Abigail Rowe conducted an ethnographic study of coping and social support in two women's prisons in England, drawing on extensive observations and interviews with staff and prisoners. Here she shares some of her findings.

Criminal Justice policy in England and Wales is highly contested and politically charged. Policy announcements this week by Justice Minister Ken Clarke and David Cameron have highlighted how the competing impulses in social attitudes towards crime and punishment – to punish or to rehabilitate, to follow evidence or gut instinct – are mirrored at the heart of government.

In the wake the Ministry of Justice's 2010 Green Paper, Breaking the Cycle [pdf file], designed to reduce expanding prison populations and curb spending, have come policy announcements by the Prime Minister that some commentators and reformers regard as a capitulation to the right-wing press, and which set criminal justice policy on a much more uncertain course. This overall picture arguably conceals important differences in attitudes to the imprisonment of men and women, however.

Both New Labour and the Coalition governments have recognised the significant differences in the male and female prisoner populations, which range from the nature of the offences of which they are convicted; the likelihood of their having suffered particular kinds of abuse and mental illness; and their rates of compliance with non-custodial sentences.

Successive administrations have shown themselves more willing to consider policies for women that do not place 'toughness' centre-stage and which are designed to divert convicted women from custody.

These diverging attitudes to the offending of men and women are apparent in 2007's The Corston Report [pdf] and 2010's Breaking the Cycle [pdf].

Nevertheless, in 2011, the number of women in prison in England and Wales remains at a historic high. At slightly over 4,000, there are 60% more women in prison than there in 1995. Whatever the future of sentencing policy for women, there are thousands of women in Britain today for whom prison is a present reality.

Prisoners arriving in custody are often in crisis: struggling with chronic problems of addiction, or detoxifying from drugs or alcohol; anxious about what might happen to their home and children while they are in prison; traumatised by the circumstances of their offence; or reeling from the shock of arrest or trial. Many prisoners have histories of personal and social disadvantage that heighten their vulnerability in prison.

Both men and women in prison are disproportionately likely to have experienced abuse and instability in childhood, to have been in local authority care, run away from home and left school with few or no qualifications.

Concentrations of particular kinds of experience in women's prisons reflect patterns of gender relations in society as a whole. A third of women prisoners have been sexually abused, for example, and over half have been victims of domestic violence. Women in prison are more likely than male prisoners to be a lone parent to dependent children, exacerbating the impact of a sentence on their households and families (according to the Prison Reform Trust's July 2010 Bromley Briefings [pdf]).

Entering prison for the first time, it is common for prisoners to describe feeling disorientated and alone: prison routines and practices are often inscrutable and those whose expectations are shaped by the representations of prison in popular culture are often fearful. A larger proportion of female than male prisoners - almost a third - are serving prison sentences for a first conviction, and few women in prison are 'career criminals', for whom the risk of a prison sentence is often an occupational hazard.

Most women serve short sentences for non-serious offences; in 2008, most women in prison were serving sentences of six months or less, and in 2007, more had been convicted of shoplifting than of any other offence (Again, according to the Prison Reform Trust in 2010).

A sketch by an anonymous prisoner in HMP Holloway, part of the Girls Behind Bars exhibition
A sketch by a prisoner in Holloway, part of the Girls Behind Bars exhibition

A large proportion of women prisoners, then, have little prior experience of the criminal justice system. Recalling their sense of vulnerability on entering prison, for example, first-time prisoners commonly remark that the only time they felt completely safe during their first days in prison was when locked in their own cell. Even established prisoners observe that it is time spent 'behind your door' that passes most quickly in prison, because that is the only time it is possible to be completely relaxed and unguarded.

Nevertheless, women serving a first sentence generally comment with surprise on the discovery of warmth and mutual support among prisoners. Prisoners commonly remark that, "You think it's going to be like Bad Girls but you get here and it's nothing like that".

For many prisoners, other inmates are a crucial source of practical and emotional support when they first arrive in custody, or at a new prison. Even relatively weak ties among prisoners offer important forms of support, and many emphasise that support can exist among prisoners even without deep friendship.

At the same time, however, prison relationships can present inmates with a host of risks. Much of day-to-day life for women in prison is concerned with attempting to ensure that the relationships they form in order to avoid isolation and secure support do not bring exposure to a different set of risks.

Even those who are grateful for offers of help from other inmates on arrival describe a sense of vulnerability in accepting advice and support from prisoners, who are not just strangers, but often at first assumed to be an untrustworthy source of information. Prisons often foster cultures of prurient interest in the affairs of others, and a new arrival is likely to have to field approaches from others wanting to know what she is 'in' for, and 'how long she got'.

Gossip and rumour spread quickly in prisons, perhaps gathering some embellishment along the way; offences and sentences may be discussed and compared, perceived unfairness picked over and resented.

Prisoners in need, or those who are opportunistic, may view others as a material resource. A woman who has just arrived from court may have drugs that can be bought (or perhaps coerced) from her, or she may herself be in sufficient need of tobacco or drugs that she can be induced to trade desirable items for very little.

Although relationships with staff and other prisoners can be stressful, complex and sometimes threatening, they can also be a vital resource for coping with the collective and private pains of imprisonment. Most women prisoners socialise primarily with a small group of friends, with looser constellations of friendly acquaintances or associates beyond them.

The boundaries of these social groups are often carefully controlled to protect against the risks of confiding too widely in what is often effectively a 'community of strangers', in which trust is highly circumscribed. Many prisoners argue that the best way of 'doing prison' is with 'just one good friend' to provide support while minimising exposure to gossip, instrumentality and instability.

Although staff-prisoner relationships in women's prisons are somewhat freer than in men's, prisoners often comment that relationships with staff are harder to manage than those with fellow prisoners.

There is no blanket injunction in women's prisons on sociable contact between prisoners and prison staff, and interactions are often informal and friendly. For many prisoners, officers and other staff are an important source of practical and even emotional support. However, the delivery of even very basic aspects of prison regimes takes place through staff-prisoner relationships, and is therefore contingent on the quality of relationships.

Where relationships are good and procedures clear and consistent, transactions between staff and prisoners take place smoothly, without prisoners feeling officers' power; where they are poor, it can be difficult for prisoners to access entitlements and services, from getting a toilet roll, to seeing a doctor or a counsellor, or getting information about educational opportunities or housing on release.

Women in prison frequently describe coping with a prison sentence as a question of 'survival'. Women's prisons disproportionately house those with chronic problems and in acute distress; they are austere institutions in which to find resolution to either. Imprisonment itself often leads to the fracturing of households and families, and imposes burdens of care and support on others that are liable to place relationships under intense stress.

In intervening in what are often complex and constrained lives to punish women's offending, the criminal justice system may deepen the very problems from which it stems.

Sources and further reading

This is an adapted extract from a longer chapter based on research by Abigail Rowe on women's prisons in The Prisoner, edited by Ben Crewe and Jamie Bennett and to be published in December 2011 by Routledge.

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