Women's survival post-imprisonment: Connecting imprisonment with pains past and present

Published date01 December 2011
Date01 December 2011
Subject MatterArticles
Punishment & Society
13(5) 551–570
! The Author(s) 2011
Women’s survival
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DOI: 10.1177/1462474511422174
imprisonment with pains
past and present
Bree Carlton
Monash University, Australia
Marie Segrave
Monash University, Australia
The article examines the issue of women’s unnatural post-prison deaths in Victoria,
Australia, through the lens of women’s accounts of survival and near-death after exit
from prison. Central to this analysis is the seldom addressed or acknowledged relation-
ship between trauma and the multiple harms and disadvantages that women experience
both in the prison system and on the outside. In seeking to explicate the centrality
of trauma to women’s experiences inside and outside the system, we draw upon the
accounts of the women with whom we have spoken in the course of this research. A key
theme that emerges from these narratives is the prevalence of trauma, near-death expe-
riences and harms faced by women who have survived. Such accounts run counter to
assumptions within existing post-release research that imprisonment comprises a dis-
crete traumatic episode within a woman’s life and that there is a useful distinction to be
made between women who are strong enough to survive and those who die. In this way
we offer a contribution towards revising possible future directions for critical feminist and
prison scholars.
gender and imprisonment, imprisonment effects, near-death, post-release mortality,
Corresponding author:
Bree Carlton, School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University, Victoria 3800, Australia.
Email: bree.carlton@monash.edu

Punishment & Society 13(5)
Research on post-release mortality in western democratic states conf‌irms that impri-
soned populations experience a disproportionately higher risk of post-release unnat-
ural death compared to the general population (Australian Institute of Health and
Welfare (AIHW), 2009). For women who are imprisoned this risk is substantially
increased (Graham, 2003). While the largely statistical and epidemiological research
surrounding post-release mortality recognizes the relationship between imprison-
ment and a higher risk of death after release, the exact nature of this relationship
remains unclear. This article explores the f‌indings of the qualitative research project,
Surviving Outside, on women’s unnatural post-release deaths in Victoria, Australia,
through the lens of women’s lived experiences.1 We build on Sykes’s (1958) pains of
imprisonment thesis to examine the trauma and harms experienced both inside and
outside prison. Thus, we extend the analysis beyond the immediacy of institutional
ef‌fects and experiences to consider the interconnections of trauma and women’s
experiences of marginalization, criminalization and imprisonment. We foreground
the seldom addressed relationship between trauma and multiple sites of disadvan-
tage and marginalization that women experience. In seeking to build a more nuanced
understanding of trauma, we challenge the dominant post-release mortality research
that privileges analysis of the cause of death. We argue that near-death experiences
are often discounted from analyses of survival and death, resulting in a limited
understanding of the complex struggle with survival undertaken by formerly impri-
soned women.
There is a rich body of imprisonment ef‌fects literature (Garland, 1990; Mathiesen,
2000; Sykes, 1958; Toch, 1977). We recognize the contribution of this work, while
situating our examination of women and survival at the nexus of two f‌ields of con-
temporary scholarship. The f‌irst is focused on imprisonment and its broader
ef‌fects, including the impacts on prisoner mental and physical health (Douglas
and Plugge, 2008; Haney, 2006; Tye and Mullen, 2006); post-traumatic stress disor-
der (DeHart, 2005; Messina and Grella, 2006); the health and well-being of prisoner
families and children (Hannon, 2007; McAlister et al., 2009); and the challenges
related to post-release desistance and survival (Halsey, 2008; Maruna, 2001;
Sampson and Laub, 1993). Concomitantly, the analysis draws upon critical research
focused on women and imprisonment (Bosworth, 1999; Carlen, 1998; Carlen
and Worrall, 2004; Easteal, 2001; Heidensohn, 2002; Scraton and Moore, 2004;
Sudbury, 2005) that has documented the gendered challenges and harms associated
with women’s incarceration and post-prison experiences.
This article builds on this literature base in three ways. First, in focusing on
women’s experiences of institutional ‘pain’ we argue for a gendered analysis that
extends beyond the walls of institutions to consider the interplay between legacies
of trauma, criminalization and imprisonment. Second, we highlight the importance
of creating a space for research that challenges the assumptions that imprisonment
comprises a discrete traumatic episode within women’s lives or that survival and
death should be examined independently. Third, we identify a beginning point for
conceptualizing the impacts of trauma and multiple near-death experiences in

Carlton and Segrave
women’s lives. Many of the formerly imprisoned women whose stories form the basis
of this research had experienced cumulative trauma as a result of histories of domes-
tic violence, sexual abuse, separation from children and state intervention and insti-
tutionalization. The interviews highlighted the seldom acknowledged relationship
between trauma and the multiple harms and disadvantages that women experience
inside and outside the prison system.
We divide our discussion into three sections. The f‌irst provides a background to
the Surviving Outside research that is the basis of our analysis. The second section
examines trauma as a def‌ining feature within women’s lives and experiences of
criminalization, imprisonment and post-release survival. Third, we examine the
prevalence and impacts of near-death experiences among criminalized women,
both inside and outside prison.
The research background: Connecting imprisonment
and post-imprisonment death
Women and the pains of imprisonment
Sykes’s (1958) study on the ef‌fects of imprisonment pioneered critical qualitative
inquiry and paved the way for a breadth of research that has focused on the internal
dynamics and negative ef‌fects associated with closed institutions, specif‌ically prisons
(Cohen and Taylor, 1972; Gof‌fman, 1961). This scholarship has been subject to
revision by critical feminist researchers who have sought to expose the overall
gender-blindness of criminological research and the historical absence of gender in
the analysis of imprisonment and its impact. In particular, Carlen (1998: 10) has the-
orized how prison ‘incorporates and amplif‌ies all the anti-social modes of control
that oppress women outside the prison’. Building on Carlen’s contributions, subse-
quent work on women and imprisonment has produced theoretical and empirical
scholarship that has demonstrated the complex, gendered nature of experiences of
criminalization, imprisonment and post-imprisonment (Baldry, 2010; Carlen and
Worrall, 2004; Davidson and Chesney-Lind, 2009; Easteal, 2001; Eaton, 1993;
Hannah-Mof‌fat and Maurutto, 2010; Hudson, 2002; Scraton and Moore, 2004).
A signif‌icant contribution of this scholarship has been the recognition that the
particularities of women’s needs and backgrounds determine their dif‌ferential
experiences of institutions, particularly within a system driven by ‘male informed
knowledge and assumptions’ (Baldry, 2010: 254). In this respect, the dif‌ferences
between men and women extend beyond physical or biological dif‌ferences to
encompass structural disadvantages and circumstances that underpin women’s
lives generally, and ultimately shape the way they are disciplined and managed
within prison and post-release. While the research around women and imprisonment
is well developed, it has two limitations of relevance to the present research.
The f‌irst limitation relates to the appropriation of this scholarship into the
research specif‌ically dedicated to policy development and service delivery. Such
scholarship has enabled the development of ‘gender-responsive’ policy and practice

Punishment & Society 13(5)
outcomes: from the architecture and design of prisons, to the development of women-
specif‌ic prison programmes and gendered post-release policies, programmes and man-
agement processes, including gendered risk assessment tools (see Carlen and Tombs,
2006; Davidson and Chesney-Lind, 2009; Turnbull and Hannah-Mof‌fat, 2009).2
However, feminist scholars have identif‌ied the limitations of such reforms. For exam-
ple, Hannah-Mof‌fat et al. (2009: 391) argue that such measures align with actuarial and
risk-focused research and practice that emphasize individual of‌fender responsibility
and risk in relation to of‌fending and reof‌fending. Such models ef‌fectively displace
attention and responsibility away from institutional actors, policies, practices and
structures by emphasizing individual pathology (Turnball and Hannah-Mof‌fat, 2009).
Others have pointed to how gender-responsive measures present a veneer of
reform while serving to mask and propagate discriminatory systems and practices
(Shaylor, 2008). In this vein, gender-responsive reforms have been the subject of
critical scrutiny, particularly when their implementation has occurred simulta-
neously with signif‌icant growth in women’s imprisonment rates and public reports

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