Prison more difficult for women than for men

Friday, 13 January 2017

Being imprisoned is more painful and traumatic for women than it is for men, according to new research published in our journal, The British Journal of Criminology.

The research, by Ben Crewe, Susie Hulley and Serena Wright of the University of Cambridge, draws on interviews and surveys with prisoners serving sentences of 15 years or more.

The pain of separation from children and family members was felt more acutely by female prisoners than it was by their male counterparts. The accounts of trauma and abuse experienced by females prior to imprisonment were also far more profound.

'While the stories of the men whom we interviewed were often distressing,' the authors write, 'the intensity and consistency of the trauma disclosed by the women was qualitatively different.'

One female prisoner told the researchers:

My dad committed suicide when I was a baby. And then my stepdad committed suicide when I was nine […] I saw my stepdad when he hung himself […] I ended up in a secure training centre when I was 14 […] Then when my youngest son died, I just couldn’t cope and I was drinking and taking drugs, fighting and I tried to commit suicide. That was a month before I came in on this sentence.

I was in and out of foster care until the age of 14 [...] I got sexually abused in two foster homes. … I lost my little girl when I was 18; she passed away […] My mum had come into my life when I was 18; she’s an alcoholic. She chose her drink over me a lot of the time. She used to beat me with a rod … Before I come to prison, I was seven months pregnant with a little boy and he passed away inside me and I had to give still birth to him. … My mum turned around and said that she was glad both of my kids were dead, because I’d be an unfit mother anyway. …I didn’t feel very secure until I met my ex-boyfriend, and that was the only time I felt secure. I don’t know why I felt secure, because I was with him for eight years and he beat me every day.

'Almost without exception, the women’s life stories read as catalogues of suffering and abuse, including physical and sexual violence, intimate bereavement and drug and alcohol addiction', the authors write.

'Similar kinds of events certainly occurred in the lives of some of the men we interviewed, but they were less common, and less often multiple and cumulative. Accordingly, while we were all left reeling by some of the interviews with the male participants, the emotional toll of interviewing the women was much greater.'