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Controlling Measures: The Repackaging of Common-Sense Opposition to Women's Imprisonment in England and Canada

NCJ Number
Criminal Justice Volume: 2 Issue: 2 Dated: May 2002 Pages: 155-172
Pat Carlen
Date Published
18 pages
This article discusses the reform efforts in English and Canadian women’s prisons that have attempted to change inappropriate prison regimes, as well as decrease the number of women held in such prisons.
The author begins the article with an account of the attempted reform of the Canadian Federal Prison System for women. The author explains that these reforms, which purported to empower women prisoners, had some unexpected outcomes. Since prison is, by definition, an environment comprised of a coerciveness that is necessary to total physical security, the author argues that prisoner empowerment is an illusion. Power must always be “clawed” back from the prisoners by those who keep them imprisoned. However, the author explains that the official discourse surrounding women’s prisons took on the politically correct notion of female empowerment. Women prisoners were encouraged to take back their power and take responsibility for their lives. At the same time, there appeared an emerging sense within the public awareness and the criminal justice system that women’s crimes were just as harmful and threatening to society as the crimes committed by men. Thus, these two discourses clashed, muddling reform efforts within women’s prisons. The author points out that absent from the official discourse on women in prison was a discussion about race and class issues. No one talked about the disproportionate number of working-class and ethnic minority women who were imprisoned. At this time in England, there was a new self-image presented by the prison system; one that touted its treatment programs and therapies, which offered women offenders a chance at a new life once released. However, there was also a growth in punitiveness at this time toward women who offended, particularly toward single mothers. Judges declared that if women wanted to be equal to men, they should be prepared to be sentenced equally when they committed crimes. This type of punitiveness necessarily ignored the material conditions of women’s lives, which are different from the issues faced by men. The author’s main point throughout this article is that the official discourses on the meaning of women’s crime resulted in an increase in the female prison population and in the punitiveness of the criminal justice system in relation to women offenders. Notes, references


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