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Women’s experiences of open prison
Sarah Waite's research on women's experiences of being in an open prison.

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This is a guest post by Sarah Waite sharing her research into women’s experiences of open prisons.

My new research published in the Howard Journal of Crime and Justice shines a light on women’s experiences of transitioning between prison estates. The article “‘A whole new world …’: Exploring transcarceral habitus and women’s transition from a closed to an open prison”, available to download here, examines women’s experiences of moving from a closed to an open prison. The paper draws attention to the complexities of a stage that is often viewed in a positive light and exposes the ways the prison ‘sticks’ by examining the challenges and ‘greys’ of women’s transitional experiences.

Prison security

The four prison security categories (A-D) found in the male estate in England and Wales do not exist for women. Women are held in either closed or open prisons, some on restricted status and some within Category A high security prisons, though this is rare. Women make up a minority of the prison population and with two open prisons serving England and Wales there are open prison places available for around four per cent of women in prison. Consequently, women regularly serve sentences in over-securitised settings. Relative to its closed counterparts, the open prison displays fewer explicit physical security features and provides increased access to the outside world. Most women in open prison have a greater range of access to family, education, and employment. However, whilst the associated practical benefits of open prison exist, relative to the closed estate, the findings in this paper illustrate that this stage of punishment is not black and white and instead operates with great plurality.

There has been little research that centres its analysis on women’s open prisons in England and Wales. The findings in this paper are drawn from a broader research study exploring trust and staff-prisoner relationships in a women’s open prison. Focusing on in-depth interviews with ten women, the study found there were distinctive and embodied tensions associated with transfer and adaptation to the open prison alongside the broader context of the lives of women in prison. In particular, the paper examines women’s reflections regarding their entry to the open prison, adapting to this new and distinctive carceral world, and shows how women lived with the implicit weight of a risk of return to closed conditions.

“Intimidation is not the word, but you felt like that because it was something strange to be coming into… going from closed to open is just like a whole new world.” (Emily, HMP Open)

Transition

Women’s frank and open descriptions of their transition and subsequent experiences of adaptation exposed grey areas relating to their expectations of the prison, their autonomy, the prison environment, and broader gendered social structures. Women recalled the ways in which their expectations of open prison shaped their experiences of the transition, describing entry as a stark shock.

Having had independence and autonomy suffocated by the closed prison, women reflected upon the challenges associated with having to relearn independence and how this was experienced in and prescribed by the open prison. Women also spoke of privacy issues and the difficulties generated from a move to shared dormitory accommodation. These issues intersected with gendered issues of age, the body, and the complexities of ‘re-separating’ from children and family, for those that could access this contact.

Adjustment

‘Success’ at the open prison meant adjustment to a new experience of prison. Whilst most women appreciated the relative freedoms of the open prison there were aspects that women found distinctively challenging, including perceptions of ambiguous rules, inconsistency and heightened behavioural expectations, compounded by the perception of an ever-present and implicit threat of a return to closed conditions. Women kept quiet on somethings, so they did not risk losing the access to the relative freedoms that the open prison distributed. Women managed this transitional period with great strength and were resolved in adapting in ways that allowed them to navigate this period and form of imprisonment.

You know where you stand, things are put out straight away, whereas here they can fester a lot because you know you’ve got far too much to lose”. (Annie, HMP Open)

In presenting these experiences, the paper makes the argument that we should continue to reflect upon the open prison as a site of punishment, particularly against the current government plans to expand the number of open prison places for women…

Many women in prison are deemed to be low risk and those in open conditions even more so, which begs the question as to why there women are then, incarcerated at all?” (Waite, 2023: 13)

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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