Reconceptualising Rehabilitation in Women’s Prisons

Prof. Elaine Genders1, Prof. Elaine Player2
1University College, London (UCL), London, United Kingdom, 2King’s College, London (KCL), London, United Kingdom

The UK government’s recent indication that it wishes to see a reduction in the size of the women’s prison estate affords a timely opportunity to rethink the concept of rehabilitation for women offenders sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. Feminist criminologists campaigning for the diversion of women from custody have long argued that the pursuit of rehabilitation for women in prison is at best illusory.  Whilst we support this general stance we contend that there will remain a minority of women offenders serving long terms of imprisonment for serious offences, who are unlikely to be diverted and for whom opposition to correctional programming requires a more nuanced approach.

Our interest in reconceptualising rehabilitative regimes stems from empirical research we undertook in a prison with a dedicated unit run as a democratic therapeutic community (DTC), principally, for women serving lengthy sentences for serious violent offences.

In this paper we briefly outline the structural organisation and operating principles of this unique intervention, and detail the women’s experiences of the therapeutic regime. We argue that the organising principles informing the operation of the DTC can be distinguished from those of other treatment programmes, and that the DTC model can be defended from many of the criticisms raised by feminist scholars. The women’s DTC we studied is the only one of its kind in the UK, but we suggest it might provide a model for the development of more defensible rehabilitative regimes for this residual population.


Elaine Genders is Associate Professor of Law and Reader in Criminology at the Faculty of Laws, University College London (UCL) where she teaches criminal law, theoretical criminology, and prison ideology, policy and law. She has published in the fields of violent crime, the social meaning of legal constructs, and on various dimensions of imprisonment. Her current research focuses on gender and justice, issues of legitimacy concerning the mechanisms of criminal justice, and the state’s duty of care in respect of prisons.

Elaine Player is Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice and Vice Dean for Students, Culture and Community in  the Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College, London. She has published in the fields of sentencing and imprisonment focusing particularly on gendered justice. Her recent publications explore the personality disorder pathway for women in England and Wales and the impact on female defendants of the sentence discount for a guilty plea.

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