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Inappropriate Imprisonment?
Reforming women's penal policy
from a gender-specific perspective
Dissertation Thesis
Rebecca Brackett
BA Hon Criminology
Sheffield Hallam University
Dissertation Supervisor: Dr Marian Duggan
The analysis reports the findings of an investigation into the impact of gender
construction within female imprisonment and penal reform, using a qualitative research
strategy of secondary data analysis. In accordance with the feminist critique surrounding the
gendered nature of the criminal justice system, the research investigates the rise in female
imprisonment through an examination of the gendered construction of the female offender,
and gender-bias within the sentencing process.
Primarily, as a result of the remaining
presence of patriarchal ideals, the analysis found the misrepresentation of female offenders
continues to dominate the public and political sphere. The analysis found gender-related
factors mediate the sentencing of women, which alongside the shift in penal philosophy,
contributes to an increased use of short-custodial sentences. The investigation presents the
high prevalence of mental health and harmful behaviours within the female estate as a
failure to accommodate for gender-specifics and promotes community sentencing as an
Nevertheless, the research identifies the difficulties surrounding the penal
reform as a failure to recognise substantive equality. The paper concludes by suggesting the
disproportionate treatment of female offenders is a result of a deeply embedded crosssection of assumptions; including gender, sex, race and class.
Contents Page
Abstract ................................................................................................................................................... 2
Contents Page ......................................................................................................................................... 3
Chapter 1 - Introduction ......................................................................................................................... 4
Chapter 2 - Gender and the Female Offender ........................................................................................ 8
Chapter 3 - The Sentencing of Women ................................................................................................. 13
Chapter 4 - Issues within the Women’s Estate .................................................................................... 18
Chapter 5 - The Alternatives to Women’s Imprisonment..................................................................... 25
Chapter 6 - Conclusion .......................................................................................................................... 30
References ............................................................................................................................................ 34
Chapter 1 – Introduction
Surrounding the influence of the human rights debate and the issue of prison
overcrowding, concerns surrounding conditions within the women‟s estate have reached
both the political and public domain (Carlen 2002), and subsequently prison reform has
become central to crime and justice policy (Silvestri and Crowther-Dowey 2008). However,
during the last decade, the rate of imprisonment for women has increased disproportionately
(Medlicott 2007), an increase of over 27 per cent (Prison Reform Trust 2011), furthering the
discussion on the treatment of female offenders within the Criminal Justice System (CJS).
As gender bias is believed to be no longer present within the UK (Kennedy 2005),
together with the negative media discourse surrounding women‟s deviance (Silvestri and
Crowther-Dowey 2008), the rise in female imprisonment has been attributed to an increase
in female criminality; specifically violence (The Telegraph 2009). However, on closer
inspection research highlights that women are subject to a gendered CJS (Silvestri and
Crowther-Dowey 2008). For example, general feminist critique suggests the CJS is „malecentric‟ and is directed and designed towards the experiences of men (Davies 2011). This is
supported by Medlicott (2007), who believes the treatment of women offenders continues to
exist under masculine assumptions, based on male provisions; subsequently challenging the
success of the prison service in particular (HM Inspectorate of Prisons 2010b).
Since the establishment of a feminist criminology which has „worked hard to expose the
complexity of women‟s experiences of the criminal justice system‟ (Silvestri and CrowtherDowey 2008, p33), female offenders have been the subject of a rising body of academic
interest. However, Heidensohn (2003) argues several areas of criminological knowledge,
and criminal justice policy, are gender-free.
Alongside this, scholars have established that
the disparities between the treatment of men and women within the CJS are not a result of
sexism per se; instead research points to the subtle process of reinforcing socially
constructed gender roles (Silvestri and Crowther-Dowey 2008).
Despite the publication of several high profile reports, the implementation of
recommendations, calling for more appropriate punishment of women and a more genderequal CJS, has been dutifully neglected within contemporary prison reform.
therefore, the continuation of research surrounding women‟s experiences of the CJS is
essential, through the establishment of a specific analysis of the relationship between the
construction of gender and female imprisonment.
Consequently, the current research
question is: „How does the construction of gender within the UK currently affect women's
imprisonment and should gender difference be acknowledged within contemporary penal
Due to the nature of the study, issues surrounding practical constraints and ethical
considerations contributed to the dismissal of primary data collection as an appropriate
methodological approach.
Instead, secondary data analysis was adopted, using a
qualitative research strategy. Surrounding the epistemological position of interpretivism, the
inductive study critically explored the research question through the examination and
investigation of existing literature. Together with the ontological approach of constructivism,
the issues of women‟s penality are presented as indeterminate social phenomena, by the
researcher (Matthews and Ross 2010). Through the chosen approach, the analysis creates
an interpretation of the relationship between gender and female imprisonment.
Once collated, the literature was explored using qualitative content analysis, a distinctive
approach to analysis concerned with the emergence of categories and the context
surrounding such appearance (Bryman 2008). Therefore, through the process of coding, the
data was dissected and key themes were established prior to analysis.
Although the
research is fundamentally qualitative, and acknowledges the impact of the researcher on the
meaning attributed to themes, the reliability and validity of the study is still relevant (Bryman
2008). Therefore, the criterion is adapted into the more appropriate terms, trustworthiness
and authenticity. In terms of trustworthiness, a wide range of literature was selected for
analysis, to combat the criticism of Garland and Young (1983) that research into penality is
often fragmented due to the diverse range of approaches to punishment. However, although
the research relates specifically to women, the study enhanced transferability through the
application of specific parameters, selecting literature in accordance with UK theory and
As the research question focused on women offenders, several limitations were
acknowledged. Primarily, Brown (1986) suggests separating women from traditional
'malestream' criminology leaves mainstream criminology unquestioned and assumed to be
correct about male crime; further marginalising the issue of women. Therefore, through the
dichotomy of men and women, the approach lends itself to essentialism; an approach that
Carlen (1990) believes confuses sex and gender differences and implicates the constitution
of biological determinism. Although the research is cemented within a feminist standpoint, in
order to overcome essentialism and to decrease the risk of diversifying from traditional
criminology, the research drew on concepts outside of the mainstream criminological debate.
This was achieved through a process of „transgressive criminology‟, and in accordance with
the ideology of Cain, a process of reflexivity, deconstruction and re-construction was
adopted (Walklate 2004). Therefore, through an acceptance of the complexity of social
reality, the entirety of women‟s experiences was incorporated; including wider sociological
and penological philosophies and the acknowledgement of the criminological position of men
(Walklate 2004).
Similarly therefore, the research is conducted from a methodological position similar to
liberal feminism, as it concerns itself with a commitment to reason and equality. Although
this particular strand of feminism has contributed significantly to criminology (Walklate 2004),
the limitation of feminist empiricism is the assumption that the measure of knowledge and
principles, primarily male values, are equivalent to wider values (Walklate 2004). Therefore,
while the majority of the literature selected for analysis complied methodologically, the use of
Home Office data highlighted the presence of literature bias, as government agencies may
subconsciously promote underlying elements of patriarchy. However, the use of up to date
figures and statistics, which rely heavily on quantitative methods, introduced elements of
triangulation; subsequently enhancing credibility. Furthermore, the research, in accordance
with the code of ethics set out by the British Society of Criminology (2006), has been
reviewed for ethical considerations.
Due to the chosen research strategy, the ethical
implications are minimal, however, as the subjectivity of the researcher is inherent within the
research process (Davis, Francis and Jupp 2011); the possibility of researcher bias is
Chapter Overview
Naturally, as the construction of gender within wider society, attributed to the
presence of patriarchal values, is paramount to the application of gender discrimination
within the CJS, chapter two explicitly documents the historical gender imbalance within law
and the remaining power of informal social controls. Despite the establishment of a feminist
criminology, and subsequently an increasing knowledge base surrounding female criminality,
the chapter discusses the continuing misrepresentation of female offenders within the media.
The chapter highlights how female offenders are often portrayed according to traditional and
more importantly, incorrect understandings, which misconstrue the relatively minor nature of
female offending.
While the social construction of gender is highlighted within contemporary culture, the
subsequent chapter analyses the sentencing of women, in order to establish whether gender
bias is also present within agencies of the CJS. As the assumed lenient treatment of women
has been propelled throughout history (Silvestri and Crowther-Dowey 2008), the recent rise
in female imprisonment has led to reports that women are subject to an increasing severity
of sentences (Society Guardian 2007). As this offers a naive explanation for the rise in
female imprisonment, chapter three dissects the impact of gender within the courts; in terms
of lenient and harsh treatment. In contrast, the preoccupation with risk is discussed as an
alternative explanation for the increased use of custody. While this initially presents an
argument irrespective of gender, research highlights, alongside the increased use of short
sentences (Prison Reform Trust 2011), the detrimental effects of imprisonment for female
offenders in particular (Corston 2007); highlighting a lack of comprehension surrounding
gender imbalance and a neglect of gender equality.
Therefore, due to the large numbers of women currently incarcerated within UK
prisons, the issues within the female estate will be presented throughout chapter four.
Through the identification of the prevalence of mental health, drug and alcohol dependency
and previous abuse, the chapter highlights the female estate as a concentration of highly
vulnerable women. The lack of gender-specific provisions is criticised and the wider impact
of the imprisonment of women, specifically on prisoner‟s children is documented, ultimately
presenting the prison system as a male dominated arena.
Consequently, chapter five identifies the current debates surrounding alternatives to
the imprisonment of female offenders.
As women‟s charities and penal reform groups
continue to pressure policymakers towards the reform, and abolishment, of women‟s prisons,
the analysis contemplates the implications of the abolishment movement and community
sentencing. Despite the domination of community alternatives within government agenda,
the female prison population continues to increase, and therefore chapter five continues to
dissect the barriers to reform, specifically the lack of gender-equality. Finally, the concluding
recommendations for effective practice.
The chapter also acknowledges the need for
gendered penality; before revealing final thoughts.
Overall, the chapter introduced the debate surrounding imprisonment of women,
presented the chosen methodology of the analysis and provided an overview of the research
project. The following chapter subsequently discusses the construction of gender; featuring
the presence of gender within law, the impact of social controls and the misrepresentation of
the female offender.
Chapter 2 – Gender and the Female
In order to understand the punishment and treatment of women within the CJS, the
construction of the female offender must first be dissected, in relation to the construction of
gender within wider society. Despite the awareness of gender discrimination, the increased
visibility of women and institutional reform, Kennedy (2005) believes society remains
entrenched with attitudes of gender-bias. With that in mind, the chapter acknowledges the
presence of gender within contemporary culture, paying particular attention to the impact of
patriarchy and the gendered nature of law.
Subsequently, traditional gender roles are
evidenced through the impact of social controls.
While the female offender has been neglected throughout literature and policy (Silvestri
and Crowther-Dowey 2008), the chapter presents early theories of women‟s criminality,
providing a contextual basis for the analysis of the current punishment of women. The
nature of women‟s offending is discussed, highlighting differences in offence type, motivation
and pathways; and primarily the smaller numbers of female offenders.
Finally, as the
portrayal of female offending is highly problematic, as it not only disguises the underlying
criminogenic needs of women but also provides an unrealistic picture of crime that
permeates the public sphere and therefore, politics and practice, the media representation of
female offenders is analysed.
Gender within Wider Society
Initially, for the successfully dissection of the construction and portrayal of the female
offender, one must first acknowledge the gendered nature of wider society and the continued
presence of gender differentials within contemporary culture.
For example, despite the
influence of feminism and women‟s rights discourses, residuals of the patriarchal state
remain, and women still face discrimination at several levels, particularly employment
(Snowdon 2011). More specifically, the criticisms surrounding the gendered nature of law,
the cornerstone of UK criminal justice, are highly problematic. While law, as a microcosm of
society, reflects the existing attitudes and prejudices towards women and ultimately
„transmits powerful messages which construct and underpin our social relations‟ (Kennedy
2005, p11), Kennedy (2005) argues against the neutrality of law, proposing law is
fundamentally male; made by men for men. This is supported by Connell (1987), who
believes the patriarchal state is not „the manifestation of a patriarchal essence, but as the
centre of a reverberating set of power relations and political processes in which patriarchy is
both constructed and contested‟.
Furthermore, Zedner (1991) found that women are subject to „distinctly gendered forms
of social control‟ and although continually contested by post-feminism, traditional gender
roles reside within contemporary society. This is supported by Deutsch (2007), who argues
that in spite of increasing opportunities for women to engage in non-conventional gendered
behaviour, specifically within the changing structure of the labour markets, gender inequality
remains embedded within interactional social processes;
highlighting the resistance to
change. Similarly, Deutsch (2007) highlights Ridgeway‟s theory of status expectations which
proposes sex as a master status, and argues presumptions and gendered norms are
automatically attributed to the categories of man and woman; stimulating female
The Understanding of Female Offending
Unfortunately therefore, as Gouldner (1973) argues the social sciences are privy to a
particular set of underpinning assumptions described as 'domain assumptions'. Walklate
(2004) proposes the assumptions surrounding gender are so deeply embedded within
society that the discipline of criminology operates as „gender-blind‟; resulting in a differential
response to female offenders.
While women‟s behaviour is often masculinised and
sexualised (Chesney-Lind 2006), historically, early theories presented women‟s criminality
as unnatural and deceitful (Pollak 1950); based on biological and psychological assumptions
about gender. The lack of understanding resulted in the medicalization of both women‟s
behaviour and women‟s prisons, and in conjunction with the controversial use of premenstrual syndrome and battered women syndrome (Wilczynski 1997), these theories
encouraged responses to female offending that denied the social causes of female violence.
Secondly, as feminism and women‟s rights became commonplace, the emergence of the
emancipation thesis by Adler in 1975, which suggested women‟s liberation increased their
opportunity to commit crime (Silvestri and Crowther-Dowey 2008), also presents problematic
representations of women‟s offending. However, Gelsthorpe and Morris (2002) highlight
how these theories are based on studies of men, and therefore, believe that knowledge of
female offenders is overflowing with misconceptions, rather than a reflection of evidence.
Furthermore, in terms of the nature of female offending, since the introduction of the
Criminal Justice Act 1991, specific data is now accessible, allowing for a clearer analysis.
As figures show significantly smaller numbers of women commit crime compared to their
male counterparts (Walklate 2004), statistical data and criminological literature comes to a
reasonable conclusion that both the nature of women‟s offending and pathways into crime
are very different from men‟s; justifying the need for an analysis of gender and crime. On
further examination, Home Office research highlights a difference in offence type (Walklate
2004), with female offenders more likely to be sentenced for property crime and drug
offences than their male counterparts (Medlicott 2007). Walklate (2004) concludes that
while females feature in all categories of offending, they appear less frequently in some,
particularly violent crime, supporting the early view of Heidensohn (1989) that female
offending is generally lower than male offending.
Although the differences in offending behaviour between men and women have yet to be
fully accounted for, Walklate (2004) presents that female motivation for crime is also different.
This relationship has emerged as a result of the theory of 'feminisation of poverty', as
discussed by Davies and Joshi (1998), which highlights the gendered distribution of income.
Subsequently, related theories suggest that women commit crime due to their structural
position within society, which in turn increases financial difficulties and vulnerabilities;
resulting in low socio-economic status and a need to provide for their family through
alternative methods (Gelsthorpe and Morris 2002).
However, it is also important to
acknowledge that men may also commit crime for similar reasons (Walklate 2004), a view
shared by Elaine Player, who stresses that „women‟s criminality should not be perceived as
a homogenous and specialist area of criminology and that social factors and processes of
interaction apply equally to men and women‟ (Gelsthorpe and Morris 2002, p289).
The Representation of Female Offenders
While mainstream criminology has long been critiqued as „gender-blind‟, a criticism
first presented during the first wave of feminism over forty years ago, the emergence of
feminist criminology, initially recognised after the publication of „Women, crime and
criminology: A feminist critique‟ by Carol Smart in 1976, has been highly significant in
acknowledging the need to critique the existing studies of female criminality; which were
misrepresented and distorted (Walklate 2004).
However, the distorted view of female
criminality, based on assumptions about the inherent nature of women (Smart 1976), still
exists within criminology and contemporary society; particularly within the media. Therefore,
in contemporary Britain, during an increasingly punitive climate, the profile of the female
offender has been continually and negatively portrayed; creating the assumption of an
increase in women‟s criminality (Gelsthorpe and Morris 2002). Female violent crime, in
particular, has been popularly misinformed, despite a known fluctuation of statistics that are
in line with the general pattern of crime (Gelsthorpe and Morris 2002).
The media representation of deviant women highlights the role of sex and gender, in
conjunction with risk and violence (Davies 2011). Newsworthiness, the perceived public
appeal of a potential news story (Jewkes 2011), results in the creation of several popular
characterisations of female criminality, including evil, mad and, „mean girl‟. Also, Jewkes
(2011) argues the representation of Maxine Carr, as well as Myra Hindley and Rosemary
West, present prime examples of the misogynist nature of media, as criminal women are
subject to intense stereotyping, increased levels of culpability and are depicted through
symbolic imagery as „evil‟ and „manipulative‟; reflecting the view that women‟s criminality is
more severe than that of men. While media presents very specific and stylised constructions
of all crime stories, Davies (2011) believes media provides exaggerated representations of
gender stereotypes, reaffirming traditional gender roles and excluding women who sit
outside of the prescribed cultural norms. As Jewkes (2011, p151) proposes „there may
never be a prevailing ideological climate that tolerates women who deviate from cultural
expectations of “appropriate” feminine behaviour‟, the misrepresentation of female criminality
will continue to dominate the public sphere; impacting upon the treatment and response to
female offenders.
In summary, although feminism has successfully furthered women's rights within
public and political discourse, gender continues to impact upon the treatment of women
within wider society and more specifically the representation of female offenders. While law,
as a reflection of British culture, conveys prejudice towards women, arguments suggest
patriarchal ideals sit central to political processes, and therefore criminal justice. Similarly,
women are subject to a large number of social controls, unlike men, and are still held
accountable to traditional gender roles. In relation to female offending, as assumptions of
gender are severely ingrained within criminology, early theories surrounding female
criminality have led to a denial of social causes within punishment. More recently, despite
the growing opportunities for women in the public sphere, problematic representations
continue to materialize, but thanks to the emergence of a feminist criminology the
acknowledgement of misconceptions in this arena is increasing. Furthermore, statistical
evidence has allowed for a clearer analysis of the nature of female offending, highlighting
differences between male and female offenders, for example, while female offenders commit
considerably less crime than men overall, they are also less likely to be involved in violent
offences and are motivated by their structural position in society, as a woman. While critics
highlight the application of similar motivations to male offenders, fundamentally, female
offenders propose less risk to society.
In addition, the representation of women offenders presents another platform for
gender bias within contemporary society and despite the criticism of misrepresentation and
distortion by feminist criminologists; the media continually portrays women according to
constructed stereotypes of female criminality. As newsworthiness prevails, the constant
sexualisation and exaggeration of female offending, violent offences in particular, appears to
promote misogyny and ultimately forms the basis for the disproportionate treatment of
women within criminal justice processes.
Therefore, in accordance with the research
question, and in order to provide a thorough analysis of the relationship between gender and
the increasing numbers of women currently sentenced to prison, the gendered construction
of female offenders will be now be applied to the punishment and imprisonment of women.
To do this, the analysis will focus on the sentencing of women, in turn highlighting the
presence of gender-bias within specific criminal justice processes.
Chapter 3 – The Sentencing of Women
This chapter analyses the impact of sex and gender constructions within a sentencing
framework, in order to provide an analysis of the relationship with the rising imprisonment of
women. Surrounding the disproportionate rise in sentencing women to custody within the
last decade, an increase in 66 per cent, compared to 8 per cent for their male counterparts
(Prison Reform Trust 2011), the chapter initially discusses the growing concern surrounding
the rates of female imprisonment. Subsequently, early studies into the sentencing of women
are highlighted, presenting the use of gender in the decision making process. The chapter
proceeds to a discussion on the presence of both leniency and harshness, documenting the
differential treatment of women offenders through the two contradicting debates.
Furthermore, the chapter documents the use of welfare and treatment sentencing models;
alongside psychiatry. As the chapter acknowledges the limitations and manipulation of such
data, the chapter presents an alternative explanation for the increase in imprisonment, risk,
which is established alongside the shifts in penal policy and sentencing aims.
In order to explain the phenomenon of the rising use of female imprisonment, Hudson
(2002) links the large number of women received into prison during the 1990‟s with the rising
number of women being sentenced disproportionately. Silvestri and Crowther-Dowey (2008)
expand on this, highlighting the growing concern that judges and magistrates are becoming
harsher and more severe in regards to less serious offences; directly affecting the increasing
number of women in prison.
Fundamentally, for feminist criminologists such as Helena
Kennedy QC, the adversarial system and the systematic approach to law and sentencing in
the UK allows for the construction of different interpretations, meaning the gendered
presumptions present within the operation of the law disproportionately affect the sentencing
of women (Walklate 2004).
Several studies have been conducted into the sentencing of women. Early studies into
court processes, such as „Justice for Women: Family, Court and Social Control‟ by Eaton
(1986), conclude that men and women in similar circumstances are treated equally, and
family life, a highly sympathetic factor, is employed evenly in the decision making process.
conceptualisation of normalcy are treated disproportionally.
This theme was famously
investigated by Hedderman and Gelsthorpe (1997), who conclude the differential treatment
of women is not as simple as deliberate discrimination; requiring further examination.
Leniency and Harshness
The disparate treatment of men and women within sentencing can be separated into two
schools of thought, leniency and harshness. The school concerned with leniency and the
„chivalry hypothesis‟ believes women are given more lenient sentences in accordance with
attributes such as respectability, familial role, marital status, appearance, demeanour and
sexual normality (Davies 2011); factors which are stereotypically associated with femininity.
For example, Hedderman and Gelsthorpe (1997) generally found female offenders who
displayed feminine attributes, through their body language and emotionality, were perceived
as less threatening and therefore received more sympathy. However, Cavadino and Dignan
(2007) believe that the presence of leniency perpetuates sexist ideology of women as
weaker and less rational then men.
The second school of thought, concerned with the harsher sentencing of women,
compared to their male counterparts, proposes that women who divert from the norms of
traditional femininity are met with sexist bias (Carlen 1983). The „evil woman‟ theory asserts
women who commit crimes are treated more harshly through a process of „double jeopardy‟
(Carlen 1988); they are punished twice, for transgressing against the law and also against
deeply engrained social norms of female behaviour (Cavadino and Dignan 2007). For
example, „troubled‟ women (Hedderman and Gelsthorpe 1997) and those who commit
serious crimes, such as Maxine Carr, are treated according to the sexualised imagery
created by the media (Jewkes 2011); highlighting „the ways in which common constructions
of gender appropriate behaviour have shaped sentencing‟ (Gelsthorpe 2006, p422).
Nevertheless, despite findings highlighting women are treated either leniently or harsher
by the courts due to factors such as childcare and abuse, studies on female imprisonment
show a high prevalence of similar issues and circumstances within the female estate
(Hudson 2002); presenting a discrepancy of results. This inconsistency, therefore, could be
used to support the suggestion by Farrington and Morris (1983) that sexist bias in
sentencing operates in both directions. Their findings also propose sex has no direct
influence on the sentencing of women, but rather their status and ability to conform to
traditional gender roles are taken into account (Silvestri and Crowther-Dowey 2008). While
the proposed debates potentially support the view that women are treated disproportionately
at a sentencing level, leading to an increased rate of imprisonment, the research is not
without limitation. Primarily, while both leniency and harshness are able to provide evidence
for their debate, both schools of thought fail to independently account for the rising rates in
women‟s imprisonment as the analysis of sentencing data is easily manipulated to
demonstrate either relative leniency or relative severity (Hedderman and Gelsthorpe 1997).
The gendered presumptions of men and women are also promoted through the use of
different sentencing models; providing another example of the differential treatment of male
and female offenders. A particularly clear illustration of this is present in the context of
filicide; the killing of children by those fulfilling a parental role (Wilczynski 1997). Within this,
research suggests men are often treated through a legal or punishment model, while a
welfare and treatment model is often used as a response to female offenders (Wilczynski
Consequently, supporting the double jeopardy hypothesis, filicidal women are
assumed „mad‟ for neglecting traditional gender roles of motherhood (Wilczynski 1997).
Similarly, the work of Allen (1987) draws attention to the relationship between the use of
psychiatry and gender in the courts and concludes that women are twice as likely as men to
be dealt with using psychiatric means and sentenced to medical treatment. Subsequently,
Busfield (1996) argues the prevalence of psychiatry within the female population is a result
of social disadvantage within a patriarchal society, and as discussed by Cavadino and
Dignan (2007), Heidonsohn believes the reaction and individualisation of women‟s mental
health problems is misleading, depoliticizing and commonly disguised as a concern for
women‟s welfare. Controversially, this often leads to positivistic treatment; which is arguably
more intrusive than a comparative sentence for a male offender.
The Impact of ‘Risk’
Subsequently, the growing preoccupation with risk and reoffending provides an
alternative explanation for the increasing rate of women‟s imprisonment.
Despite the
relatively minor nature of women's criminality, the increasing emphasis on risk of reoffending within both criminal justice and political ideology has increased the number of
women sentenced to custody (Hudson 2002); a 5 per cent increase in women convicted for
indictable offences between 1996 and 2006 (Great Britain, Ministry of Justice 2007). For
sentencing aims, the impact of a „risk society‟ has increased the importance of public
protection, which has led to the correlative narrowing of proportionality (Hudson 2002). This
has consequently legitimised the implementation of short sentences for women, despite the
low level of severity of offences (Hudson 2002). For example, figures from 2009 show that
61 per cent of the female prison population were sentenced to custody for six months or less
(Great Britain, Ministry of Justice 2010), with the majority of women sentenced for theft and
handling offences (Corston 2007). This trend is highly problematic for the imprisonment of
women, as the historically low number of women sentenced to custody was commonly
based on the underlying fact that women commit less serious offences and are subsequently
less dangerous than men. However, Hudson (2002) continues to argue that the sentencing
of women is resistant to changes in penal policy; instead the attitudes expressed are
founded upon 'deep structures'.
To summarise, while the two schools of thought, leniency and harshness, present
equally evidenced examples of the differential sentencing of women, the debates fail to
independently account for the rising figures of female imprisonment. Therefore, the findings
of Farrington and Morris, which suggest sexist bias occurs in both directions, through the
judgement of a women‟s ability, provide a more effective analysis of the sentencing of
Furthermore, women are more likely to be treated according to welfare and
treatment models, which alongside the prevalence of psychiatric applications supports the
gendered assumptions of women‟s criminality; disguised as a mode of patriarchy. On the
surface, the shift in penal philosophy and consequently sentencing aims, provides an
alternative explanation for the increasing use of custodial sentences for women; irrelevant of
However, the influence of the risk discourse, and the subsequent reduction in
proportionality, has justified the increased use of short custodial sentences.
disproportionately affects women offenders, as the nature of offending has remained
relatively consistent. Therefore, the assumption of equality before the law presents the
sentencing of women as another method of social control; resistant to change.
Overall, it is also important to remember that whilst the discussion on discrimination at a
sentencing level has yielded a substantial amount of information (Silvestri and CrowtherDowey 2008); Kennedy (2005) believes justice is often compromised as offenders are
caught in an already flawed legal process. This view is supported by Smart (1989) who
argues the assumptions of equality before the law renders the topic unremunerative, while
Walklate (2004) highlights the influence of factors outside of the CJS are integral to an
understanding of the treatment of female offenders.
Ultimately, although research into
gender bias within the context of sentencing decisions often produces contradictory and
complex outcomes, it is fair to conclude that gender related factors often mediate sentencing
and can negatively impact upon the imprisonment of women. To conclude, Wilczynski (1997,
p8) offers an interesting analogy of the sentencing of women:
The ‘moral gate keeping’ involved in rewarding ‘good’ women and penalizing ‘bad’
women reinforces all women’s position of subordination. It also represents a more subtle but
in some ways inherently more coercive and dangerous system of social control than is
provided for men by the criminal justice system.
Subsequently, the following chapter investigates the impact of female imprisonment and
investigates gender-specific provisions within the female estate.
Chapter 4 - Issues within the Women’s
Surrounding the discussion on the appropriateness of prison as an effective method of
punishment for women, the following chapter highlights the issues present within the female
estate. Initially, the high prevalence of mental health issues, as well as the frequency of selfharm and suicide are discussed, while the vulnerabilities of female prisoners, in regards to
drug and alcohol dependencies and previous abuse, are highlighted. Finally, the impact of
the imprisonment of women on families, particularly children, is critically analysed; alongside
the resettlement of female prisoners. The issues are examined in relation to contemporary
literature on prison morality and most importantly gendered specifics, arising alongside the
concerns surrounding conditions within the women‟s estate; which Carlen (2002) argues has
now reached both the political and public domain.
Within the growing trend of human rights, the treatment of women offenders within the
arena of incapacitation has become part of the agenda of several charitable organisations.
Also, several high profile suicide cases within the women‟s estate, which led to the
publication of the Corston Report in 2007 (Prison Reform Trust 2010a), has raised
subsequent questions about the use of imprisonment (Liebling 2007). Despite the lack of
implementation of recommendations at a practical level, a problem which will be discussed
in more detail in subsequent chapters, the Corston report has been highly influential in
highlighting the high prevalence of mental health, prior physical and sexual abuse and drug
or alcohol dependency, which consequently creates a distinct set of needs for female
offenders (Corston 2007) and provides a substantial argument against the imprisonment of
Mental Health and Harmful Behaviours
The prevalence of mental health issues within the female estate provides a clear
example of the complex needs of female offenders. While research findings suggest women
in custody are 5 times more likely to have mental health problems than the general
population (Prison Reform Trust 2011), The Social Exclusion Unit (2002) suggest 70 per
cent of female sentenced prisoners suffer from two or more mental health disorders; 35
times the level in the general population respectively. Recent prison reviews are particularly
critical surrounding the lack of high quality primary mental healthcare for women in prison
(HM Inspectorate of Prisons 2007); highlighting how institutions fail to accommodate for
gender specifics. As Gelsthorpe and Morris (2002) propose the dominant aim of punishment
within England and Wales, due to the increasing levels of fear of crime, are currently
protection, incapacitation and risk management, the imprisonment of women with mental
health issues highlights the neglect of rehabilitative ideology.
For many women, mental health problems manifest in serious self-harm and suicide
(Davies 2011). Although this has finally become part of the public domain after a significant
number of prisoner deaths at HMP Styal (Corston 2007), research states that over half of all
reported self harm occurs within the female estate (Davies 2011); even though women only
account for 5 per cent of the total prison population (HM Inspectorate of Prisons 2010b).
More specifically, as the loss of contact with children and drug withdrawal is found to
increase the frequency of anxiety and mental health issues, particularly within the early
stages of imprisonment, Liebling (2007) suggests the prison environment in itself
exacerbates the vulnerability of prisoners. Furthermore, Liebling (2007) identifies the rate of
suicide within the prison estate is considerably higher than within the community; highlighting
the female estate as a concentration of vulnerable women and reinforcing the
disproportionate impact of imprisonment within the female population. Subsequently, the
inducement of psychological distress among those with no prior disorder (Gibbs 1987) is a
major concern for prison morality. Within the community, these women, who need
specialised health care, would be treated within hospital or mental health settings, but in
prison, are categorised solely by their offending behaviour.
Therefore, while the National Offender Management Service acknowledges the
prevention and management of self-harm and suicide requires a gender-specific approach
and „recognises that treating men and women prisoners with uniformity does not necessarily
amount to equality, nor to the best level of care‟ (HM Prison Service 2007), Liebling et al.
(2005) highlights the failure to acknowledge relevant literature surrounding the connection
between the prison experience and suicide in the development of procedures. Furthermore,
The Women Offender Campaign Network (2009) identifies the lack of gender-specific
discourse within the Bradley Report; a report specifically created to measure the extent of
mental health within the prison system (Bradley 2009). This indicates that little importance is
attributed to women offenders and gender-specific needs; and the scale of the male estate
continues to dominate the available resources for reform.
The Keller unit at HMP Styal provides a practical example of the criticisms
surrounding the level of care available for vulnerable women at risk of self-harm and suicide.
The recent „Hardwick Report‟, raised continued concern over the unit (HM Chief Inspector of
Prisons 2011). Fundamentally, the unit was deemed insufficiently resourced and ultimately
an 'unsuitable place to safely hold and manage very seriously damaged and mentally ill
women' (HM Inspectorate of Prisons 2011). The report also suggests the most vulnerable
women in prison do not receive the same level of resources that are available for the most
demanding male prisoners (HM Inspectorate of Prisons 2011); suggesting gender imbalance
within the wider prison service and evidencing the neglect of female gender-specifics.
Ultimately, the publication of the Corston Report has encouraged progression (Corston
2007), however, Townsend (2012) believes that few recommendations have been
implemented, and for the chief inspector of prisons, failure to improve the female estate is
due to a predominately male hierarchy of decision making within a system that is
'overwhelmingly geared to a male population' (Peachey 2012).
In addition, drug and alcohol dependency are common variables for offending
(Liebling 2007), and are therefore highly visible within the female estate. Independently,
drug dependency provides a specific example of the needs of female prisoners and
historically, the numbers of drug offenders and levels of drug use within prison has been a
major issue (The Howard League for Penal Reform 2000).
Currently, as Home Office
statistics state over 66 per cent of women received into prison report drug or alcohol
dependency prior to custody (Commission on Women and the Criminal Justice System
2003), linked to the high proportion of women sentenced for drug offences (HM Inspectorate
of Prisons 2010b), the presence of pre-existing drug abuse highlights the vulnerability of the
female prison population.
Initially, surrounding concern about the varying availability of
drugs within women‟s prisons (HM Inspectorate of Prisons 2010b), exposing drug dependant
women to the prison environment may exacerbate their addiction. Secondly, the failure to
monitor drug use questions the current provision of drug services. While DrugScope (2005)
highlights drug detoxification may lead to self-harm and suicide, inadequate provision of drug
withdrawal and detoxification provisions (Inquest 2008) highlights the unsuitability of the
prison estate in the management of female drug users; especially as DrugScope (2005)
suggests only 30-40 per cent of the 18,000 drug-misusing prisoners receive treatment.
Furthermore, the creation of drug dependency within women with no prior history of
drug abuse, famously expressed as a concern women could enter the estate with a minor
offence and leave as a drug addict (Worral 2002), highlights the failure to address mental
health issues; as women may expose themselves to drugs as a process of self-medication.
Also, as the Ministry of Justice (Great Britain, 2011) proposes the reconviction rate for drug
dependant prisoners is 71 per cent, compared to 30 per cent for drug-free individuals,
releasing women with prison-instigated drug addictions back into the community undermines
the effectiveness of the entire prison system.
Similarly, alcohol dependency is significantly high within the female estate as the
Prison Reform Trust (2010b) suggests around 29 per cent of female prisoners report having
an alcohol problem. While both drug and alcohol issues are recognised as criminogenic risk
factors for female offenders (Corston 2007), a recent review into alcohol provisions within
prisoners concludes there is a significant unmet need for services and treatment, and
programmes are rarely adapted to women (HM Inspectorate of Prisons 2010a). Furthermore,
the failure to acknowledge drug and alcohol dependency as a method of detachment
(Harding 2005), neglects the underlying pathways of female offending and wider mental
health issues.
Although Baroness Corston believes drug treatment services within women‟s prisons
have greatly improved and the introduction of Drug Treatment and Testing Orders have
potentially diverted female prisoners from drug use (Corston 2007), the success of
detoxification programmes within custody is constantly undermined by the length of
sentences (Medlicott 2007). As the majority of women serve short sentences, with over 70
per cent serving less than 12 months (Corston 2007), they are often ineligible for an effective
treatment programme, as drug and alcohol dependency is ineffectively identified on entry to
custody (HM Inspectorate 2010a). Although issues of drugs and alcohol misuse are not
excluded from the male estate, these issues are particularly pronounced within the female
prison population (Corston 2007, HM Inspectorate of Prisons 2010b). While the Government
aim to reduce the supply of drugs and alcohol and promote drug free environment within
custody in general (Great Britain, Ministry of Justice 2011), unfortunately, without gender
specifics, the Howard League for Penal Reform believes the current measures, or lack of,
are a clear example of male-centred provisions (2000).
Also linked to mental health, the prevalence of previous abuse within the female prison
population is also important to acknowledge.
While research suggests many female
prisoners come from a background of severe social exclusion, over half of women in prison
have encountered domestic violence and over a third have been the victims of sexual abuse
(Social Exclusion Unit 2002, Medlicott 2007).
The presence of abused women raises
questions over the vulnerability of prisoners and blurs the boundaries between criminality
and victimisation. According to both Rumgay (2004) and Chesney-Lind and Pasko (2004),
previous abuse can lead to women‟s offending and subsequent imprisonment, therefore,
should be acknowledged within their punishment and treatment. However, the very notion of
persecuting an individual for her previous victimisation is problematic; suggesting a level of
culpability. Reports by the Women and Young People‟s Team have attempted to address
the needs of female prisoners affected by violence, and acknowledge the importance of a
range of supportive interventions including counselling, information and coping skills (HM
Prison Service 2008).
However, Women‟s Aid feel there is still a lack of guidance on
domestic and sexual violence against women offenders and ultimately highlight the
inconsistent response of the prison service (Norman and Barron 2011).
Moreover, as
prisons are founded on a climate of control and disempowerment, for women who have
experienced violence, often rooted in a means of control, the mental health impact of
previous abuse is exacerbated by the prison environment (Women Offender Campaign
Network 2009).
Impact on Families and Resettlement
Furthermore, as over 66 per cent of female prisoners have children under the age of
18 (Davies 2011), the effect of separation impacts negatively on the prisoner, her family, and
more specifically her children. Due to the geographical nature of female institutions, women
are more likely than men to be located further from their homes, and as a result, women
receive fewer visits from their family (Corston 2007). As traditional gender roles prescribe a
high proportion of female prisoners are primary carers (Medlicott 2007), and the majority of
women in prison are less likely than men to have someone to look after their home and
children, 12 per cent of female prisoners children are taken into care (Corston 2007). This
decreases the likelihood of visits, as children in care are dependent on accompanying adults;
alongside general issues such as travel costs and inflexible visiting times (Glover 2009).
This has several negative connotations as Liebling (1992) argues the lack of familial contact
has strong associations with self-harm. Similarly, the Social Exclusion Unit (2002) found it
also impacts upon the rehabilitation and resettlement of the offender.
The mental health impact on prisoners children is also apparent as Barnados reports
that prisoners' children are „twice as likely to have mental health problems during their life
course‟ (Glover 2009, p3), alongside the increased risk of entering into antisocial or
delinquent behaviour (Glover 2009). While this highlights the disproportionately adverse
effect of custody on children‟s lives, it also supports the idea of a cycle of deprivation,
disadvantage, drug-abuse and crime that is too often present within the lives of women
offenders (Corston 2007). Despite the implementation of extended visits for children and the
availability of initiatives such as the „Parenting and Relationship Programme‟ (HM Prison
Service 2008), Mills and Codd (2007) found that families are rarely supported effectively and
few prisons and agencies have adopted the whole-family approach (Corston 2007). This
may be a result of resourcing issues, and within wider law, the lack of attention given to
children with imprisoned parents, from a child rights perspective (Quaker United Nations
Office 2006).
Similarly, while Niven and Stewart (2005) highlight the relationship between familial
contact and the availability of arranged accommodation on release, women‟s greatest
resettlement concern (Corston 2007), they highlight the varied and complicated resettlement
needs of female offenders. While research suggests imprisonment is disproportionately
disruptive to women, in terms of separation from family, children and the loss of
accommodation (Niven and Stewart 2005), the analysis has also argued the prison
environment exacerbates the vulnerabilities of women; and therefore the majority of women
have increased drug and mental health problems on release (Gelsthorpe, Sharpe and
Roberts 2007).
While Baroness Corston (2007) successfully identified the pathways to
resettlement and subsequently called for women-specific regional resettlement plans,
Women in Prison (2012), argue the inadequate implementation of gender-specific
recommendations has been a result of the constant restructuring and emphasis on
localisation; sidelining the issue of women in the CJS.
In summary, after a number of high profile suicides and the rising number of women in
prison, the Corston report has brought to light a wide range of issues present within the
female estate. However, as has been demonstrated, many of the recommendations made in
the report remain unimplemented. Research consistently highlights the increased likelihood
of mental health issues within a prison environment; alongside the considerably high rates of
self-harm and suicide. Yet the lack of appropriate mental health care and the failure to
implement recommendations and gender-specifics has shown that the female estate is an
unsuitable place for many mentally-ill women. Criminogenic factors for women‟s offending,
such as drug and alcohol dependency, are still a key issue with a number of prison reviews
consistently highlighting the lack of accommodating gender-specific measures. However,
equally as problematic is the impact of separation between families and children, which may
be detrimental to the prisoner's resettlement and the mental health of both offender and child.
To conclude, due to the presence of a wide variety of issues and the particularly complex
needs of those within the female estate, the negative impact of imprisonment, on both the
offender and the wider family unit, provide argument for imprisonment as an ineffective
method of punishment for female offenders. Ultimately, as the prison system remains a
predominately male establishment, and therefore little acknowledgment is given to the
gender-specific needs of women, the current system is unable to appropriately neither
manage nor rehabilitate female prisoners. As current political ideology is concerned with
managerialism and effectiveness (Cavadino and Dignan 2006), one could argue that the
current female estate poses a threat to the continuation of female imprisonment.
Unfortunately however, the political agenda and wider criminal justice policy is influenced by
the increasing levels of fear of crime and the presence of a risk society (Hudson 1996). This
determines that the current philosophy of punishment remains with protection, incapacitation
and risk management (Cavadino and Dignan 2007); supporting the use of imprisonment.
Encouragingly, academics, activists and professionals are developing an argument
against female imprisonment and raising awareness of the high 'concentration of damaged,
fragile and complex-needs individuals' (Townsend 2012) present within the current penal
system. Therefore, the following chapter will introduce a discussion on the alternatives to
female imprisonment and the need to adopt a gender equal approach within the wider CJS.
Chapter 5 - The Alternatives to
Women’s Imprisonment
Alongside the established argument for gender-specific policies, presented by prison
reformers, over the last two decades a large number of organisations and academics have
conducted and presented research, providing an in-depth analysis of women‟s imprisonment
and practical recommendations for reform (Hudson 2002). Positively, women‟s criminogenic
needs have been acknowledged within government agenda, frustratingly however, both the
CJS and prison service have continually failed to implement change and subsequently adopt
a gender-specific approach (Hudson 2002), justifying the often repetitive investigation into
alternatives to women‟s imprisonment. Similarly, as the government remains committed to
funding „Women‟s Breakout‟ (Blunt 2011), „the representative body for a national network of
women-centred services offering effective gender specific community alternatives to custody‟
(Women‟s Breakout 2012), the underlying philosophies surrounding community sentencing
require critical analysis.
Therefore, the chapter presents the alternatives to custody alongside a critical evaluation
of the barriers to reform. The discussion considers the abolitionist approach before moving
on to explore community sentencing.
The analysis of gender equality provides a deeper
understanding of these issues. Initially, formal equality is introduced and criticised, while
substantive equality is highlighted as an appropriate model for a women-wise CJS. Finally,
the chapter highlights economics and resourcing as substantial barriers to reform.
The Case for Abolishment
Due to the complex issues presented within chapter four, several charities argue in
favour of the abolishment of the women‟s estate. The Howard League for Penal Reform
(2006), in particular, argues the current policy of female imprisonment not only fails to meet
women's rehabilitative needs and keep them safe, but as the majority of women are
reconvicted, it also fails to ensure public protection; a measure that underpins the ideology
behind imprisonment.
Therefore, the charity consistently calls on the government to
introduce a programme of closures, and transfer resources to community programmes that
can effectively manage the needs of female offenders.
Nevertheless, while influential
documents such as the Corston report advocate the reduction of women‟s imprisonment,
especially for vulnerable women, Baroness Corston believes there is still a need for custody
for women who commit violent or serious offences (Corston 2007).
Also, as a theoretical perspective and a political movement, abolitionism may
subsequently strengthen institutions through prison reform and improved conditions;
resulting in the supported use of imprisonment (Mathiesen 1974). Therefore, instead of
reinforcing the institution of imprisonment, abolitionists argue alternatives should become the
assumed response (Hudson 1996); with custodial sentences requiring intense justification.
In relation to female offenders, this ideology has been long supported by the work of Carlen
who promotes the abolition of women‟s imprisonment and the expansion of non-custodial
facilities (Davies 2011).
Alternatives: Community Sentencing
Community sentencing, therefore, becomes the promoted response and interestingly,
a recent survey by Smart Justice found that 86 per cent of respondents supported
community alternatives for female offenders, while a large majority also acknowledged the
need for counselling and drug and alcohol support (Hanks 2007); services that are rarely
provided within the female estate. While community sentencing provides women with a
greater opportunity for rehabilitation, Gelsthorpe (2006) argues while the established range
of community services is criticised for the failure to acknowledge the specific needs of
female offenders found, there is a lack of women-specific community provision. For example,
the breach conditions attributed to the community order, under the Criminal Justice Act 2003,
are considered particularly problematic by Gelsthorpe, Sharpe and Roberts (2007). Similarly,
women may have to travel long distances to complete the requirements of their community
sentence (Gelsthorpe 2006) neglecting women‟s distinctive needs, specifically in relation to
childcare. This increases the likelihood of failure; which lead us to question the importance
accorded to women-specific provision within the Probation Service as a whole. Ultimately,
there is a lack of evidence to support the success of community alternatives (Commission on
Women and the Criminal Justice System 2009), and consequently statutory sector providers
are reluctant to accept responsibility for meeting offending women‟s needs (Gelsthorpe,
Sharpe and Roberts 2007).
Despite the criticisms, community sentencing is hailed as the more appropriate
response to female offending and the government and National Offender Management
Service state they are committed to providing community based services for women
offenders (CEDAW 2011). At first glance the current strategy for diverting women away from
custody seems progressive, however, the underlying concern with economics and
effectiveness, rather than welfare, remains. Therefore, The Fawcett Society believes „the
development of a national network of specialist community services designed specifically for
women must be prioritised‟ (Commission on Women and the Criminal Justice System 2007,
p3), instead of simply inserting women into another male-dominated agency of criminal
However, as criminal justice tactics are often underpinned by resourcing issues and
wider political philosophy (Cavadino and Dignan 2007), the development of community
sentencing is undermined by economical issues. Although research by the New Economics
Foundation found support-focused alternatives, like community sentencing, a more costeffective option, they also argue the CJS focuses on short-term cost-control and narrow reoffending targets (Lawlor, Nicholls and Sanfilippo 2008), which deny women effective
support and subsequently increase long-term costs. Moreover, while Gelsthorpe (2006)
identifies the Government‟s commitment to funding pilot community initiatives for women
offenders, the amount awarded is significantly smaller than the cost of imprisonment;
highlighting the discrepancy between policy and practice.
Notions of Gender Equality
Although the issue of treating women and men 'the same as' or 'differently' is a
common debate among criminologists, feminists and legal scholars (Hudson 2002), in order
to successfully reform the female estate and introduce gender specific community provisions,
gender equality must first be adopted within the wider CJS; a concept that in itself requires
further discussion and critical analysis. Traditionally, the notion of gender equality refers to
women as equals to men (Hudson 2002); however, this obscures gender differences that
often lead to disadvantage (Hudson 2002) and is therefore arranged into two prominent
arguments, formal equality and substantive equality.
The first argument, formal equality, is concerned with treating men and women the
same and believes, in relation to criminal justice, men and women who commit the same
crime should be given identical treatment (IWRAW 2009). Although, on some levels, a
mechanical approach to parity is effective, through the comparison of criteria such as
number of programs, staff-inmate ratios and rules and privileges, in a wider context,
comparing the male and female estate over shadows the unique needs of female offenders
(Pollock 2002). Whilst sensitivity to difference has led to women arguing for „equality as
equal treatment‟, Kennedy highlights that „equalisation has almost invariably been towards a
male norm‟ (2005, p3); and a similar approach by Mackinnon (1987) argues formal equality
accepts men as the norm by which to judge women's treatment. Ultimately, as there are
arguable differences between men and women, who are also often privy to different levels of
social control, Minow argues it is therefore 'unfair' to treat them equally and simply subjecting
more women to the degrading and harsh experience of imprisonment in the name of gender
equality would be of any benefit to either women or men (Hudson 2002).
Therefore, a substantive approach to equality must be adopted. A notion that recognises
the differences, both biological (sex) and socially created (gender) between men and women
and therefore, for equality to occur, believes men and women may have to be treated
differently (IWRAW 2009).
Ultimately, substantive equality acknowledges the historic
imbalances between men and women, and for that reason, the adoption of substantive
justice would enable the acknowledgement of the disadvantage and discrimination women
face within society (Kennedy 2005). However, Allen (1987, p180) feels that 'the struggle for
women's equality will never be furthered by the attempt to retain either the privileges or the
disabilities of femininity' and substantive equality could become problematic if the approach
promotes protection or dependency, akin to a protectionist rather than autonomist approach
(IWRAW 2009). Hudson (2002) also argues that equality as sameness is deeply inscribed
into law, deeming the reform of criminal justice ideology as problematic.
To summarise, alongside the discussion on issues within the female estate, a number of
charities and lobbyists have been successful in establishing alternatives to custody as a
viable method of punishment and have placed the debate within government agenda. While
penal reform has begun to impact upon female incarceration, abolitionists continue to
promote the closure of women‟s prisons. However, while the movement indirectly supports
custody, they endorse the justification of incarceration and highlight the need for community
sentencing as the assumed response.
Community sentencing offers female offenders the opportunity to address criminogenic
needs that would have otherwise been neglected within the prison service and ultimately
decreases the negative impact of punishment. However, on deconstruction, the present
provisions continue to rely on a masculine framework, are preoccupied with effectiveness
and are privy to a number of barriers to reform such as resourcing. Also, the need for
gender equality is surprisingly still evident within criminal justice practices and on rejection of
formal equality, substantive equality is adopted as the mode of equality necessary for the fair
treatment and punishment of female offenders, as „treating as equal those who are unequal
does not produce equality‟ (Kennedy 2005, p3).
Ultimately, as argued by female penologists, effective reform of the female estate must
incorporate „women-wise‟ penology, a system that „takes into account the maleness of
supposedly gender-neutral concepts, and requires attention to the lives of female offenders,
but is also cognizant of the gendered power relationships in the societies in which women
and men are committing crimes and enduring penalties‟ (Hudson 1996, p148). Although the
female prison population is significantly smaller than the male population and therefore
alternatives to custody can be established through relatively small change (Crook 2006),
progression is undermined by deep rooted notions of inequality and wider economics.
Consequently, after reviewing the current state of alternatives to custody for female
offenders, alongside a discussion on the construction of the female offender in relation to
sex and gender, the disparate treatment of women throughout sentencing and the issues
within the female estate, the following concluding chapter refers back to, and answers the
central research question: „How does the construction of sex and gender within the UK
currently affect women's imprisonment and should gender difference be acknowledged
within contemporary penal reform?‟
Chapter 6 - Conclusion
In order to present a successful debate surrounding the proposed research question, the
analysis has incorporated several key themes including gender construction, disparate
sentencing, issues within imprisonment and penal reform. Initially, the analysis suggests
that despite the increasing knowledge base surrounding female offenders and their specific
criminogenic needs, the presence of gender-bias within wider society, established from a
long history of misrepresentation of female criminality, inevitably contributes towards the
treatment of women within the CJS, specifically throughout sentencing and imprisonment.
Supported by the gendered nature of law and increased social control, although women
portray significantly less risk to society than male offenders, negative media representation
conveys specific stereotypes of female offenders, unfairly impacting upon the political
More specifically, manifested within the sentencing framework are the gendered
constructions of women. This interpretation of the rising numbers of female imprisonment is
propelled is throughout the analysis; supported by a number of debates; leniency, harshness,
risk and the use of sentencing models. Therefore, the presence of gendered presumptions
within sentencing and the shift in sentencing aims results in the escalating population of
female prisoners. Consequently, alongside growing debates of morality and human rights,
there is increased the pressure on the prison service to account for women‟s specific
criminogenic needs.
However, as a culmination of political and criminal justice ideology, the female estate
continues to exist under male ideals, built on the premise of male offending. Therefore, the
high prevalence of issues; including mental health, drug and alcohol dependency and impact
on families, are ineffectively managed under the problematic direction of managerialism,
effectiveness and patriarchal values. Fundamentally, as long term effects of imprisonment
are more pronounced within the female population and the damaging impact of prison on the
offender outweighs the retributive and rehabilitative aims, the analysis presents the female
estate as an unsuccessful method of punishment, unsuitable for the implementation of
Therefore, while the discussion naturally evolved to one of alternatives to the
imprisonment of women, unexpectedly, the analysis uncovered the continued presence of
gender constructions present within both the abolitionism movement and contemporary
community sentencing. Although the research promotes the increased use of community
sentencing, a method that allows for the greater implementation of gender-specifics, critics
believe the alternatives still represent elements of male-dominated agencies of criminal
justice, highlighting the lack of gender equality, even within an approach supposedly geared
towards females.
In terms of the fair treatment of female offenders therefore, in the short term, several
recommendations set out by Baroness Corston need to be prioritised and implemented;
including the enforcement of the gender equality duty (Commission on Women and the
Criminal Justice System 2007), and ultimately women need to be diverted from custody.
Moreover, diversion from custody and the decreased use of remand should be equally
applied to vulnerable populations (Liebling 2007), and increased discussion of the impact of
imprisonment for women must be introduced at a court level; while the application of
incarceration and the rejection of alternatives to custody must be justified (Kennedy 2005).
In exceptional circumstances, when imprisonment is applicable, the issues within the
female estate must be addressed. Women‟s offending must be reconstructed as a response
to oppressive social conditions, therefore shifting the understanding of women‟s
incarceration away from their criminal identity toward their health needs, which if understood,
can be used to improve rather than simply control the lives of incarcerated women (Godin
and Kendall 2009).
In relation to mental health, diverting offenders with mental health
problems away from imprisonment would improve individual outcomes and allow the prison
service to focus solely on risk and public protection (Cauffmen 2008).
Likewise, the
implementation of specialist mental health support and training, alongside improved
reception into prison and proactive screening (Liebling 2007) is imperative.
Similarly, the implementation of „small satellite units‟ enabling women to keep children
with them for longer, gain work experience and decrease dispersal around the UK (Kennedy
2005), would improve a number of issues within the female estate, including mental health
and resettlement. In terms of morality, Liebling et al. (2005) calls for the consideration of
normative liberalism, allowing for respect, equality, dignity and tolerance; a notion that has
begun to emerge in both the social and criminal justice sphere since the publication of the
Macpherson Report in 1999. Evidently, the continuation of in-depth research is paramount
to the acknowledgement and successful application of gender and wider social justice issues,
ensuring previous research surrounding the criminogenic needs of women does not overshadow individuality (Gelsthorpe and Morris 2002).
Potential Barriers to Reform
However, while practical recommendations are important in penal reform and the debate
surrounding the discriminatory treatment of women within the CJS has led to a wealth of
subsequent criminological research (Walklate 2004), the analysis has shown that the
profound arguments surrounding leniency and harshness within sentencing fail to
conclusively represent the presence of sexist practices.
Rather, the contradictory
conclusions suggest a complex intersection between race, age, sex, class, marital status
and previous convictions (Messerschmidt 1997).
Similarly, Gelsthorpe (1989) found the
influence of organisational structures and practices were also difficult to attribute to sexist or
discriminatory practices alone.
Consequently, while gender difference is a necessary
element of equal treatment of offenders, Carlen (1990) suggests women and crime should
be discussed in relation to the wider issue of social justice, as women in prison represent the
criminalisation of offenders through racism, classicism and sexism; none of which are
reducible to the other.
In relation to this, narrowing the debate to gender alone portrays women as one
homogenous group, often neglecting black and minority ethnic (BME) women and more
evidently men. While Allen (1987) highlights that neither of the polarised views of male and
female offending are correct, he adds together they offer an understanding of human
behaviour that is more intelligible and less debilitating than each on their own. Similarly,
Walklate (2004, p208) highlights the danger of posing man and woman as dichotomous,
instead, as argued by Giddens, gender should be seen as dualities, 'processes which
interact with one another so that at one and the same time we are both the same and
Therefore, the concerns of post-modern feminism, alongside the implementation of
substantive equality, need to be applied to the CJS, in terms of the rejection of the
essentialist woman, consequently promoting the acceptance of difference within the term,
such as race, class and sexuality. This is particularly important, as both radical and socialist
feminism, despite relatively low impact on the CJS to date, are often guilty of down-grading
difference (Walklate 2004). However, while attempts have been made to challenge the
generalisations, post-modern feminism also poses a significant threat to „conventional social
scientific conceptions of science and knowledge‟ (Walklate 2004, p47) and is therefore
unlikely to be implemented within the current system.
Alongside the values of post-modern feminism, BME women in particular raise concerns
surrounding the perspective of white middle class academics, highlighting the need for a
multiplicity of standpoints (Hudson 1996). Therefore, Cauffmen (2008) argues treatment and
punishment should be tailored to specific needs; not just gender alone. In terms of the male
perspective, although the differential nature and prevalence of issues for female offenders
has been evidenced throughout the analysis, the research does acknowledge that the wider
social issues that traditionally affect women should also be taken into account with male
offending (Gelsthorpe and Morris 2002). Although it may undermine the work of feminists,
the variables that determine criminality must be further examined, meaning alongside
femininities, masculinities must also be explored (Walklate 2004).
In order to combat
criticisms surrounding the neglect of male needs therefore, Gelsthorpe and Morris (2002)
believe the reduction in the use of imprisonment for women should be based on the grounds
of the seriousness of their offending and their risk to others, allowing the social problems
linked with pathways to crime to be addressed; methods that can hopefully and eventually
be incorporated into attitudes towards male offending.
In conclusion, the imprisonment of women within the UK is affected by the historical and
continuing constructions of gender. Ultimately therefore, contemporary penal reform must
acknowledge gender difference; alongside the application of individualised practices,
incorporating race, sex and class. However, while the large body of work surrounding the
needs of female offenders and gender and crime in general continues to expand,
acknowledgement alone is not enough. Penal reform and the implementation of appropriate
practice throughout the CJS, although supported by numerous academics and charitable
organisations, are significantly hindered by underlying philosophies that are deep routed
within society and politics. Evidently therefore, in order to account for wider social issues
such as gender, for both men and women, and subsequently reduce the use of
imprisonment, a radical shift in penal philosophy is necessary.
Nevertheless, such a
proposal is highly unlikely within a political system restricted by neo-correctionalism and an
increasingly punitive direction.
10,998 Words
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