Queer(y)ing Feminist Approaches to Prison Research

Women in prison have higher rates of poor mental health, self-inflicted harm, and suicide rates than their male counterparts. Commonly cited reasons include struggling with separation from children and family, bullying, and unmet mental health and substance misuse needs. These differences are said to be influenced by women’s trauma histories. Many women prisoners have been victims of much worse crimes than the ones they have been convicted for, with more than half (53%) reporting experience of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse as a child and a staggering 57% reporting experiences of domestic violence.

The Prison Reform Trust (PRT) indicates that these figures are likely to be an underestimate due to fear of disclosure. Trauma histories often lead to what we can describe as co-morbidity of condition, suggesting a high prevalence of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse rates among prisoners. Women are far more likely to report needing help with a drug problem when entering prison and are also twice as likely as men to be identified as suffering from depression. 

As a result of these differences coming to light, we have seen an increase in support for the introduction of gender-sensitive responses. Gender-sensitive approaches are built on the understanding that women are uniquely affected by victimisation and have complex social and economic histories relating to drug use, abusive relationships, and overall poor mental health. It is also assumed that women have lower levels of education and poor job skills, while often also juggling being the primary caregiver. Therefore, it is argued that women’s prisons should reflect these complex social exclusion problems and they should be characterised by their rehabilitative nature, with less focus on security and more focus on proper officer training and treatment options. 

However, Braz (2006) argues that gender-sensitive prisons are being “sold to feminist, reformers and progressives as better for women” (p. 88), when in fact, these approaches simply serve to expand the prison industrial complex. Furthermore, Crenshaw (2012) highlights that despite a gender responsive approach recognising gender, it does little in the way of recognising how multiple identities intersect, particularly ignoring racial and sexual identities of marginalised women. Crenshaw argues that many feminist or women-centred analyses of the prison replicate the race-neutral framing of gender. Crenshaw, in documenting the experiences of women of colour and gendered violence, emphasises that systems of race, gender, and class domination converge, as they do in the experiences of battered women of colour, intervention strategies based solely on the experiences of women who do not share the same class or race backgrounds will be limited help to women who because of race and class face different obstacles (Crenshaw, 191, p. 1246). 

Feminist criminologists have gone some way in challenging the androcentrism of criminology, however, the field remains largely heteronormative with sexuality and gender binaries often taken for granted. This is of particular importance in the women’s prison estate, with an estimated 22% of this population identifying as non-heterosexual (PRT, 2021). Part of my current research builds on the nascent field of Queer Criminology and seeks to explore the relationship between space and identity in the women’s prison estate, particularly among LGBTQ+ populations. Queer criminology is both a theoretical and practical approach that aims to highlight the rejections of queer communities within criminology. While in its infancy, queer criminology strives to put LGBTQ+ populations at the centre of criminological inquiry – moving away from the “add queer and stir” approach. 

Kayleigh Charlton is a PhD student at the University of Bath. Her thesis explores the possibilities and limits of queer(ing) spaces through the lens of the women’s prison estate. Her broader research interests include gender and sexuality research more broadly, LGBTQ+ prisoners experiences and queer spatial geographies. You can find Kayleigh on Twitter @Charlton _k

Braz, R., 2006. Kinder, Gentler, Gender Responsive Cages: Prison Expansion is Not Prison Reform. Women, Girls & Criminal Justice.

Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile., 2021. Prison Reform Trust. Available at: https://prisonreformtrust.org.uk/publication/bromley-briefings-prison-factfile-winter-2021/ 

Crenshaw, K. 2012. From private violence to mass incarceration: thinking intersectionally about women, race, and social control. UCLA L Review.

Why focus on reducing women’s imprisonment? 2017. Prison Reform Trust.  Available at: http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/Women/whywomen.pdf


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