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Staff-prisoner relationships in women’s prisons
Research into the complexity and emotional intensity of relationships between women prisoners and staff.

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Relational ambiguities

Fascinating new research by Ben Crewe, Anna Schliehe & Daria Przybylska, published in the European Journal of Criminology last month (12 December 2022) looks at staff-prisoner relationships in a women’s prison. The article “‘It causes a lot of problems’: Relational ambiguities and dynamics between prisoners and staff in a women’s prison” is currently free to download.

The article illuminates the complexity and emotional intensity of these relationships, first, by outlining their core features, as described by female prisoners – blurred boundaries, infantilisation, pettiness, inconsistency and favouritism – and then by seeking to explain the complex entanglements of power and dependence that result. These explanations include the relative powerlessness and vulnerability of women in prison, their biographical experiences of abuse and trauma, and a tendency for uniformed staff to be somewhat careless in their use of power, while seeking to build close and supportive relationships with prisoners and engaging in forms of benign paternalism. 

The study

The article draws on data collected as part of a large-scale research project, one sub-strand of which involved an ethnography of penal power and social relations in a women’s prison in England and Wales, holding around 300 adult women in closed conditions. Undertaken over an 8-month period in 2018, the fieldwork for this study involved extended periods of participant observation, including a great deal of informal discussion with prisoners and staff, and 48 in-depth interviews with imprisoned women.

Key themes

The findings are organised under three principal themes, summarised below:

  1. Blurred boundaries
  2. Pettiness and infantilisation
  3. Inconsistency and favouritism

Blurred boundaries

One key feature of staff–prisoner relationships identified in the study was the blurring of professional boundaries. Some officers adopted an informal and friendly approach in an attempt to foster a caring environment. While some women responded positively to this approach, many others were wary, feeling uneasy at what they felt was a misrepresentation of the realities of a prisoner-guard relationship. Many complained that personal information that they had disclosed to friendly officers quickly became common knowledge amongst both staff and prisoners. Others expressed confusion and disappointment that officers who they felt were their friends, then enforced prison rules.

Pettiness & infantilisation

Many women interviewed for the study were unhappy about the (inconsistent) enforcement of rules for which there seemed to be no clear rationale – such as not being allowed to wear slippers outside their cells. When women prisoners questioned these rules, they were rarely given a reason, merely a dismissive response such as “Do it because I say so”.  They described their living environment as similar to being at school or even at home with officers acting like teachers or parents. 

Another common complaint was that staff interfered excessively in friendship decisions and social activities:

“I was warned about mixing with one person. We used to play scrabble together and a member of staff said: ‘Do you know what she is in for?’ So I said ‘Yeah’. They said ‘Well you shouldn’t be hanging with her because of her offence – it will go badly against you’.”

Inconsistency & favouritism

Women also reported inconsistency between officers and also in how individual officers
operated. They described receiving differing or contradictory instruction from different members of staff, as well as inconsistencies in the ways that different staff members used their discretion and enforced the rules. Women from ethnic minority backgrounds felt strongly that such decision-making was highly racialised and that they were scrutinised more intensively and disciplined more frequently than other prisoners.

A common form of perceived inconsistency was preferential treatment. A shared sentiment among many prisoners was that ‘officers have their favourites’ and that these ‘pet projects’ were more likely to have their requests met, receive support, be fed information and be treated more leniently if they broke regulations. 


In their analysis of women prisoners views on staff, the authors highlight a number of key issues. These include the fact that some women prisoners have entrenched emotional needs and constantly seek support and attention from staff. Also that many women have histories of trauma and abuse which make them acutely sensitive to certain forms of staff conduct (in particular the behaviour of male prison staff).

Anxieties of this kind were compounded by the recent history of the prison where the research was carried out, during which several staff members had been caught having abusive relationships with women in their care. For the women in this study, such incidents were deeply destabilising, generating acute concern about attempts by staff to forge closer relationships, making them question their own judgement, and producing generalised mistrust in the prison system.

Another issue, to which many staff were thought to be desensitised, was the simple fact that for for most prisoners, imprisonment was intensely painful, and they were deeply reliant on officers to alleviate their distress. For example, one common source of resentment was the
perception that officers failed to appreciate the anguish caused by separation from families.

The authors summarised the impact on may women prisoners of their powerlessness:

“Seen in this light, many of the emotionally fraught interactions that we witnessed reflected complex entanglements of power and dependence. Women’s reliance on staff reinforced a dynamic of neediness; their lack of power, in combination with their desperation and distress, produced insistent and vociferous forms of challenge; and their biographical experiences made them acutely sensitive to the use and misuse of authority. For the same reasons, many women were impelled to develop close relationships with officers, while others were highly passive or detached, based on feelings of fatalism or anxiety, respectively.”


Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here

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