Throw Away the Key: An Alternative to Women in Prison?

Keir is a Lead Therapist in an NHS Specialist Service and provides training, consultation and therapy around complex mental health problems through beamconsultancy.co.uk

This is a very lazy blog, but on a day when there are calls for women’s prisons to close, I thought I’d dig out an old essay I did for my MSc. This was my least academically successful essay and earned me the feedback that I had portrayed women as victims. Should you ever be tempted to write a similar essay, you’ll find it is very difficult to do otherwise given the amount that the system victimises women.
We had to describe a service that would better respond to the needs of women and my attempt is below.  It will help if you know that the Corston Report was “a review of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system”.  Enjoy

Welsh – “Fenyw” (noun)
“Woman” (verb )English

A Service for Women in or at Risk of Entering the Criminal Justice System
My experience is in working in the community, most often with people who have not be arrested and convicted of crimes. There is a tendency to think of the forensic population as ‘other’ however many of the behaviours exhibited by my clients, if done outside the context of a mental health services, would certainly be of great concern to the general public and thus the agents of criminal justice. I will outline a service that would help the clients that I work with as well as those who have been arrested for crimes, those who have the capacity to hurt themselves and others, who struggle to maintain relationships with families and partners, and who experience strong feelings of rage, fear, helplessness and despair from those who work with them. In one sense, my service could be thought of as an organisational intervention that will target aspects that professionals find difficult to think about. In another way, my service would be for the clients as it will focus on and hold in mind the aspects of people that services are often keen to push away.

Before designing the service it’s worth looking at why change is required. The Corston report itself puts forward a number of reasons why the status quo is unfair. It can be argued that the system discriminates against women. (All of the following figures and statistics are taken from Corston 2008). Women are twice as likely as men to be jailed for a first offence. This is despite women committing less violent crime. In court women are more likely to be remanded to custody than men yet over half of the women remanded do not receive custodial sentences. If over half of the decisions to incarcerate are deemed unnecessary when the accused is tried, it seems that something untoward is occurring when women first enter the criminal justice system.
Women commit different crimes to men being involved in more acquisitive crime and substantially less involved in serious violence. Not only are their crimes different, the reasons behind their offending are different, with relationships, accommodation issues and substance misuse being greater factors than for men.

Ethically, the punishment aspect of the judicial system seems harsh for a population already suffering. They are frequently victims of crime, ill or already punishing themselves. 80% of women in prison have diagnosable mental health problems with twice as many women as men seeking help in the year prior to their sentence. Despite making up only 5.5% of the prison population, women account for 51% of the incidents of self harm. In prison, women are more likely than men to kill themselves. Two thirds of women coming into prison require detoxing from drug addiction. It might be unsurprising that women in prison hurt themselves given their backgrounds. Half of them have been victims of violence while one in three (compared to one in ten men) have experienced sexual abuse.
It seems sadistic to be harsh to this population yet the experience of prison is felt more harshly by women than by men. There are the invasive searches which cannot be well received by the third that have been sexually abused. There is the fact that a third of the women are lone parents who suffer knowing their children are not with a parent. 12% of women prisoner’s children will be looked after by strangers in the care system. When in prison, 30% of women lose their accommodation often including their possessions. To compound the punishment, women are separated from their families. Living in Wales, if my wife was to be unnecessarily remanded she would serve her time in a different country.
Discriminating and sadistic…it makes sense that Corston would want change. Others might take issue with Corston’s report and seek to emphasise the similarities between men and women. Adshead (2004), looking at forensic mental health patients, highlights the similarities in the in the backgrounds of males and females in secure settings with high levels of childhood abuse and neglect coupled with high levels of lifetime and childhood victimisation in both sexes. While this is a risk factor for violence in men Adshead points out that the gender stereotyping of females means that the masculine trait of violence is likely to be interpreted as madness in women but understandable in men. Women then go to hospital while men go to prison for the same actions. What we could take from Adshead is that a focus on the outcomes of abuse and neglect might be less important than an understanding of how the past affects us. Rather than treatments for men and for women, an intervention for victims/perpetrators of violence might serve better.

To adequately design a service that meets the needs of women, we need to understand the population we serve. I’ve already outlined the deprivation in backgrounds of many female offenders. When we add that “71% of female offenders have no qualifications whatsoever” (Civitas 2010) we can picture a background of poverty, stress and deprivation. “60% of women in prison are single. 34% of women in prison are lone parents. Around two-thirds of women were mothers living with their children before they came into prison” (Corston 2008). Nearly two thirds of boys who have a parent in prison will go on to commit some kind of crime themselves (Prison Reform Trust 2012).
We can picture some of the difficulties at home (if the children can stay at home). There is not only the statistical impact on offending but from a psychological perspective there are many examples of people who have a history of early neglect and/or abuse who go on to unconsciously recreate their pasts with the next generation (Motz 2008, De Zulueta 2008)
Some of the needs of this population are obvious: drug abuse, being unemployable due to literacy and numeracy deficits, lack of housing, difficulty parenting, self harm and mental health problems. Fenyw will address these needs and more. In describing Fenyw I am not going to confine my thoughts to a specific service and building, instead I’ll attempt to describe elements on a pathway that I feel are essential while leaving the practicalities of how this might be achieved to better minds than mine.

Keeping Women Out of Institutions

There are many arguments above as to why prison is not a good option for women. In my work I see people routinely hurting themselves in the community and uncontrollably maiming themselves in institutions. Studies show how restrictive environments can increase the frequency and severity of self harm (Harrison, 1998) while Pearson suggests that “suicide attempts and assaults are increased when women are detained in secure settings where the means of self harming and the access to substances that might dampen feelings” are reduced (Pearson 2010). Part of Fenyw would be to provide an advisory service to courts to divert women from custody wherever possible. Fenyw would hold in mind the idea that “Custodial sentences for women must be reserved for serious and violent offenders who pose a threat to the public.” (Corston, 2008).
To be able to thoughtfully divert women from prison Fenyw would need to hold a balanced view untainted by discrimination and mindful of what does and doesn’t work. Fenyw would remember “it is very unusual for women to act violently at all” (Adshead 2004) and that female violence is often directed at themselves (Motz 2008). We would embrace Welldon’s (1998) notions of the child being an extension of the mother’s body when recognising that 40-45% of female homicide offenders kill their children (Yakeley, 2010). We would also hold in mind that a third of female homicide offender’s victims are their partners while 80% are close family members (Yakeley, 2010). Fenyw would hold the idea that the vast majority of female offenders pose little to no danger to the public at large, therefore they do not need to be imprisoned. I think of my experience of Women’s wards and while I haven’t worked on one I have always been aware of their reputation as being the most violent and chaotic wards in the institution. Staff seemed to be regularly assaulted, residents were always fighting. Given the statistics on women assaulting non family members it seems that there must be something toxic on female units that allows women’s usual patterns of violence to be subverted to such an extent. Fenyw would avoid these environments as much as possible.
Diversion from prison would be done on the basis of a psychological formulation consistent with the Personality disorder pathway. Some would have to go to prison. Some would self harm to such an extent that they would need protection from themselves. Fenyw would stay involved to ensure periods of restriction were as short as possible. Much as I resent the notion of hierarchy in the NHS and other institutions (not least coming from the lowly status of OT) Fenyw would need consultant psychiatrists to be part of the team to take on an RMO role from staff who see the only solution to risk to be greater restrictions and heavier nurses.

Within the NHS and criminal justice system, self harm is often a fast route to responsibility being taken from you and restrictions being placed. Fenyw would make the understanding of self harm a priority for the service. This is an important distinction as while the service will help people who wish to stop self harming, the focus will be on making sense of the purpose of the act. You wouldn’t need to work in my organisation for long meet someone who regularly cuts themselves at home, but  in a ward environment gouges their arms wit broken CDs or torn Coke cans after their blades have been taken away to “keep them safe”. Based on a psychological formulation of their behaviour, Fenyw would understand self harm as a communication (Motz 2009), a way of solving a problem (Linehan 1993), a re-enactment of past abuse or as something else that made sense to the client. Fenyw would then thoughtfully only remove responsibility from someone in the most extreme circumstances and then in the least restrictive way possible for as short a period as possible.
A Different Community Service

I envision women being diverted from court to the women’s centres Corston described. I would take her recommendations further and rather than the centres be places to refer and signpost, I would have them co-run with the NHS to provide ongoing intervention and support. Residential accommodation would be on site as well as units to cater for families and units to detox those who required it. The women might attend local centres to be able to work on their difficulties while living in their usual environment. Sometimes it might be more beneficial for the women to have a new start away from old toxic relationships where the process of starting new relationships can be examined and thought about. People might be compelled to attend these centres when they are sentenced but for me this is where the compulsion should end. My probation colleagues speak of the lack of reward inherent in providing interventions people attend under duress.

My background is in working in Day Therapeutic Communities where the only expectation of people is that they come – everything else can be talked about. Within the women’s centres I would work to the principles of the therapeutic community – attachment, containment, communication involvement and agency. (Haigh, 1999) In essence the centres would be a place where women felt they belonged and were accepted, a place where unspeakable thoughts can be put into words and acted on, a place that the women own and sustain. It’s not easy to engender these concepts but for those who cannot make use of the formal therapy on offer, this very different and more subtle intervention has more of a chance of success. The enabling environment of the TC can build the sense of belonging and personal efficacy the clients are unlikely to have developed in their backgrounds of deprivation (Pearce& Pickard 2012). Key to maintaining the ethos of the centres will be the roles of Experts by Experience in the centres. Thus much of the modelling, sharing, advice and direction will be imparted by people without a theoretic knowledge of offending and mental health, but with a lived experience of surviving trauma, illness and the criminal justice system. Those with lived experience have been shown to provide better outcomes than traditional services when “engaging people into care, reducing the use of emergency rooms and hospitals, and reducing substance use among persons with co-occurring substance use disorders. …peer staff have also been found to increase participants’ sense of hope, control, and ability to effect changes in their lives; increase their self-care, sense of community belonging, and satisfaction with various life domains; and decrease participants’ level of depression and psychosis.” (Simpson 2002).

The client group Fenyw targets comes from a background of abuse and neglect, where the template for healthy relationships has not been taught, and where communication has been more through actions than words. One of the main goals of Fenyw is to help our clients to use help and much of the work will be exploring the relationships that develop in the centre. Motz (2014) highlights the impact of experiencing and witnessing intimate partner violence and the frequency with which these toxic relationships are replayed later life. Fenyw will attempt to help its clients understand their relationship patterns in a community setting where mistakes can be made and thought about.

While Fenyw’s TC elements would qualify it as an enabling environment (Haigh et al 2012) there would be a number of other therapies on offer. What people attended would be based on their preference and formulation with a focus on managing acute problems first. I would struggle to make use of anything if I was withdrawing, psychotic, penniless, separated from my children and/or homeless. Staff including social workers and experts by experience would prioritise these needs. Once clients are able to think about more than survival, psychologically focused individual and group work would be on offer including DBT, metallization and psychoanalysis. In addition there would be roles in the centres which clients could take on the gain work experience and qualifications, there would be links to voluntary work and education and a program for increasing literacy and numeracy. Ideally our initial clients would be our future experts by experience.
What I have outlined in the two points above is an organisational intervention to keep women from going into environments of high security and a clinical intervention to subtly provide a healthy attachment for the women to go on to make use of more structured therapies. My rational for doing this is that people who readily identify their difficulties and believe change is possible tend to do well in therapy. Alas from the profile outlined earlier, these people are not reflected in the female prison population.

The difficulties for staff working in Fenyw will be significant. “Without robust frameworks to make sense of the intense emotional content of interpersonal contact there is a high risk of…(staff) being drawn into toxic relationships with the women patients, other professional groups and each other (Aiyegbusi 2004). The relationship difficulties of the past will be played out in the centres. Not only do we ask the staff to help those who have little experience of carers being helpful (Hinshelwood 2002), we ask them to thoughtfully hold back from the urge to protect those who are communicating their pain and to let the clients learn from their peers rather solving problems ourselves. This is all while the staff are holding ideas about those who hurt others coming to an easy option rather than being punished. One solution is to employ the mythical ‘right staff’ but in their absence, the service user consultants will be key to ensuring that splits are reduced – its hard to think of ‘us and them’ when the staff have been in prison and the offenders are in the staff room. Also “the experience of co working with service users reconnects staff with them emotionally” (Farr, 2011) reducing the risk of dehumanising our clientele. This deconstruction of the powerful/powerless dynamic that has proved so unhelpful for this client group will be difficult for staff, used to being in positions of authority, as they adjust to a different role. Tuck & Aiyegbusi write of the damage staff can sustain when receiving the raw communication (projection) of their clients trauma. Staff “need supportive, containing structures where they can think about their relationships, test reality and reflect on their experiences thoughtfully. (Tuck, G & Aiyegbusi A 2008).  Fenyw would provide regular individual and group supervision to help staff process the experience of the work. While our staff would recognise our clients as victims, they must not “behave as if they had no idea why their clients had been imprisoned in the first place” (Barrett 2011) so supervision would help us to keep a balanced view of those we work with. Fenyw’s leadership must promote an environment where mistakes are opportunities to learn to reduce the chances of a blame culture developing. We would also emphasise shared decision making (particularly with our clients) so that no one person is held accountable.

The goals for Fenyw would be typical of a criminal justice/NHS service. We aim to reduce offending. In addition reduced self harm, mental health problems, substance misuse and more clients having stable accommodation would be key. These might be achievable via increased problem solving skills, parenting skills, literacy, numeracy, sense of belonging, self efficacy and people in work education or training. Also we’d like less children going into care and victimisation (avoiding typical relationship patterns). Because Fenyw will keep clients in the least restrictive environment, there is potentially a risk of increased completed suicide or accidental death when engaging in potentially lethal self harm. It would be important to measure the quality of life of clients currently in prison/secure settings to compare it with those in the women’s centres. Many would be fearful of a higher number of deaths, but there would be less people living in hell. This is likely to be a highly contentious issue for the public and the media but for Fenyw to be successful it cannot replicate the environments that seek to eliminate risk which currently fail women so badly.

Our women’s centres cannot be islands where men don’t exist or are seen only as abusers. There will be a mix of staff so that the experience of a relationships  can be scrutinised and thought about. After the women have gained some understanding of their patterns of relationships (either from individual therapy or the TC) they will be encouraged to explore relationships  in the community, ideally in environments outside of mental health or criminal justice. Women would move from residing at the centres, to attending regularly to attending as required as indicated by their formulation.

 

And that is my ‘Moon Under Water’ of the female criminal justice world. What you missed out on was another 1000 words about what it was like to study women in a largely female educational environment.  Interestingly I started wearing figure hugging tops and grew a beard.  No doubt if the course was a few weeks longer I’d have dragged the carcass of an animal I’d hunted and killed in with me.

The service I described is quite idealistic but certainly no worse than the prison environment where something so toxic happens that women kill themselves at a higher rate than men. As ever, let me know what you think. Keir @keirwales
Keir is a Lead Therapist in an NHS Specialist Service and provides training, consultation and therapy around complex mental health problems through beamconsultancy.co.uk

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