The origins of this book lie in collaborative discussions with a group of feminist criminologists, sociologists and psychologists: the Criminal Women Voice, Justice and Recognition Network (CWVJR) who came together to develop research and scholarship which aims to centre women’s voices and lived experiences. This book draws on each co-author’s body of research in their field of expertise and on a range of research projects, practice and activities. As such the aim of this book is to bring together a body of feminist research on ‘criminal women’ that critically examines women’s reasons for engaging in ‘criminal’ activity and the challenges they face in ‘attempting to become women of their own making’ (Carlen et al, 1985: 1).

The authors were inspired by Pat Carlen’s 1985 landmark book made up of four biographical accounts written with four women – Chris Tchaikovsky, Diana Christina, Jenny Hicks and Josie O’Dwyer. ‘Criminal Women tells the stories of four women who, in attempting to become women of their own making, became deeply involved in crime’ (Carlen et al, 1985: 1). Using the narrative/biographical accounts by the four women, Carlen challenged both the ‘othering’ of women who commit crimes and explanations that suggest women should adapt themselves better to social norms. Following the work of Heidensohn (1968) and Smart (1978), Carlen analysed women’s experiences, paying attention to ‘the complex and concealed forms of oppression and social control to which women are subject’ (Smart, 1978, cited in Carlen et al, 1985: 6) and explores the possible options and responses for women in the context of a ‘class riven and deeply sexist society’ (Smart, 1978, cited in Carlen et al, 1985: 6).

The origins of this book lie in collaborative discussions with a group of feminist criminologists, sociologists and psychologists: the Criminal Women Voice, Justice and Recognition Network (CWVJR) who came together to develop research and scholarship which aims to centre women’s voices and lived experiences. This book draws on each co-author’s body of research in their field of expertise and on a range of research projects, practice and activities. As such the aim of this book is to bring together a body of feminist research on ‘criminal women’ that critically examines women’s reasons for engaging in ‘criminal’ activity and the challenges they face in ‘attempting to become women of their own making’ (Carlen et al, 1985: 1).

The authors were inspired by Pat Carlen’s 1985 landmark book made up of four biographical accounts written with four women – Chris Tchaikovsky, Diana Christina, Jenny Hicks and Josie O’Dwyer. ‘Criminal Women tells the stories of four women who, in attempting to become women of their own making, became deeply involved in crime’ (Carlen et al, 1985: 1). Using the narrative/biographical accounts by the four women, Carlen challenged both the ‘othering’ of women who commit crimes and explanations that suggest women should adapt themselves better to social norms. Following the work of Heidensohn (1968) and Smart (1978), Carlen analysed women’s experiences, paying attention to ‘the complex and concealed forms of oppression and social control to which women are subject’ (Smart, 1978, cited in Carlen et al, 1985: 6) and explores the possible options and responses for women in the context of a ‘class riven and deeply sexist society’ (Smart, 1978, cited in Carlen et al, 1985: 6). Similarly, this book is centred on a biographical approach to criminology and a commitment to creating space for women’s voices to be heard and shared. Using Carlen’s pioneering text as our starting point, some 35 years later, our aim was to critically examine the experiences and narratives of women in the criminal justice system (CJS) based upon extensive empirical research and narrative interviews with women. Through exploring the complexities of social disadvantage in terms not only of gender, but of the intersecting experiences and oppressions of class, race and age, we aim to show how unhelpful gendered stereotypes of victims and offenders result in injustice.

Women’s voices and experiences are often silenced or marginalised in debates about the CJS, with little attention paid to the perspectives of women caught up in that system as suspects, defendants, prisoners and victims. Traditionally, research has mainly been conducted on rather than with women who are involved in crime, as both victims and offenders. This book centres instead on women’s lived experiences of criminality and victimisation, from a variety of studies focused on drug use and supply, sex work, sexual exploitation and the experience of imprisonment, including self-harm and maternal loss and, more positively, education in prison. The collection highlights that, although much has changed in terms of responses to criminal women since the publication of Carlen’s ground-breaking text, concealed forms of oppression and social control remain central to women’s experiences of the justice system. The authors and the women’s voices in this book make a powerful case that this inequality and injustice must be addressed and rectified, with future research, policy and practice directions considered as a key focus.

Drawing on the expertise of the authors in contemporary fields of study through the use of cutting-edge participatory, inclusive and narrative methodologies, the book updates Carlen’s pioneering work for the twenty-first century. As such we hope that it will inform academic research and teaching, policy and practice in a variety of areas affecting ‘criminal’ women’s lives. Most particularly, drawing on a wide range of contemporary examples of ‘criminal’ women’s experiences, it offers readers an understanding of the nature of ‘criminal’ women’s lives through their own lived experience of criminality, victimisation and punishment. The book explores how gender and other social divisions (including intersectional experiences of race, social class and age) exacerbate the oppression and social control of ‘criminal’ women and how this informs and directs the criminal justice and social responses to their offending and victimisation. It argues for biographical, narrative and participatory methodological approaches as essential to a proper understanding and recognition of the realities of ‘criminal’ women’s lives and the most effective ways to hear them and support them.

Following the foreword from Pat Carlen herself, this introductory chapter offers a brief overview of women’s current experiences in the CJS and summarises the substantive content of the chapters to follow. The endnote is provided by another pioneering scholar of feminist criminology, Professor Loraine Gelsthorpe.

An overview of women in the CJS

The differential treatment of women compared with men throughout the CJS has long been a cause for debate, from those who argue that women are treated more leniently than men (the ‘chivalry thesis’) by virtue of their female status, to those who believe the system is harsher in its treatment of women whose criminality is perceived as a betrayal of femininity. These debates have often simplistically placed women in contrast to men and as a result have frequently ignored wider questions about the particular circumstances and needs of women caught up in the CJS. Historically, female offenders have also been pathologised and treated as abnormal – ‘mad not bad’ as it is often phrased. In more recent years, our understanding has become more nuanced alongside an acknowledgement that evidence consistently shows that women do not offend as much or as seriously as men. We also now understand that poverty plays a key role in women offenders’ lives and drives a great deal of their offending. We also know that many women offenders have a history of unmet needs in terms of experiences of trauma, sexual and violent victimisation both in childhood and adulthood; poor physical and mental health; insecure housing and income; and low levels of training and employment. The Surveying Prison Crime Reduction Survey (Light et al, 2013) found that 31 per cent of women offenders had spent time in local authority care and 53 per cent reported having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child. The prevalence of trauma histories have a strong influence in particular on women’s involvement with crime; and some researchers have shown that the number of traumatic child events are directly correlated with their lifetime numbers of arrests (Messina and Grella, 2006). In addition, a survey by the Social Exclusion Task Force (2009) found that 28 per cent of women’s crime had been financially motivated; and Light et al (2013) found that 48 per cent of women prisoners reported having committed offences to support someone else’s drug use (compared with only fifth of men).

What we see therefore is that women’s pathways into crime can be seen in some ways as experiences of victimisation, dysfunctional relationships, poverty and marginalisation which has resulted in offending behaviour. This has significant implications in terms of, for example, what interventions or programmes might do to support women’s desistance more effectively. It is now generally accepted that treating women offenders the same as male offenders is not always appropriate and yet most interventions or programmes are designed for men.

The Women and the Criminal Justice System analysis from the Ministry of Justice offers us an overview of women’s involvement as suspects, defendants and offenders in the system. It shows that women made up 15 per cent of the 698,700 people arrested in 2017–18, and around a quarter of all those prosecuted. Most women are prosecuted for summary offences (88 per cent compared with 76 per cent of men). For more serious offences (indictable offences) men are more likely to be prosecuted than women except for theft offences (48 per cent of women were prosecuted for theft compared with 30 per cent of men). Overall, the number of convictions has fallen for men by 28 per cent and risen for women by 1 per cent since 2007. 11 per cent of women and 25 per cent of men were remanded into custody in 2017 (Ministry of Justice, 2018). However, statistics from the previous year showed that 60 per cent of women remanded by the magistrate’s courts and 41 per cent by the Crown Court did not receive a custodial sentence. A third of women (37 per cent) sentenced to custody have committed theft offences; a further 20 per cent summary offences; and only 9 per cent violence against the person offences (compared with 20 per cent, 16 per cent and 15 per cent for men respectively) (PRT, 2019). Overall, 82 per cent of women entering prison under sentence have committed a non-violent offence (PRT, 2019). Statistical evidence also shows differences in sentencing patterns (in large part reflecting less serious offending) where many more women receive short sentences compared with men. This has increased in recent years as in 1993 only a third of custodial sentences given to women were for less than six months – by 2018 this had doubled (62 per cent) (PRT, 2019). In 2015–16 one in four women sent to prison – more than 1,500 – were sentenced to 30 days or less, with almost 300 of them put behind bars for under two weeks (PRT, 2019). Taking into account sentencing rules, which mean that non-violent prisoners are typically released after half of that time, this can result in hundreds of women being in prison for one week or even less. But even such short sentences can put women at risk of losing their children, their jobs and/or their tenancies.

Community sentencing for women has halved in a decade and there is evidence that community sentences have become increasingly punitive (Carlen and Tombs, 2006). Many probation interventions are designed for men and focus closely on offending behaviour and may not be as appropriate for women for whom offending is a symptom rather than a cause of their difficulties (Barry and McIvor, 2010); and for whom ‘male-centric’ programmes fail to recognise their more complex criminogenic needs (Martin et al, 2009). There are also significant issues for women offenders being able to engage effectively with such programmes and meet their requirements. Some of these issues are practical, for example inconvenient appointment times and places, difficulty arranging childcare or meeting the costs of transport to the probation office (Martin et al, 2009). Women probationers have also described how difficult and intimidating attending probation offices can be – given that they are likely to come across male offenders. This can be particularly traumatic if they have a history of abuse or other victimisation, or if these offenders are current drug users who can persuade them away from their attempts to go straight (RR3, 2012).

As Clarke (2004) points out, if women realise that services are not effectively meeting their needs it is not surprising that they fail to engage with those services. However, this failure to engage can have serious repercussions for women offenders as they may breach their terms and end up in custody – even if their original offence had not warranted a custodial sentence – and there is evidence that breach is increasingly used for further incarceration (Hedderman, 2010). Many women entering prison for breaching their community penalty or licence do so for very short sentences, allowing very little time for constructive work while in prison and doing enormous damage to the already fragile circumstances of the woman’s life outside prison (RR3, 2012). As Hedderman (2010) points out, the number of women entering prison for ‘other offences’ rose by 55 per cent between 2003 and 2009 and around 60 per cent of these other offences were breaches.

As outlined in the statistical evidence above, it can be clearly argued that women are often sent to prison unnecessarily as they frequently present a low risk to the public and most commonly commit low-level non-violent offences (McIvor and Burman, 2011). Just 3.2 per cent of women in prison are assessed as high or very high risk of harm to others (NOMS Women and Equalities Group, 2012). It has been argued that this over-incarceration is partly because of a significant lack of effective community sentences available to women (Carlen and Tombs, 2006); or because sentencers believe that the nature of women’s chaotic lives (particularly those involved with drugs or alcohol) mean that they will not be able to cope with the conditions of community sentences (Carlen and Tombs, 2006); or, most worryingly perhaps, because sentencers decide to send women to custody to get the help they need, for example with drug or alcohol misuse, because they do not believe they will get this help in the community (McIvor and Burman, 2011).

Currently, in England and Wales, women make up around 4 per cent of the total prison population. The female prison population in December 2020 was 3,231 compared with a male population of 75,640. However, it is important to bear in mind that there are around 8,000 prison receptions in female prisons in any one year – as women are more likely to receive short sentences, around twice the average female prison population comes into and leaves prison each year. Looking at receptions in this way allows us to see a clearer picture of the number of women who may have been sent to prison, even for very short periods: in 2018, 7,745 women were sent to prison on remand or sentence. Similarly, women in Ireland make up around 4.3 per cent of the prison population and are located in two female prisons: the Mountjoy Dóchas Centre and a female wing in Limerick Prison. The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) report that most female committals are for non-violent offences and the majority of women receive short-term sentences. In 2019, female committals to prison (including on remand, under sentence and under immigration law) was 1,174 and this number has risen more rapidly than for men. The average number of daily females in custody in 2019 across the two female prisons was 170. According to the IPRT, 16.7 per cent of women were imprisoned for failing to pay court-ordered fines, almost twice the comparable rate for men. Overcrowding is an issue within prisons and a growing concern is immigration-related committals. The IPRT are working towards policy changes that focus upon alternatives to imprisonment.

The overwhelming male dominance of the prison system in both jurisdictions has meant that the needs of women in custody have frequently been hidden and penal policy and practice is most often concerned with the issues that dominate in the male estate, such as violence or security, rather than those that affect women prisoners. Most importantly, the significant damage done by their separation from their children – both to them and the children – can be the most painful consequence for women prisoners to bear (Covington, 2002; Hardwick, 2012). In 2010 more than 17,000 children were separated from their mothers due to incarceration. The Prison Reform Trust (PRT, 2011) estimate that only around five per cent of children whose mothers are in prison stay in their own homes, and only nine per cent of these children were cared for by their father (Dean, 2013).

The evidence of the impact of separation is clear, particularly with regard to high rates of self-harming and self-inflicted deaths among the female prison population which is partly attributed to the problems associated with maintaining relationships with children in prison. A key factor in problems with maintaining relationships with children lies with the organisation of the prison estate and the fact that there are relatively few women’s prisons, which means that prison visits are expensive and difficult for family members to organise.

In 2007 Baroness Jean Corston produced a seminal review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the CJS. The Corston review was commissioned by the Home Secretary following the self-inflicted deaths of six women within a 13-month period at Styal prison. Corston’s report called for a wide range of radical changes in the way in which the CJS ‘manages’ such offenders. Most significantly she called for a holistic, woman-centred approach within the CJS that was sensitive to the complex needs of the majority of women offenders; an emphasis on appropriate punishment in the community for low risk, non-violent women offenders; and the abolition of large prisons in favour of small custodial units geographically dispersed widely around the country (Corston, 2007). The Corston review was instrumental in establishing the principle that the complex needs of female offenders meant that equal treatment could lead to unequal outcomes and that differential treatment was necessary. While at the time of publication the government accepted most of Corston’s 43 recommendations, we have still yet to see much evidence of the sweeping whole-system reform envisaged by Corston coming to fruition. In 2013, a Justice Select Committee inquiry report welcomed a number of developments since Corston’s report but concluded that the female prison population had not fallen sufficiently fast; there had been limited growth in local services to tackle the underlying causes of female reoffending; and that the gender equality duty had not consistently informed government policy.

While the Corston Report is rightly regarded as having raised political awareness about women (House of Commons Justice Committee, 2013), the issues it raised have been well known in academic and campaigning fields for decades. Namely that the vast majority of women in prison have highly complex needs, suffer from multiple disadvantages and that their offending is often directly caused by the impoverished and difficult social circumstances in which they find themselves – further exacerbated by substance misuse, mental health issues and experiences of physical, mental and/or sexual abuse. As the Prison Reform Trust highlighted, it is too easy for women offenders to become trapped in a ‘vicious circle of victimisation and criminal activity … worsened by poverty, substance dependency or poor mental health’ (PRT, 2013: 337). It seems that despite greater acknowledgement of these facts within criminal justice policy and practice – particularly perhaps since the Corston Report (2007) – women in prison ‘have the same social histories of poverty, abuse, lone parenthood, homelessness and poor mental health as they had 30 years ago’ (Carlen and Tombs, 2006: 338), and the ‘adverse social and economic circumstances of women who are at risk of offending … remains unchanged’ (Gelsthorpe and Morris, 2002: 278).

There is also clear agreement in the academic and campaigning fields that prisons are not the best places to help women offenders overcome their difficult life experiences and move onto more fulfilling and happier lives free from abuse, drug and alcohol use and crime (both as victims and offenders) (Clarke, 2004; Carlen and Tombs, 2006; Bartlett, 2007). Indeed, it has been argued strongly that time in prison exacerbates women’s problems to the extent that they return to the community in a far worse position that they were in before their sentence (Barry and McIvor, 2010). For example, in 2017–18 37 per cent of women left prison without settled accommodation, around 14 per cent were homeless and four per cent were sleeping rough on release.

Women’s options on release are usually narrowed by their time in prison in terms of employment and education opportunities through stigmatization and lowered self-esteem (Carlen and Tombs, 2006) and poor physical and mental health (Plugge et al, 2006). Finding ways to encourage and help women to motivate themselves to resettle and reintegrate, particularly without the motivation of having their children returned to them, can be highly challenging. Under current arrangements in the UK female estate, there is also little opportunity for women to be prepared for release close to home – the average distance from home for women prisoners is 60 miles (WIP, 2012). This results in many women leaving prison homeless, unemployed and without custody of their children. As the PRT (2011) highlight, this can result in a vicious circle developing with women being unable to regain custody of their children because they do not have stable accommodation, but not qualifying for that accommodation without having custody of their children.

Women offenders are also often in a worse position than male offenders on release. It is far less likely that their partners will have maintained a family unit while they have been in prison, and often they are not able to return to their family home, if they have one, due to the risk of further violence (McIvor et al, 2009). This is a key difference between male and female offenders – it appears to be comparatively less likely for women offenders to have pro-social partners to support their desistance. Brown and Ross (2010) highlighted the absence of social support available for women on release, often caused by the fact that their partners might be part of the problem rather than the solution. Persistence in women’s offending can be shown to be associated with housing problems and substance misuse (and a lack of treatment to address it) (Brennan et al, 2012). As Gelsthorpe and Wright (2015: 45) argue: ‘It is not sensible to talk [about] how and why women persist without looking at the related issue of how and why women do, or do not – or cannot even – desist from offending.’

Overview of the book

The chapters that follow are a homage to Pat Carlen’s Criminal Women and take up these themes through the authors’ combined research and commitment to providing a platform for women to speak for themselves, as experts on their own lives, as well as with academic researchers, with a view to challenging and changing the deep social and sexual inequalities that inform our analysis of Criminal Women: Gender Matters.

Chapter 1 by Sharon Grace focuses on the stories of 16 women engaged in drug recovery in two UK women’s prisons. It explores their journeys into drug use and crime, their experience of addiction and its associated problems and losses, the impact on their relationships, and on their mental and physical health. The women’s need for help and support is explored with a focus on their own priorities for and views on their personal recovery, their plans for the future and the barriers they face in realising those plans.

Chapter 2, by Vicky Seaman and Orla Lynch, explores desistance theory through the concept of ‘knifing off’ (Maruna, 2001, 2007), highly relevant in the process of desistance, particularly among those who experience or have experienced active addiction, but have never been comprehensively examined among a female population. This chapter presents the findings from a thematic analysis of the life history narratives of women who at one point or another engaged with the CJS in Ireland. Through the lived experience of these women, the process of ‘knifing off’ is examined in tandem with the role of and nature of social supports sought and utilised by these women as they move away from engagement in offending behaviours through a desistance process. Through an analysis of the participants’ relationships before, during and after their involvement in offending, this chapter highlights the relevant gender issues that must be considered in any theoretical framework on desistance for women.

Chapter 3, by Maggie O’Neill and Alison Jobe, centres on participatory research interviews with women who sell or have sold sex and have spent time in prison. There are no official records on the number of women in prison who have sold sex (Ahearne, 2016) and indeed no official records on the numbers of women selling sex more generally in society. The women’s life trajectories show that their narratives are ‘vivid chronicles of the times’ in which they live (Carlen et al, 1985: 11), including experiences of the CJS and leaving prison. In articulating the relationship between private troubles and social issues (Mills, 1970), the authors argue that women’s narratives point to future possible trajectories and modes of doing justice with women, working against the grain of what Hudson (2006) calls ‘white man’s justice’. This is an example of participatory, biographical narrative research as criminological imagination that enables us ‘to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society’ (Mills, 1970: 6; Carlen, 2010; Seal and O’Neill, 2019). In Criminal Women, the prison regime is described as being based around the will to ‘discipline, infantalize, feminize, medicalize and domesticate’ (Carlen et al, 1985: 162), and in the final part of this chapter the authors reflect on the extent to which this relates to women’s experiences of the CJS, and how this has changed or stayed the same over time.

Chapter 4 by Tammi Walker highlights that among the women in prison in England and Wales at any one time approximately one third self-harm. The most common methods used in women’s prisons are cutting and scratching, followed by strangulation. Previous studies of self-harm in prisons have mostly focused on prevalence, risk factors and clinical concomitants, with isolated attempts to develop and test theoretical models to aid prediction and intervention with high-risk groups. There has been a very limited focus on understanding the functions or meanings behind this intricate and often misunderstood behaviour. This chapter, using narrative accounts of women, explores this complex area and draws upon the intra-personal and/or inter-personal motivations for self-harming in prison. Attention is also given to research regarding protective factors for self-harm and how these personal or social resources may reduce the impact of negative consequences in the face of stressors in prison.

The pain of maternal imprisonment is the focus of Chapter 5 by Lucy Baldwin, with Mary Elwood and Cassie Brown. Maternal imprisonment is a research area that has garnered interest in the twenty-first century, however much of the focus relates to the impact on the child due to separation by maternal imprisonment. What is less well documented, particularly in the mother’s own voice, is the impact prison has on women as mothers, relating to their maternal identity, their self-worth, their maternal role and their journey ‘back to good mothering’ or ‘normality’. Through the narratives of post-prison mothers, the authors explore the pains associated with maternal imprisonment, but significantly also reveal much about their struggle in relation to reintegration into their families once released, and the longer-term impact of having been an imprisoned mother.

Chapters 6 and 7 represent the work conducted by the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Programme. Chapter 6, by Hannah King, Kate O’Brien and Fiona Measham, provides a critical exploration and framework for thinking through the authors’ own work with women in prison delivering a prison education programme. Chapter 7 is co-authored with Verity-Fee, Phoenix, Iris and Angel: their writings, prison journeys and voices take centre stage. Through their poetry and creative writing, this chapter provides a platform for their voices and experiences to be heard. Through short reflective biographies that accompany each of their written pieces, together, the authors try to convey a sense of their journey through prison.


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