The gendered pains of imprisonment

Susie Hulley, Ben Crewe and Serena Wright profile their research on the traumatic impact of imprisonment on women

Susie Hulley, Ben Crewe and Serena Wright
Friday, 24 February, 2017

It has long been argued that women remain on the periphery of penological research and prisons policy, despite the growing numbers of women being incarcerated and the distinctive nature of their experiences of offending and imprisonment.

This is particularly true in relation to long-term imprisonment. In policy, references to women’s imprisonment rarely include those at the ‘deep end' of the system. For example, the recent White Paper, Prison Safety and Reform, considers the resettlement needs of women: an important matter, but one which most women serving long life sentences will be unaffected by for many years.

Women and long-term imprisonment

Between 2013 and 2015, we undertook a major study of long-term imprisonment, which included both men and women and deliberately foregrounded gender in the analysis.

The study involved interviews and/or surveys with 310 men and 23 women serving very long life sentences with a tariff of 15 years or more, which they received when young (aged 25 years old or younger, and all  of whom were convicted of murder). Our sample represented 39% of the men and 85% of the women in the prison system of England and Wales who fitted the research criteria at the time of the study.

The survey results showed that there were similarities in the types of problems of long-term imprisonment reported by the men and the women. Specifically, ‘missing someone’, ‘worrying about people outside’, and ‘having to follow other people’s rules and orders’ were ranked within the four most severe problems experienced by both the men and women.

However, there were also important differences in their experiences, not least that overall the pain and problems of long-term imprisonment were experienced with significantly greater severity by the women than by the men.

Survey questions, which asked about the severity of various ‘problems’ of long-term imprisonment, were organised thematically into ten dimensions. On five dimensions, women’s severity scores were significantly higher than men’s and even the lowest dimension severity score for women (‘Mental Wellbeing’) was higher (i.e. more severe) than over half of the men’s dimension scores.

Below we examine the set of issues that emerged as particularly problematic for the women in our study, compared to the men.

Losing contact

Male and female prisoners both described losing contact with friends and family. Yet while many men reported improved relationships with their nuclear family (specifically parents, and mothers in particular), the reverse was true for women. For some women, family members refused contact following conviction, particularly when the victim was a member of the family; while other women severed contact themselves, frequently after reflecting on the difficult and often abusive nature of their pre-prison relationships.

A higher proportion of the women were also parents or primary carers. For most, contact with children had become difficult or impossible due to disputes with care-givers (who tended to be mothers, in-laws, or the local authority rather than partners or ex-partners) and their limited ability to communicate directly with the child. The loss of the mother role was described as one of the most traumatic aspects of their imprisonment. For example:

…the hardest thing for me when I came into jail was nobody told me how to not be a mum - I had spent so many years being a mum, I didn’t know how to switch that off […] And like it never goes away; that missing them, and that kind of ache.

Power, autonomy and control

The women rated ‘having to follow other people’s rules and orders’ as the most severe problem of long-term imprisonment (compared to the fourth most severe for the men). In particular, they struggled with the multitude of ways in which their intimate, daily practices were controlled, including their nutrition, their clothing, and in particular their ability to contact their children.

Feelings of powerlessness were shaped by the women’s pre-prison lives, which were peppered with abusive relationships. Prison reproduced many of the dynamics of abuse. Feeling unable to control one’s life was also associated with mental health problems, which far more of the women than the men described to us.

Mental health and psychological wellbeing

Feelings such as guilt, regret, anger and grief were common among the women in relation to their offence and the consequences of the predicament they were in. Such feelings often manifested in forms of inward facing violence, such as self-harm and suicidal ideation, aimed at punishing the self.

Trust, privacy and intimacy

With extraordinary consistency, the women described having a deep sense of distrust, or ‘trust issues’, with their trust having been broken or abused repeatedly: by parents, authority figures and intimate partners, who had sexually assaulted them, abandoned them or failed to care for them in fundamental ways.

The fracturing of trust by the very people whom they believed loved them, and would protect them, had shattered their capacity and willingness to place trust in others. Our interviewees were very wary of placing trust in anyone around them, yet they yearned deeply for intimacy in the absence of meaningful outside relationships.

A lack of physical and emotional privacy also troubled the women. This included being visible to male officers when undertaking private practices, such as using the toilet or having a bath, as well as forms of ‘emotional claustrophobia’, such as being subject to gossip or having to live out intimate relationships under the collective gaze of other prisoners and staff.


We have argued in a range of publications, that the adaptive patterns of long-term prisoners can only be understood in relation to the particular offence of murder and the experience of being subject to an extraordinary long sentence from an early age.

A close and comparative analysis of our data shows clearly that the experience of trauma is also central to the experiences of women serving such sentences, as their imprisonment interacts with and compounds pre-prison forms of sexual and physical violence and associated feelings of degradation and powerlessness.

As a result, the set of deprivations and debasements that women encounter during long-term imprisonment are acutely more painful and problematic than those of their more numerous male counterparts.

Susie Hulley is Research Associate and Ben Crewe is Deputy Director at the Prisons Research Centre, University of Cambridge. Serena Wright is Lecturer in Criminology at Royal Holloway, University of London