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Women released from prison face structural disadvantage
Woman being released from HMP Downview
HMPPS research finds brief psychological interventions for women in prison are promising, but struggle to make a difference in the face of the structural disadvantages faced on release.

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Brief intervention evaluation

Last week (1 April 2021), HMPPS published a new Evaluation of a brief intervention to reduce reoffending among women serving short sentences. Authored by Georgia Barnett & Helen Wakeling, the report documents the results of a randomised control trial testing a brief intervention that aimed to reduce reoffending among women serving short sentences in one prison (Eastwood Park) in England. Over the course of a year, 255 women serving sentences of under 12 months, and who were in the last 6-8 weeks of their sentence, agreed to take part in the trial. Participants were randomly assigned to an intervention or control task.

The intervention

The intervention task consisted of three exercises: i) a daily goal-setting task, which required women to set a goal they could achieve that day, and to review it, and set another the following day, ii) a “Best Possible Self” task, which asked women, in the week prior to their release, to articulate what their life would look like in five years’ time if everything had gone as they would like it to, including the steps they would have taken to achieve this, and iii) providing peer support to (“buddying”) a fellow participant, helping them to complete their tasks during the intervention period. Women in the control group were asked to complete a list, daily, of the things they had done that day.


Two-hundred and twenty-eight women went on to start the trial and of these, 28-29% in both the experimental and control groups dropped out. Most commonly women chose to drop out; the second most common reason for attrition was early release on home detention curfew. Randomisation was successful, creating two comparable groups, and for the most part, the trial was implemented as intended. However, due to logistical issues on site, less than half of the women (48.8%) in the experimental condition took on the role of the ‘buddy’ for someone else. In addition, while just under half of the women who took part in the daily review (n = 39) stuck to using this as a listing task, 41 women used the task as a diary, including some reflection and emotional expression, as well as some (limited) goal setting.

Woman being released from HMP Downview
© Andy Aitchison


Results suggest that the brief intervention led to more comprehensive resettlement planning, and had a small impact on time offence-free up to 18 months post release. The rates of proven reoffending across both groups of women was high, with just over 70% going on to commit another offence, in line with the national average for women serving short sentences.
While, for the whole sample, the comprehensiveness of resettlement plans was not related to one-year proven reoffending (frequency or rates), women who had no fixed address to go to on release, who did not feel that their accommodation was safe and secure or who did not report any family contact, had statistically significantly higher proven reoffending rates than those who did. Women reporting a substance use issue just prior to release had much higher rates of proven reoffending than those who did not; 81.3% of the women who participated in the trial reported a problem with substance use. Reconviction for a new offence within a year of release was predicted by number of previous convictions, whether education, training or employment was set up in advance of release, lack of family contact and level of future orientation just prior to release.


The findings highlight the importance and security of accommodation, family contact, proper and sustained support for substance use problems, and education, training and employment for women seeking to (re)integrate into the community following a prison sentence. The trial suggests that a brief intervention for women serving short sentences can have merit in the short-term by improving the breadth of resettlement planning, but that any impact on time offence-free is small. Brief psychological interventions for women in prison, while promising, may struggle to make a difference in the face of the structural disadvantages they can face on release. The study emphasises the need for comprehensive and continued support to help women manage the transition from prison to the community.


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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