Victim, incompetent or mentally ill? How women navigate the oppressive environment of the 21st century prison

Shortlisted for the National Press Awards (Reporting Diversity category) and the Amnesty Media Awards (Features category).

Longlisted for the Orwell Prize for Exposing Britain’s Social Evils

Photo by Carles Rabada on Unsplash

Halfway into a two-year prison sentence in Europe’s largest women’s prison, Her Majesty’s Prison Bronzefield, an officer approached me and asked me out of nowhere, ‘What’s three to the power of four?’ His face fell when I quickly answered, ‘81.’ ‘You know your maths,’ he said grudgingly before walking off. I soon learned that he enjoyed randomly quizzing the women in his care on their maths skills to try to prove to himself that he was cleverer than us by virtue of his non-prisoner status. He didn’t have much success.

When we think about female prisoners we usually tend to stereotype them as sex workers, drug users or uneducated women of colour. These labels make it easy for these women to be overlooked or patronised when they come into contact with the criminal justice system, especially if their offending behaviour is attributed to mental illness or a chaotic upbringing. Although women from disadvantaged or BAME backgrounds are disproportionately incarcerated, from my experience very few conformed to the perception that society has of women who offend. For example, incarcerated black people are, on average, better qualified than their white counterparts. However, because there is scant learning provision beyond National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) — and even then there is huge variation in the number of NVQs provided by any one prison — those with qualifications beyond this level struggle to access relevant courses.

Despite the negative perception of women in prison, when I was first remanded to HMP Bronzefield I was under the mistaken impression that I would receive fair treatment because I didn’t conform to the stereotype. Apart from coming from a BAME background I did not have any of the characteristics people associate with women in prison. I’ve never smoked a cigarette, let alone taken drugs, nor had I been pressured into committing crime by an abusive partner. Like most of the women I befriended on the wings, I was highly educated and had a solid work history. However, it was eye-opening to be met with scorn whenever we objected to being signed up for basic literacy classes. We didn’t realise that in prison, particularly in women’s prisons, there exists a glass ceiling that prevents the majority of us from studying courses that go beyond entry-level, making progression to higher education or skilled employment on release difficult.

I found that prison staff enjoyed looking down on all their charges, turning their noses up at the women unable or unwilling to break out of the cycle of re-incarceration. However, they reserved a special kind of contempt for women who didn’t quite fit the mould they expected of us. Perhaps they resented our privilege or thought we were less worthy of respect since they felt we were more deserving of our punishment. The modern, western criminal justice system, which originated in the 19th century, is predicated on gendered, Victorian-era notions of criminality, according to which women cannot be held responsible for the crimes they commit and must always be victims of circumstance. To this day, women who are perceived as victims lacking agency are treated more leniently than women who come across as forthright and assertive.

Like most people facing a custodial sentence I knew that if I wanted to do as little time as possible, I had to play the game and that meant presenting myself as a victim. While not every woman in prison who makes a claim for victimhood is lying, most of us were aware of the penalty that failing to claim victimhood would have on us when it came to sentencing. As I saw it I had two choices: either pretend to be ‘mad’, because unlike men, the judiciary still assumes that women who have committed a crime must have a mental illness, or else pretend to be ‘sad’, meaning your criminality gets blamed on abuse and unearthed trauma.

I chose to feign a mental illness and a few weeks before my sentence hearing I was seen by a defence-appointed forensic psychiatrist. The assessment lasted less than 45 minutes and very little time was spent on me talking about my mental health. Instead, the psychiatrist seemed fixated on finding out how I afforded my public school education. When the officer knocked on the door to remind us that we had fifteen minutes remaining he ran through a checklist of questions about which he performed very little analysis: questions like ‘Do you self-harm?’ and ‘Are you normally an impulsive sort of person?’ He diagnosed me with depression and a personality disorder: the same diagnosis shared by many of the women on my wing, most of whom admitted to playing the so-called ‘mad game’. Ironically, at HMP Bronzefield pretending to be ‘mad’ carried more honour than being genuinely ill, at least among some of the women on the wings. Women in prison who have mental health disorders such as depression or schizophrenia, or who are identified as being at risk of committing suicide are often criticised by both other women prisoners and prison staff for being weak. There have even been instances of vulnerable women being goaded by other prisoners to self-harm. At present, 70% of women in prison claim to suffer from two or more mental health disorders in comparison to 19% of women in the general population. The discrepancy in the rate of mental health disorder diagnosis between women in prison and the population at large may indicate the practice of exaggeration. though it also reflects the impact of life in prison on mental health, as well as the practice of incarcerating people with mental health issues as a result of a lack of mental health services.

You might wonder why you should care how women in prison are stereotyped. I admit that when I pretended to be ‘mad’, I hadn’t cared much either. However, once I was sentenced and began to make plans for the future: plans that included returning to university, finding a job and a permanent home (my relocation to mainland Europe having been put on a permanent hiatus), I discovered how the multiple dimensions of oppression (such as those based on gender, race, class, nationality and disability) often work in unison to keep women in prison in their place — that is, permanently shut off from mainstream society.

Not only does our gendered criminal justice system encourage female defendants to act in a particular way to receive leniency, it also has the effect of maintaining the current gendered status quo. In the 2006 Corston Report, a review of women in prison with particular vulnerabilities, the women interviewed, despite being acknowledged as ‘individuals’, came to symbolise all women caught up in the criminal justice system. They were all branded as drug and alcohol addicts and described as trauma-afflicted women ‘not in control of their lives.’ This perception reflects and reinforces the government’s overall approach to women who offend, which I have termed ‘misogycon’: a form of misogyny towards female offenders that reinforces entrenched gender norms about women being victims and pushes women into chronic underachievement.

Many of us soon discovered that the show of learned helplessness that we adopted exclusively for our trials became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once the courts branded us ‘convicts’ it felt impossible to be treated as anything more than passive women, incapable of making decisions concerning the type of education or employment for which we believed ourselves suitable, or of making our own arrangements for accommodation post-release.

Nowhere is this systemic gender bias more felt than in the area of education. Men in prison are encouraged to pursue a degree or learn coding, courses that can lead to employment. In contrast, the widespread assumption that almost all women in prison have been victims of violence at the hands of men means we’re pushed to work in female dominated sectors, such as in cleaning or beauty. Jobs in these industries, however, tend to be poorly paid and insecure.

The gender gap in access to education also means women who request to study for a degree are often made to wait until they lose all hope. One woman I met inside was still nowhere close to starting a Business degree via the Open University despite being halfway through an eight-year sentence. For those who persist, their progress is hindered by a number of obstacles such as difficulty in accessing the library or a computer. While these obstacles are faced by men too, they at least are not told that ‘they are governed by hormones and a monthly cycle, which affects their moods and emotions’, as the Corston Report states. An excuse used by prison staff to explain why women in prison are unsuited to studying certain subjects. It’s no surprise that academic achievement in women’s prisons is particularly low. According to the Open University’s response to my Freedom of Information Act request, between 2013 and 2018, 388 women in prison studied for a degree via the Open University, however only 9% of them graduated with a 2:1 or higher. Despite significant barriers to learning in women’s prisons, poor academic performance is used as evidence of their unsuitability to study anything that isn’t associated with unskilled or semi-skilled employment.

These barriers are not just felt by women whilst they are in prison, but also post-release including those women given sentences to serve exclusively in the community, the majority of whom are obligated to report to probation on a regular basis. Shortly after I left prison, I enrolled at a Russell Group university. Although education has been proven to significantly reduce rates of reoffending, my probation officer repeatedly scheduled our appointments at the same time as my lectures, which meant that on one occasion I received an ‘unacceptable miss’ when I arrived late to my probation appointment (more than three can result in a person’s recall back to prison). My probation officer refused my requests to move our appointments and to make sure I realised just how fair she was being with me, told me that members of her team had been urging her to recall me (that is, return me to prison until the end of my sentence) as, in their opinion, I was demonstrating the wrong attitude.

In some ways, getting caught up in the criminal justice system was like a throwback to the underperforming state school I attended before I transferred to public school, hence the frequent comparisons drawn between schools and prisons. It was the familiar strain I and other girls in my class felt having to suppress our resentment as we clapped for the boys being handed out opportunities like mentorships with industry professionals and classes in ‘hard’ languages. The teachers justified their preferential treatment by claiming that working-class boys needed role models and extra attention. Meanwhile, as girls from low-income families it felt as though we’d already been written off. If we weren’t pregnant now then we soon would be, so why waste everybody’s time?

In prison, and across the criminal justice system at large, the same mentality exists. Women in prison are not expected to achieve great things no matter how many confidence-building exercises prisons put on encouraging us to feel ‘empowered’. This gender bias produces unequal outcomes and shapes women’s lives long after they have left prison, despite the fact that 28% of crimes committed by women are financially motivated compared to 20% of those committed by men. In 2017, approximately 297,304 women were convicted of an offence, the majority of whom fell within the 20 to 45 age band. Although only 2% were sent to prison, female prisoners were less likely than men to have a job to go to on release, 8.5% compared to 26.2% of men, even though women serve shorter sentences. In fact, only 8% of women who leave prison manage to re-enter the labour market in their lifetime.

Women are also more likely to claim out-of-work benefits two years after their prison or community sentence as they struggle more than men to find employment. This is at least partially explained by the fact that the most common sectors for women to work in are in health and social care, the wholesale and retail trade, and education — sectors that are subject to an enhanced DBS check. However, gender and race-based stigma towards female offenders also plays a part and for those women who are fortunate to find employment once their sentences expire, they will see the gender pay gap widen from 17.3% to 33.2%. The prison penalty and glass ceiling in education and employment affects women disproportionately, contributing towards their growing exclusion from the economy at a time when the number of convictions of women has risen. Furthermore, the frequent denial of social and economic opportunities needed to allow women to flourish outside of prison and achieve financial independence also serves to maintain men’s historic power over women, which makes it far easier for women to fall back into a life of crime than to become self-sufficient.

However, if women’s prisons are as diverse as I say, made up of smart individuals who are shrewd enough to conform to trick the system so that the courts might treat them more leniently, why is it that 58% of women who leave prison are reconvicted within a year? Part of this has to do with the nature of prison itself that robs many women of their agency. In prison you are not allowed to do anything for yourself. Even something as simple as topping up your canteen account with your own credit card, applying for a course or paying a utility bill to ensure that you don’t fall into arrears must be done through a third party — assuming that you have someone on the outside who is prepared to do it. I can still remember the mouth of a senior officer dropping open when I asked for the number of my bank so that I could cancel a few direct debits. ‘You have bills?’ she asked, looking at me incredulously. At that point I decided to wait until I had enough telephone credit to call my friend so that she could provide me with the number herself.

Sadly, many of the women in prison who at first came across as extremely independent soon adopted the attitude that as they’re not allowed to do things for themselves, they should stop trying. It’s easy to become complacent when the message given by prisons is that they can help women overcome numerous challenges, from finding accommodation to securing employment and are advised that all they must do is be patient. However, such support is rarely forthcoming and, in the past, HMP Bronzefield has been criticised for releasing women homeless and providing them with sleeping bags in lieu of safe accommodation. In my case, I was told by my prison caseworker a day before my release that I would be released homeless, an outcome that was by no means unusual. Fortunately, I had already anticipated this and had made other plans that included writing letters to local councils to enquire about their accommodation provision for prison leavers. However, for those women who trust in the system it’s far easier to fall through the cracks once they realise a little too late that there is no such thing as a prison safety net.

Once you’ve been stripped of your personal agency, you’re made to realise what the criminal justice system means by a ‘reformed woman offender’. It is not a woman who believes her past does not define her future. Instead women are being conditioned to think that being ‘reformed’ goes hand in hand with knowing when to keep your mouth shut and accepting that you’re there to be exploited. This form of exploitation comes in two forms, the exploitation of female prison labour that has seen external employers such as the London College of Fashion employ women in prison to work on commercial orders, making garments for brands such as Anya Hindmarch, Fara Enterprises and Luna & Curious for less than £3 a day, which I learned as part of a Freedom of Information Request (FOI90701) to the University of the Arts London in July 2019. However, very few of these women are able to secure jobs in the fashion industry on release.

The second form of exploitation is sexual. Between 2002 and 2014, 11% of women reported sexual assault in prison, despite women making up only 5% of the prison population. In women’s prisons relationships between prisoners and officers are commonplace and it’s not unusual to hear of officers targeting women on release. For example, one friend I met inside informed me that an officer had tracked her down via social media soon after she was released in order to ‘check in’ on her.

If a woman is sexually assaulted in prison, she has no automatic right to speak to a police officer and is unable to telephone the police using the prison phone because 999 is blocked by security. Instead, the procedure you are supposed to follow if you wish to report a crime is to first disclose it to your wing officer or the head of security. If your allegations are taken seriously you are then referred to the police liaison officer. However, access to the police liaison officer is difficult and their co-operation cannot be guaranteed as they’re essentially investigating the conduct of their colleagues. Organisations such as the Independent Monitoring Board, which observes standards in British prisons, have told women directly that they don’t investigate sexual violence, while members of the chaplaincy have been known to close their ears as soon as a woman chooses to confide in them. These behaviours reflect society’s general treatment of women who are sexually assaulted, many of whom go unacknowledged or are dismissed as ‘asking for it.’

The hypersexualisation of women in prison not only makes them targets for officers but also to fellow inmates, who sometimes act as the middle-person by arranging an assignation between an officer and a prisoner in exchange for food or drugs. I witnessed a few women who were serving short sentences either engage in a quid pro quo relationship with an officer or else encouraged their friends to do so in exchange for items that are highly coveted inside prisons but could be purchased for less than £10 on the outside. Some of these women had degrees and established careers on the outside, but the message we were being sold was that a woman with a conviction has no future. This meant that many young women, some as young as eighteen, saw sex work as the only prospect for their future outside prison.

This exploitation even extends to the healthcare with which we’re provided. When I first went to prison I believed it was only the illegal drugs, such as spice that I would have to watch out for. That, thankfully, did not turn out to be an issue at all. However, I hadn’t counted on the conduct of the health care teams in women’s prisons that have become notorious for partaking in the unethical medical prescribing of psychotropic drugs (drugs that affects behaviour, mood, thoughts or perception) used to help people with mental illness, ranging from borderline personality disorder to anxiety and schizophrenia in order to create a ‘quiet prison’. A 2013 study discovered psychotropic prescribing was six times higher among women in prison than women in the general population, and eight times higher than men in prison. In nearly 35% of cases, doctors prescribed these drugs against current guidelines, including prescribing antipsychotic medicines for anger — an emotion that does not always indicate psychosis. The health risks of misprescribing include diabetes, weight gain, stroke, early mortality and addiction.

I wasn’t the only woman who could spot those who were being prescribed with heavy doses, judging by their blank facial expressions and the fact that they seemed to spend the entire day sleeping in their cells, only re-emerging to collect their round of medicine. The presence of such women became so ubiquitous that one woman who came to visit from a charity that supports people who are in or have been to prison joked that they looked like zombies and rolled her eyes all the way up in an attempt to imitate their behaviour. It was obvious to many women in prison that if you didn’t genuinely have mental health issues before you were incarcerated you would by the time you left.

I also suspect that prisons use individual’s prescriptions to discredit them if they complain about conditions there. In my experience it seemed that the health care team and your assigned prison caseworker often worked together to recommend certain drugs in order to address ‘challenging’ behaviour as minor as talking back to an officer or filing a complaint. I found it easy to say no to suggested medication, but it isn’t for everyone, and the practice of advocating for ‘drugs first’ and ‘talking therapies never’ persist even when a woman has left prison.

It’s no surprise that in this pervasive culture of fear, intimidation and low aspiration, there exists an alarming rate of suicide, with those aged twenty-five and under being most at risk. Moreover, although 80% of women are sent to prison for non-violent offences each year, not only have assaults against officers increased, which means that some women’s prisons, such as Cornton Vale in Scotland, are more violent than some men’s prisons, but at HMP Bronzefield in 2015 solitary confinement was used on more than 249 occasions in less than six months.

Prisons are made up of women from all parts of society. However, the treatment of women in prison and society’s reluctance to address the structural barriers that means we’re more likely than men to be pushed into low-skilled jobs or economic dependency is what is trapping so many of us into a vicious cycle of victimisation and criminal activity. The longer society continues to project their prejudices onto women who are in or who have experienced life in prison, the more this dictates our treatment both in prison and the community leading to our growing exclusion from mainstream society.

Sophie Campbell is an author and freelance writer whose writing has appeared in Prospect Magazine and BERA. You can find me at

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