“In them one sees the most hideous picture of all human weakness”. Political rhetoric and it’s reinforcement of harm and damage; Women’s resistance.

Criminalised women have for centuries, had their identities examined, explored and scrutinized in the pursuit of qualitative research. More often than not, research conducted on criminalised women does little to improve the criminal, social and political justice issues by which they are affected. My undergraduate study aimed to move away from research for the sake of research, and purposefully excluded damaging and harmful depictions of criminalised in women. Depictions which contribute to their oppression. It was my intent to forefront criminalised women’s strength, resilience, voice and power, in the face of patriarchal and state subjugation. By giving criminalised women space within the academy to tell their own stories, in their own words.

Three women who hold leadership positions within the criminal justice sector, provided personal accounts of their experiences as leaders within a sector which, at one point in time rendered them powerless through their imprisonment. These personal stories shed light on desistance, self-authorship of identity and stigma resistance as a form of personal power. The ‘voiceless’, ‘vulnerable’ and ‘helpless’ narratives which dominate much of criminalised women discourse, will be challenged and corrected, by women with lived experience of imprisonment who are now leading systemic change across the criminal justice sector, and beyond.

Historically it was argued that women in prison were offered little opportunity to gain employability skills which would increase their chances of independence upon release (Smart, 1997). Additionally, research indicated that socially constructed views of women impacted on penal regimes, which were delivered through misogynistic views of women and their ability to contribute to society (Hall-Williams, 1970). Hall-Williams (1970, p. 224) stated:

“It is not seen as necessary or desirable to give women prisoners training for semi-skilled jobs. In any case, the quality of the population is not thought to call for any such tasks other than fairly simple repetitive tasks, such as assembling kits of stationary”.

This standpoint reflects a perception of women in prison as incapable of fulfilling leadership positions within a workplace. Further descriptions of imprisoned women were offered by Mayhew (1862) cited in Zender (1998, p.298) who stated:

“In them one sees the most hideous picture of all human weakness”.

Such perceptions formed debate that criminalised women faced gendered oppression due to the patriarchal nature of state punishment (Hannah-Moffat, 2001). Moreover, policy makers failed to view criminalised women as potential bread-winners, therefore penal regimes reinforced socially constructed gender roles of women in western culture (Davies, 2018). Hannah-Moffat (2001, p.23) suggests that penal regimes for women were guided by “maternalism”, whereby opportunities provided to women in prison were underpinned by ideologies of “motherhood” and “womanhood”. Viewing criminalised women through the lens of socially constructed gender roles feeds into the oppressive rhetoric that women should be nurturers, aspire to domestic responsibility and be dependent on the state or dominant sex (Davies, 2018).

Imprisoned women during the 1980s were deemed to “have fallen from the ideal of femininity” (Zedner, 1988, p.305), with reform efforts attempting to coerce them into forming aspirations of becoming the feminine ideal. Importantly, Zedner (1988) noted that reform efforts did little to understand or address the realities of their lives outside of prison. As such, most expectations and standards placed upon imprisoned women were unrealistic and unachievable to sustain upon release.

Contemporary research identified that jobs for female prisoners include cleaners, cooks and laundry workers (Prison Reform Trust and Working Chance, 2020), indicative of penal regimes still reinforcing gendered roles and asserting domestic responsibility onto women. Further, rehabilitative practices within prisons were considered “unlikely to engender change” (Bullock and Bruce, 2018, p.1) due to not addressing the “real” problems faced on release (p.8). As such, employment outcomes for women existing prison remain poor (Prison Reform Trust and Working Chance, 2020).

Corston (2007) suggested that prisons were built by and for men, resulting in harsher experiences for women due to regimes functioning through patriarchal delivery. As such, educational opportunity for imprisoned women was basic, with women asserting their participation was simply to pass time (Prison Reform Trust and Working Chance, 2020). Corston (2007) depicted imprisoned women as vulnerable and victims, with limited control over, and choice in, their lives. Arguably, attributable to the previously identified notion of patriarchal punishment failing the needs of women (Hannah-Moffat, 2001).

Corston (2007) noted that almost half of women entering prison had no employment history in the 5 years prior to imprisonment. With many women still entering and exiting prison financially dependent on men or the state (Prison Reform Trust and Working Chance, 2020). Further, the need to provide for children was highlighted by women, who explain their offending derived from inability to support families financially (Prison Reform Trust and Working Chance, 2020). Therefore, women’s financial independence gained through employment would reduce the likelihood recidivism.

Crenshaw (2012) asserts that the incarceration of women acts to positions them as objects of social control, whereby institutional practices produce and sustain social categories and gender roles. The nature of patriarchal punishment increases the dependency of women, reducing their opportunities of employment and becoming financially independent (Moore and Tangney, 2017). From that standpoint, the very nature of imprisoning women is a state tactic to ensure women’s social mobility is decreased.

Corston (2007) identified that 75% of women released from prison were unemployed 6 months after their release. The tripartite positionality of ‘woman’, ‘ex-offender’ and ‘unemployed’ function on an intersectional level and perpetuates marginality for those of whom it is ascribed to (Tyler, 2013). In a world that is designed for men (Perez, 2019), being a woman, in addition to owning ascribed deviant labels such as ‘offender’, the unemployment rate of criminalised women is not surprising.

Maruna (2013) identifies there is an attached stigma to the ‘ex-offender’ label, which perpetuates the exclusion of certain groups, as a form of punishment. Importantly, ‘offender’ and ‘ex-offender’ labels are used by others, way past the incident(s) of committing a crime, therefore stigma as a form of punishment is illegitimate (Hart, Healey and Williamson, 2020). It is through illegitimate punishment caused through labelling and stigmatising discourse, that discriminatory employment practices are deployed (Prison Reform Trust and Working Chance, 2020), negatively impacting upon women’s abilities to secure employment.

Justifiable and legitimate punishment must be a direct result of an offence, and only administered by those who hold state power to punish (Flew, 1954). It is through unjustified and illegitimate punishment, caused and sustained through labelling and stigma, by those without state power to punish. That criminalised women’s opportunities within the labour market are reduced (Prison Reform Trust and Working Chance, 2020).

Kohm (2019) asserts humiliation and shame are a formal part of state punishment, rather than a by-product of it. Thus, the labelling of ‘ex-offenders’ is a purposeful and intentional form of punishment, functioning to sustain gender and societal inequality. As such, stigma can be recognised as a political tool embedded within criminal justice practice, to assert control over the lives of formerly imprisoned women, long past their court imposed punishment is over (Tyler, 2018; Hart, Healy and Williamson, 2020). The longevity of unjustified and illegitimate punishment has far reaching consequences (Beales and Wilson, 2015), including lack of housing and employment opportunities (Hoskins, 2014). All of which negatively impact on a desistance.

Adding to women’s oppression, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) (2018a) released the Female Offender Strategy, in which it depicts women in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) as vulnerable, victims, mentally ill and chaotic. Depictions reflective of Corston’s (2007) over a decade before. Indicative of imprisoned women continuously presenting with the same characteristics. That said, state depictions of criminalised women do not accurately reflect who they really are (Tuck, 2009; Sandhu, 2017; Criminal Justice Alliance, 2019). Cecil (2007) asserts that criminalised women rarely get to tell their own stories, in their own words. Instead, representation of them is fed to the public by media out-lets, tabloid news and entertainment television. Often reciting the narrative of criminalised women as ‘mad’ ‘sad’ or ‘bad’ (Kohm, 2019).

However, it is not just media narratives that negatively portray criminalised women, evident in the stigmatising depictions offered by Corston (2007) and the MoJ (2018a). Describing women using stigmatising discourse such as offender or ex-offender often results in the formation of stigma management mechanisms, whereby social withdrawal and isolation are deployed as a form of personal protection from the consequences of stigma (Winnick and Bodkin, 2007). Such stigma management mechanisms negatively impact on desistance. Tyler (2013; 2018) positions stigma within a socio-political context arguing that stigma acts as a form of social control, whereby stigmatising discourse is fed to the public through media, political speeches and policy documents. In turn, legitimising negative public opinion and authorising punitive state control through law, policy and practice. This standpoint is reflective in the title of the Female Offender Strategy (2018a) as it ascribes the ‘offender’ label to thousands of women. Tuck (2009) suggests that the continued use of narratives and language which describe communities as broken and helpless, reinforce systemic and socially inflicted damage on those same communities. Thus, the strategies (MoJ, 2018a; 2018b) and reports (Corston, 2007) produced by the state, framed as ‘support’ or ‘guidance’ to improve criminalised women’s oppression. Actually, play a crucial role in, at best maintaining, or at worst increasing that oppression.

MoJ (2018b) data indicates over 50% of women released from prison between April to June 2016 went on to reoffend within a year. A contributing factor to women’s re-offending was lack of employment opportunities (Hoskins, 2014). Further, Sered and Norton-Hawk (2019) identify that women face a triple jeopardy of legal, health and economic obstacles which impact on their abilities to function within society.

In recognition of the need to vigorously change the way in which prisons and criminal justice policy supports people with convictions into employment, the MoJ (2018b) released the Education and Employment Strategy in which it notes that prisons have not been adequately preparing prisoners for release. Which has contributed to high recidivism rates. Importantly, the MoJ (2018b, p.5) state:

Work can provide a foundation for a different kind of life”.

However, whilst identifying that employment can contribute to changing lives, the MoJ (2018b) refer to people in prison as ‘offenders’ and former prisoners as ‘ex-offenders’. This suggests that people with convictions can have a ‘different kind of life’ but they will not be afforded a different kind of identity, other than the intentionally used stigmatising labels, ascribed to them by the state (Tyler, 2013; 2018; Kohm, 2019). Significantly, the MoJ (2018b, p.24) acknowledge the impact of stigmatising labels, stating:

“Many employers are still sceptical, at best, about recruiting ex-prisoners”

Despite this, the continued use of stigmatising language is evident through-out the strategy (MoJ, 2018b), sustaining the exclusion of the people it claims to support.

Desistance theorists have positioned desistance as a three-stage process, indicating that all stages must be reached in order to desist. Briefly, act desistance simply means acts of law-breaking stop. Second in sequence comes identity desistance, whereby individuals create and sustain a non-offender identity. Finally, relational desistance is reached through others recognising and supporting that change (Nugent and Schinkel, 2016). Act and identity desistance can be acquired through individual change, however as Weaver (2012) highlights, individual action is governed by external forces. Relational desistance needs receptivity and response to individual change (Weaver, 2012; Hart, Healy and Williamson, 2020) on a meso and macro level (Nugent and Schinkel, 2016). Simply, once acts of law-breaking stop and a person internalises a non-offender identity, there are conditioning structures (Weaver and McNeill, 2014) within society, out of individual control (Nugent and Schinkel, 2016) that impact on individual change being recognised. If change is not recognised within society, then act and identify desistance are compromised (Stone, 2015).

External factors which compromise the desistance process, are evident in the very system which uses desistance framework to form its policies, strategies and legislation (Cid and Marti, 2015). However, The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 places a legal duty on adults who have received a prison sentence of over four year, to disclose their previous convictions to potential employers for the rest of their lives. This restrictive legislation works on a macro level to exclude certain groups for the labour market and in doing so, increases the likelihood of recidivism (Nugent and Schinkel, 2016). Moreover, the previously evidenced use of stigmatising language through MoJ strategies (2018; 2018b) is indicative of a system that will not be receptive to, nor recognise identity change. Thus compromising the desistance process. Sandhu (2017, p.7) suggests “deficit and problem-based narratives” contribute to the oppression of certain groups. As Nugent and Schinkel (2016, p.575) argue:

“Without significant changes in policy, the way in which offences are disclosed and perceptions of ex-prisoners in society

true relational desistance is unachievable.

The Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA) (2019, p.3) have attempted to reframe perceptions of criminalised people, from vulnerable, and victims with chaotic lives, to:

“resilient, highly motivated, empathetic and knowledgeable”.

The CJA (2019) propose that individuals with Lived Experience (LE) of imprisonment can make effective leaders within the CJS but opportunities are rare. Impacted by systemic, cultural and structural barriers (Weaver, Lightowler and Moodie, 2019; Hart, Healy and Williamson, 2020). Beales and Wilson (2015) argue that the longevity of the criminal identity results in perceptions of LE leadership being unrealistic. This highlights a systemic refusal to recognise identity change, and to support individuals through the desistance process. Contrary to the systems own recognition that employment reduces re-offending (MoJ, 2018b).

Ironically, the same system that dismisses the idea of LE leadership, calls on individuals with LE in voluntary and consultancy capacities (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation, 2019), recognising the value of LE to effect change (Sandhu, 2017; CJA, 2019), but fails to offer opportunities to put them of the payroll (CJA, 2019). The practice of offering voluntary or consultancy type ‘work’ implies that those with LE are valued, but not valued enough to earn a wage, and not valued as much as professionals without an ex-offender label. Sandhu (2017, p.7) suggests consultancy methods of involving those with LE in debate, is recognising people as ‘informants’ as opposed to people who attain the skills and knowledge to effect change. This standpoint was eloquently crafted by Lorde (1982) cited in Lorde (2017):

“Whenever the need for some pretence of communication arises, those who profit from our oppression call upon us to share our knowledge with them. In other words, it is the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressors their mistakes”.

It is not only the state who are complicit in exploiting those with criminalised identities by offering ‘informant’ opportunities. The voluntary sector also collude with this practice. Sandhu (2017) suggests that there is conflict in a ‘who knows best’ debate and utilising LE is often viewed as tokenistic (Buck, 2019). Revolving Doors Agency (2018) released an Impact Report, which names the CEO and former prison ministers. Significantly, the report identifies that various work streams within RDA have been developed by those with LE, however it fails to recognise and acknowledge their work by name, instead referring to people as a ‘forum member’. A further report published by RDA (2019, p.3) used a quote attributed to a ‘peer volunteer’. The attribution to the unnamed results in their contributions to epistemology being unrecognised, sustaining the power imbalance in knowledge production. In turn the work of the unnamed supports the development of organisational reputation. As Fisk (2006, p.1) captures eloquently:

“The reputation we develop for the work we do proves to the world the nature of our human capital”.

When people with LE of the CJS are involved in research or work, referring to their contributions namelessly does not show the reader, or the world, the nature of their human capital. Instead, it gate keeps their contributions and results in credit and attribution being offered to the organisation (Fisk, 2006). Cotterell and Morris (2012) propose nameless people are rendered powerless when their contributions to epistemology are not recognised. Suggestive of the existence of a hierarchy of credible knowledge, where knowledge gained through academia or professional practice is favoured over knowledge gained through LE (Sandhu, 2017). This assertion is evident within reports that include people with LE in debates, research and as ‘informants’ but only name CEO’s and government officials in reports.

There is a significant gap in research that explores pathways from ‘informant’ to LE leadership within the CJS (Sandhu, 2017). The CJA (2019) suggest there is an acute need to enhance our understanding of the pathway into leadership positions, for people with LE working in the CJS. Sandhu (2017) identified that development opportunities tend to target audiences such as millennials or emerging leaders, however, when considering leadership development opportunities, there was a reluctance to consider ‘ex-offenders’ as potential leaders.

Northouse (2019, p.5) defines leadership as:

A process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal”.

Additionally, Northouse (2019, p.9) suggests that power is related to leadership:

“Power is the capacity or potential in influencing change”.

The historic and dominant narrative of criminalised women suggests that they do not have the power, capacity or ability to fulfil leadership positions within the CJS. Due to their vulnerable status depicted by the state (Corston, 2007; MoJ, 2018a). Further, women are less likely be hired or promoted into senior level jobs (European Commission, 2019) due to male dominance across leadership roles. As such, the study focused on formerly imprisoned women’s experiences of leadership roles within the CJS. The lived experience accounts offered shed light on ‘living desistance’ and question, for even well-established desisters (Hart, Healy and Williamson, 2020) are the bars ever truly removed?

The findings of the study indicated that authentic LE leadership emerges from agency, intrinsic motivation and a vision for systemic change. These concepts intersect to reconstruct stigmatised identities into strong, resilient and motivated LE leaders (CJA, 2019; Buck, 2020; Sandhu, 2019). This strength and resilience was captured by P14 who narrated LE leaders as ‘warriors’. One’s ability to transform “a life if shame into something of direct and explicit value” (Maruna, Porter and Carvalho, 2004) is a characteristic of a reformed identity within the desistance literature. All participants articulated how they felt they had transformed a shamed identity into that of an identity which bought direct value to the CJS. Maruna’s identification of “redemption scripts” (2013, p.87) provides the context in which this study argues that LE leadership positions within the CJS must have a distinct and different position, to that of a ‘success story’ of an ‘ex-offender’ (Hall and Rossmanith, 2016). As Gibbs (2019) asserts, personal success stories, although powerful, can contribute to wider personal and systemic harm as “individualised depictions of social problems are less likely to consider society responsible and more likely to consider individuals responsible for the problem”.

Maruna’s Liverpool Desistance Study (2013, p.87) conceptualises redemption scripts as the beginning of a criminalised identities reformation, which starts with an external force ‘believing in’ an ‘ex-offender’ and offering them space and opportunity to reconstruct their criminalised identity into something of value, where they can “give something back to society as a display of gratitude”. P27 narrated being ‘let in’ by her employer and articulated a sense of gratitude for that. Problematically, by being ‘let in’ P27 has been positioned within an environment which seeks to utilise her ‘success story’ as an ‘ex-offender’ to enhance organisational reputation as opposed to developing a role that utilises P27’s LE to effect systemic change (Thapar-Bjorkert, Samelius and Sanghera, 2016). Importantly, although the location of P27’s role within a prison is evident of a systemic change in the employment of previously imprisoned women, to work within a prison in a profession role. P27 asserted that she was never intrinsically motivated to change employment practice, or indeed to even work in a prison. The role was offered to her by her employer and after a yearlong bureaucratic vetting process, P27 noted that she did not want to work in the prison.

Of further significance, the utilisation of personal stories for organisational reputation as opposed to authentic LE leadership development, P27 identified that women’s ‘success stories’ were displayed on the wall where she works, after the women had been out of prison for a year. Although she did not specifically identify the reason for this, it is suggestive of ‘evidence’ of the organisation’s commitment to and delivery of rehabilitation, whereby rehabilitation is confirmed through statistical data of no further offences within a 12 month period after release (MoJ, 2020). A critique of the definition and evidence of rehabilitation within the CJS is relevant here but beyond the scope of the current study.

Another prominent feature which differentiates between ‘success stories’ and LE leadership narratives, is the resistance of self-labelling or acceptance of external labels of ‘ex-offender’. As Stone (2015) asserts, the desistance framework is underpinned by individuals being able to craft a non-offender identity. However, she goes on to identify that social structures can determine the “availability of certain identities, social roles and resources” (p.956). P14 and P21 showed a strong resistance to stigmatising labels. In contrast, P27 self-identified as an ex-offender and praised her employer for employing ‘a lot of ex-offenders’. Lack of attention has been paid to external responses to identity change within working relationships within the CJS (Hart, Healy and Williamson, 2020).

The findings within the study evidenced that women with LE of imprisonment can and do work within the CJS and are positioned as LE leaders in the sector. In absence of recognition of identity change by their employer. Thus, sustaining their confinement within a rigid and damaging discourse. Moreover, the act of positioning a criminalised woman as a leader without choice or ownership is evident of a dominant external force exercising its power to constrain personal agency (Hall and Rossmanith, 2016). As such, reinforcing the metaphorical bars which keep captive criminalised women’s stigmatised identities.

The definition of leadership provided by Northouse (2019) within the introduction of this research failed to capture the leadership narrative provided by P14 and P21. The need to re-consider the definition of LE leadership became significant when analysing P27’s narrative within the wider narrative accounts, and in line with Northouse’s (2019, p.5) definition:

“A process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal”

This however fails to capture the need for goals to change, as articulated by P14:

“It’s an immense role for me to fulfil what I believe is a primary purpose of me activating my lived experience to build a social movement of people with convictions to create social change”.

Further supported by P21:

“I want to effect change on a strategic scale, you know, impact on lots of people even if it’s not directly”

Both participants indicated that their leadership roles involved innovative change within the sector. The application of these narratives to the previously identified leadership definition, although fitting with ‘influencing a group of individuals to achieve a common goal’, fails to capture the utilisation of LE to change the goals of criminal justice practice, which P14 notes, was about ‘fixing’ people as opposed to changing systems (Robinson and McNeill, 2008). Further, P27 stated exclusionary criteria which prohibited participation on her project:

“If they’re on methadone it’s got to be 30mls or less” (they can participate)

The acceptance of this exclusionary criteria within a service that provides purposeful activity within a female prison evidenced P27’s position as a leader which “influenced a group of individuals towards a common goal” (reducing methadone consumption to meet participation criteria) however, LE leadership should require a challenge of participation criteria which excludes cohorts of women who are in recovery from addiction.

The identification of Northouse’s (2019) leadership definition not fitting within the LE leadership discourse offered by the study participants, resulted in an acknowledgement that for LE leaders, a definition of leadership which captures the utilisation of their LE was needed. Sandhu (2019) defines an LE leaders as:

“Change makers, innovators and leaders who activate their lived expertise to inform, shape and lead their social purpose work, to directly benefit the communities they share those experiences with”

In recognition of the above, the findings of the research strongly support the use of Sandhu’s (2019) definition of LE leadership within the CJS. As such, leadership positions for those with LE should be grounded in the ability and space to utilise LE to innovate and change the CJS, not simply work within its current constraints as an ex-offender success story (Pollack, 2019; Jones et al, 2020).

Concluding thoughts

Women in the study clearly identified ways in which they were able to re-construct criminalised identities into that of identities of value, through their positions as leaders within the CJS. A strong sense of stigma resistance within 2 women’s narratives provided the context in which this study argues that personal and organisational acceptance of stigmatising labels, impedes effective LE leadership. As it reinforces and sustains marginality and exclusion.

The study further concluded with a recommendation that organisations who want to develop and sustain effective LE leadership positions, adopt Sandhu’s (2019) definition of LE leadership. To ensure that LE leaders are supported in their roles to utilise their LE for the benefit of their peers, and wider social and criminal justice improvements.

Finally, the absence of adequate critical reflective practice for one participant in the study supports the final recommendation, that organisations should adopt the definition of critical reflection offered by Brookfield (2009) and embed critical reflective practice within LE leadership positions across the sector, to help examine and dismantle harmful and dominant practice. Practice which, contributes to sustaining the invisible bars which continue to entrap criminalised women within leadership positions across the CJS.

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