Accounts of female offenders’ journeys into the criminal justice system are often silenced or marginalized.
Featuring a Foreword from Pat Carlen and inspired by her seminal book ‘Criminal Women’, this collection uses participatory, inclusive and narrative methodologies to highlight the lived experiences of women involved with the criminal justice system. It presents studies focused on drug use and supply, sex work, sexual exploitation and experiences of imprisonment.
Bringing together cutting-edge feminist research, this book exposes the intersecting oppressions and social control often central to women’s experiences of the justice system and offers invaluable insights for developing penal policies that account for the needs of women.
, L.B. (1999) No Safe Haven: Stories of Women in Prison , Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press. Girshick , L.B. ( 2003 ) ‘Abused women and incarceration’, in B. Zaitzow and J. Thomas (eds) Women in Prison: Gender and Social Control , Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, pp 95–117. Greer , K.R. ( 2002 ) ‘Walking an emotional tightrope: managing emotions in a women’s prison’, Symbolic Interaction , 25(1): 117–39. Greer , K.R. ( 2000 ) ‘The changing nature of interpersonal relationships in a women’s prison’, The Prison Journal , 80(4): 442
This chapter focuses on the stories of sixteen women who at the time of their interview were actively engaged in drug recovery in two UK women’s prisons. It will explore their journeys into drug use and crime, their experience of addiction and its associated problems and losses. The women’s priorities for their recovery and their plans for the future will also be discussed. The chapter begins with an overview of research on women involved in drugs and crime before moving on to focus on the women’s own narrative accounts.
The reasons women start using drugs are complex and often centre on coping with the physical and emotional pain caused by abuse or other childhood and adult trauma (Bartlett, 2007; NTA, 2010). Numerous studies report high rates of experiences of abuse among women involved in drugs and crime and directly link these experiences with subsequent substance use and criminal activity (Green et al, 2005; Golder et al, 2014; Kelly et al, 2014). For example, Golder et al (2014) found in their sample of 406 women on probation or parole: 70 per cent reported experiences of physical or sexual childhood abuse; 90 per cent adult interpersonal violence; and 72 per cent non-interpersonal adult violence.
Messina et al (2007) found higher rates of childhood adverse events (CAE) among women in their comparative sample of male and female prisoners – specifically in terms of emotional and physical neglect (40 per cent vs 20 per cent); physical abuse (29 per cent vs 20 per cent); and sexual abuse (39 per cent vs 9 per cent) (see also Grella et al, 2013).
Research on crime and offending has traditionally drawn on men’s experiences when theorising on causes, motivations and outcomes for individuals who engage in criminal behaviour. Women have rarely featured in this space, and when they do, oftentimes they are essentialised and deterministic frameworks dominate. In spite of the absence of women’s voices from this research area, there is an underlying assumption that theories on crime and offending are gender neutral, in that the theories that exists are assumed to have relevance for both men and women. Recent research in this area challenges these assumptions and shows that women’s pathways into crime and motivations for offending differ from those of men (Daly, 1992; Chesney-Lind, 1997; Salisbury and Van Voorhis, 2009). In addition, this research shows that women’s experiences of desistance are also not easily mapped onto existing theoretical frameworks.
First, domestic circumstances and problems such as domestic violence, child-care issues, being a single-parent; second, personal circumstances such as mental illness, low self-esteem, eating disorders, substance misuse; and third, socio-economic factors such as poverty, isolation and unemployment.
Selling or swapping sex for economic need was a theme in the lives of the women Carlen interviewed. It was often taken for granted as an ‘expectation’ and a form of survival. 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. In this chapter, we draw upon interviews with women from one participatory research project we conducted in the UK. We explore their life trajectories and find that their narratives are ‘vivid chronicles of the times’ in which they live, including experiences of the criminal justice system (CJS) and leaving prison (Carlen et al, 1985). We argue that women’s narratives can 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’. The participatory research that underpins this chapter is, for us, an example of biographical research as ‘criminological imagination’ (Carlen, 2010) that enables us ‘to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society’ (Mills, 2000). In Criminal Women (1985: 162), the prison regime is described as being based around the will to ‘discipline, infantalize, feminize, medicalize and domesticate’ and in the final part of the chapter we reflect on the extent to which this relates to women who sell sex and their experiences of the CJS.
In what follows, we outline what we mean by a criminological imagination and we present women’s stories of selling or swapping sex as told to us and/or to their peers.
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.
Sadly, despite over 30 years of feminists and criminologists providing evidence of the repeated failure of the criminal justice system (CJS) to respond appropriately to female law breakers, very little has actually changed. The female prison population has continued to rise in tandem with supposedly progressive gender responsive reforms, and stubbornly remains between 3,000–4,000 as of 2021 (Baldwin and Epstein, 2017). Following the publication of the recent Female Offender Strategy (Ministry of Justice, 2018), the female-focused Farmer Report (2019) and the Joint Human Rights Committee report on maternal imprisonment (UK Parliament, 2019), there exists a cautious optimism that positive change is afoot, albeit in a limited capacity. It remains to be seen if these successive publications and their recommendations will enjoy any greater success than Corston (2007). Corston, in her review of ‘vulnerable women in the criminal justice system’, made 43 valid and sensible recommendations, the majority of which were accepted by government. However, over a decade later very little progress has been made in terms of their implementation, with only one recommendation fully actioned (Women in Prison, 2017). Indeed, it could be argued that with the implementation (and failure) of the Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) agenda, women law breakers are in a worse position than ever. Despite existing international sentencing guidelines suggesting the contrary, pregnant women and mothers of dependent children continue to be imprisoned for non-violent offences, most often offences that are rooted in poverty or trauma, or both (Penal Reform International, n.d.).
Verity-Fee, Phoenix, Iris and Angel are white, working-class women who are, or who have been, locked out of sight from society in a women’s prison in England. They are just four of the women we have had the privilege of collaborating with over the past five years as part of the work we do delivering a prison education programme called the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Programme1. Our collaborative work and writing in this book is organised into two connected chapters. Chapter 6 is about context. Drawing on our experiences of writing, teaching and learning with women in prison, this chapter outlines the prison-based teaching programme that brought us together and explores our theoretical and conceptual approach. Much of our thinking about the punishment of women and prisons is born out of our many conversations with incarcerated women who have taken part in classes or with whom we have worked over the years. In Chapter 7, we go on to provide a critical reflection of our varied epistemologies on the imprisonment of women. We make no excuses for writing in an emotive way, and, in places, exposing our ‘uncomfortable’ and contradictory perspectives. On the contrary – this is first and foremost a feminist project and as such we celebrate subjectivity and individual experience (Reinharz, 1992), which are particularly impossible to ignore in a prison environment (Liebling, 1999). Chapter 7, is also co-authored with Verity-Fee, Phoenix, Iris and Angel but their names appear before ours in the authorship order, partly because their writings and prison journeys take centre stage.
No one should underestimate the impact of Criminal Women, published in 1985, not least because it emerged at a time when, although there was some awakening of interest in the misfortunates of women in conflict with the law and enmeshed in the criminal justice system (CJS), there was by no means proper recognition of the need for gender-sensitive or gender-responsive policies and practices. The book was powerful; the women’s stories of their experiences of pathways into crime and experiences of the CJS and allied agencies harrowing.
In some ways, the intervening years between then and now have led to two steps forwards and three steps backwards in penal policy and practices. We have witnessed the development of community centres or services for women following the Together Women initiative taken by the Labour Government in the early 2000s, building on best practice developed by small-scale projects such as the 218 Centre in Scotland and the Asha Centre in England and Wales, and leading to the creation of over 40 such community centres for women at risk and women caught up in the CJS. Often, these have served as places of hope and of refuge for women, where there has been genuine care, constructive dialogue and steps forwards and away from crime and the CJS. At the same time, we have seen such centres falter and collapse through a lack of funding. In 2018, we saw a Conservative Government Female Offender Strategy which appears to recognise the need for early interventions.
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).