4: Criminal Women in Prison Who Self-harm: What Can We Learn from Their Experiences?


In England and Wales, women in prison make up a minority of the total custodial population yet acts of self-harm are around five times more common among incarcerated women. Policymakers have introduced suicide prevention programmes in prisons (HM Prison Service, 2001) and, while there has been a multiagency effort to improve how acts of self-harm are documented across prisons, the accounts of why women in prison self-harm is yet to be fully addressed. This chapter will explore the motivations associated with self-harm for imprisoned women and what we can learn from their experiences. Drawing on the voices of women, the chapter will provide insight into the intra-personal and/or inter-personal motivations for self-harming in prison. The chapter will finish with a reflection of what has stayed the same and what has changed since Carlen et al’s (1985) original book in relation to self-harm.

Self-harm is a challenge for the criminal justice system (CJS) due to its associations with physical injury, psychology co-morbidity and increased lifetime suicide risk (Hawton et al, 2013). The conceptualisation and definition of what has been characterised as ‘self-harm’ remains problematic. A number of different terms and definitions are used in research, policy and practice spheres. Terms such as ‘attempted suicide’, ‘self-injury’, ‘deliberate self-injury’, ‘self-mutilation’, ‘suicidal gesture’, ‘abortive suicide’, ‘self-inflicted violence’ and ‘para-suicide’ are used interchangeably. Walker and Towl (2016) note how issues of confusion continue to remain by the use of multiple definitions.

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